Doing Things With Data

Doing Things with Data: The Cold War Political Economy of Environmental Archives

Elena Aronova


In the film storage room of the U.S. IGY Data Center for Airglow and Ionosphere in Boulder, Colorado, February 1958 (Courtesy National Academy of Sciences Archives, Washington, D.C.)

The International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957–58) was the largest scientific international venture in the twentieth century. The most important part of the program was the mobilization of global data collection network, with free and open data exchange operationalized through the system of World Data Centers (WDC). In this project asked the following:

•  What made such unprecedented data sharing possible during the Cold War? 

•  What was the value of data in the Cold War political economy?

•  How did Cold War politics affect data practices and technologies?

I argued that these politics, values, and technologies were closely intertwined.

In the aftermath of WWII the excessive nuclear secrecy regime was extended to neighboring fields such as geophysics; geophysical data, critically important for the military, came to be seen as an "exchange currency" in possession of two main keepers of planetary geophysical data—the United States and the Soviet Union. The WDC, the touted innovation of the IGY, institutionalized the system of data exchange. With data turned into a "currency," the main purpose of the WDCs was the accumulation of data. The data archives functioned as gigantic copy centers, copying, microfilming, and multiplying "pieces of data" received from the IGY stations, accumulating thousands of thousands of datasheets and storing hundreds of miles of microfilms. The WDCs represented a climax of the world of analog data just as computers started to take center stage. Computers were the latecomers in the WDCs, which were more invested in mechanical automation of information storage and retrieval and based on microfilm technologies. In the 1960s, microfilm was a sophisticated technology allowing not only store but to search, organize and analyze analog data without turning them into a digital format. It did not take long for the WDCs to become a relic of the bygone era of analog data with its paper and microfilm technologies. For a historian, however, this relic is a most interesting testimony of the complex ways in which the political was intertwined with the technological in the geophysical analog data universe, itself enabled by a distinct political economy of data exchange during the Cold War.