The unremarked optimum: whiteness, optimization, and control in the database revolution

Nikki Stevens, Anna Lauren Hoffmann, Sarah Florini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The 1970s saw major transformations in how computerized databases were conceived, developed, and designed. Part of a broader shift in how software applications were developed, these transformations—sometimes referred to as “the database revolution”—introduced new and then-novel approaches to structuring and arranging digital data, optimizing them for usability and convenience. At the same time, however, the rhetoric of innovation and revolution surrounding this moment in database development obscures the ways it helped concentrate and extend particular kinds of racialized power and, in particular, whiteness (i.e., those norms and values congenial to the reproduction of white racial dominance and the subjugation of blackness). In this article, we revisit key works of the database revolution to show how they encoded whiteness as a kind of unremarked optimum, in both implicit and explicit ways. Finally, we argue that these developments helped to codify and extend a kind of “willful ignorance” that, as scholars of epistemology and justice have shown, is central to the preservation and reproduction of whiteness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-128
Number of pages16
JournalReview of Communication
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • data
  • database revolution
  • optimization
  • race
  • whiteness

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication


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