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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | enginese | “collection”)

There is a little complex of phrases here: “harvest [v.] data,” “harvest [n.] of data,” and “data harvest [n.].” None was in common use before 1980; LexisNexis and Google Books both suggest that they hadn’t made much headway as late as 1990. “Harvest [n.] data” originally referred to quantities of crops reaped or game hunted, and often still does. The first citations in today’s sense, which appeared sporadically in the eighties, mostly seemed to come from the space program, often as “harvest of data” from a telescope or spacecraft. The implication was abundance; when scientists uttered it, they were usually boasting about the capabilities, or hoped-for capabilities, of a new piece of equipment that was going to provide us with all kinds of new observations. That’s positively innocent when set alongside the more sinister sense the phrase has acquired in the internet age.

Somewhere in the mid-1990’s, computer industry executives began talking about harvesting data about what people were doing on-line, which was simply an expansion of a longstanding practice — market research — into new fields. That was when the term came to mean corporate, computer-driven aggregation and storage of personal information, which we now take for granted. I did encounter one anomalous use in a Washington Post article in 1994 about internet access service offered by the state of Maryland that permitted the user to “harvest data” about the state. That heartening notion of empowered consumers using the web to collect information has not persisted, and now we think of puny proletarians plucked clean of every potentially pertinent preference, practice, or pattern, permanently pinned in the pitiless panopticon produced by predatory purveyors.

Just about everyone harvests data now, and you have to be pretty oblivious not to know that your every on-line move is tracked and stored by multiple agencies, government, corporate, or mom-and-pop. Thanks to the wonders of taxes and advertising, we pay for all of them; by now we are long accustomed to underwriting our own exploitation. True, it’s worse when flat-out criminals steal our data through hacking and malware, and without question that is different from what Google does. But Google and its colleagues are no paragons, either; they rely on unreadable terms of use agreements to which we give ostensible consent. In the real world, whether it’s stealing or not has nothing to do with whether we really want our private information in the hands of someone else.

“Data harvest” reminds me of “organ harvest,” also a relatively new expression with unsavory implications. In both cases, the purposes are legitimate, perhaps even commendable, but the way they are carried out leaves a bad taste. The connotations of “harvest” are changing from comforting and wholesome to devious and greedy. For thousands of years, a successful harvest was cause for thanksgiving, a time to rejoice and look ahead to better days. Even a poor harvest marked the end of an annual cycle and might spark hope for the future, in the manner of Dodgers’ fans crying “Wait till next year!” But now the harvest feeds only a select few; most of us sow but do not reap.


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