An acclaimed science historian uncovers the fascinating story of a "lost" project to unlock humanity's common denominator that prefigured the emergence of Big Data
Just a few years before the dawn of the digital age, Harvard psychologist Bert Kaplan set out to build the largest database of sociological information ever assembled. It was the mid-1950s, and social scientists were entranced by the human insights promised by Rorschach tests and other innovative scientific protocols. Kaplan, along with anthropologist A. I. Hallowell and a team of researchers, sought out a varied range of non-European subjects among remote and largely non-literate peoples around the globe. Recording their dreams, stories, and innermost thoughts in a vast database, Kaplan envisioned future researchers accessing the data through the cutting-edge Readex machine. Almost immediately, however, technological developments and the obsolescence of the theoretical framework rendered the project irrelevant, and eventually it was forgotten.
Rebecca Lemov is associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University and past visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. She is the author of World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men, named a 2006 New York Times Editor's Choice. She lives in Cambridge, MA.