Inside information’s influence

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[autop] London in the late 16th century was a crowded, scuzzy, disease-ridden city. Illness plagued all ages and thousands perished, turning overcrowded burial sites into overcrowded burial pits.


To combat the epidemic, city officials began taking notes. Or, more accurately, collecting data.

“Quite literally, they recorded everything,” said Paul Griffiths, an Iowa State University history professor who has researched the subject for more than two decades. “The city’s methods in recording, counting, labeling and categorizing data gave them a sense of geography that allowed them to form perceptions of the problem.”

In an effort to track how disease was spreading, city officials documented property and job information, family demographics, and crime. Even humdrum problems, such as begging or animals on the loose, were recorded. Increasingly able to read, write, and count, they developed data systems specific to their local needs.

Griffiths argues this sophisticated surveillance – taken seriously at local levels as early as 1600 – contributed to a shift in conducting government. Analysis of the data they collected suggested that public punishment led to more crime and disease, so instead of handling affairs in the middle of Market Square, government was increasingly direct- ed behind closed doors.

Griffiths’ new book, “Inside Government,” dissects this historical shift and its conse- quences, as well as its meaning for how we approach humanistic concerns today, such as subjectivity, sensitivity, character reform, disciplinary cultures, government, and individual freedoms. The book, to be published in 2016, is the first full study of information gathering and its contexts from the “bottom up.”

This greater reliance on data was part of a broader shift towards conducting government inside rather than outside, Griffiths said. Visual representations of authority in public were becoming more fragile and less routine.

“Public punishment was an essential plank of representations of local authority and for the first time, I provide an in-depth study of punishing petty crime in the open with ducking stools, pillories, stocks, and whipping posts,” Griffiths said. “I provide evidence to show that the scope and scale of these penalties fell greatly by 1700 – that some of them were becoming obsolete, that the focus of whipping narrowed to punishing petty theft, and that the real beginnings of ‘private’ whipping lay far back in the 16th century.”

In image and reality, audience was becoming more problematic in all venues and the turn to “indoor” punishment was implemented, thanks, in part, to keeping count. [/autop]

The courtbooks of London Bridewell, 1575 to 1636

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