How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person

How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person

by Colin Koopman

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We are now acutely aware, as if all of the sudden, that data matters enormously to how we live. How did information come to be so integral to what we can do? How did we become people who effortlessly present our lives in social media profiles and who are meticulously recorded in state surveillance dossiers and online marketing databases? What is the story behind data coming to matter so much to who we are?
In How We Became Our Data, Colin Koopman excavates early moments of our rapidly accelerating data-tracking technologies and their consequences for how we think of and express our selfhood today. Koopman explores the emergence of mass-scale record keeping systems like birth certificates and social security numbers, as well as new data techniques for categorizing personality traits, measuring intelligence, and even racializing subjects. This all culminates in what Koopman calls the “informational person” and the “informational power” we are now subject to. The recent explosion of digital technologies that are turning us into a series of algorithmic data points is shown to have a deeper and more turbulent past than we commonly think. Blending philosophy, history, political theory, and media theory in conversation with thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Friedrich Kittler, Koopman presents an illuminating perspective on how we have come to think of our personhood—and how we can resist its erosion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226626611
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/21/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Colin Koopman is associate professor of philosophy and director of the New Media & Culture Program at the University of Oregon. 

Read an Excerpt



"Human Bookkeeping": The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913–1937

Who Are You?

Jemma Cook was born in a car on the way to a Los Angeles hospital on a summer day in 2017. Jemma's mother, writer and editor Jia-Rui Cook, described giving birth in a car as complicated in all kinds of ways. There was, of course, the biological mess of blood and birth water all over the passenger seat. But, as Cook relays in the New York Times, "the biggest problem, it turned out, was one we would never have foreseen: getting a birth certificate for our baby."

Jemma's parents were without delay in taking her to the hospital for natal care (and delivery of the placenta). In some states, hospitals have a duty to provide access to a birth-registration system in virtue of being the first to provide medical care to the infant. But California law requires that hospitals assist in birth registration only for infants born on their premises.

Jemma's parents were thus made to turn to the local agency charged with administering birth registration. It took them over a month to get an appointment with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH). At the appointment they were required to produce five pieces of evidence that together would be sufficient for establishing Jemma Cook's identity and her impending lifelong answer to that first of bureaucratic questions, "Who are you?" According to the LACDPH website, the Cooks were required to produce: identification documents for both parents, proof of Jia-Rui's pregnancy, proof that Jemma was born alive, proof that the birth occurred in Los Angeles County, and proof of a witness. Proof that a mother was in Los Angeles County during birth can be established as easily as producing a utility bill for the month of birth. The identity of the proving witness can be easily established by their accompanying the mother to the LACDPH. A little less straightforward, however, is proof of a live birth where no licensed doctor or midwife was present to certify the fact. In Los Angeles County, proof that a baby has been born alive can be established, somewhat remarkably, by bringing the baby being registered to its LACDPH registration appointment.

This specific bureaucratic requirement expresses the circularity haunting all proof of identification. Proof of who we are is often needed. But how is that proof ever established in the first place? How can the first bit of proof of identity be put into place? Only by a silent moment of conjuration in which we all knowingly blink at the miracle of something being created out of almost nothing at all. The creation of identity is strangely akin to that other miraculous moment of a conception whose eventuality is a baby come crying into the world.

The broader reach of this conjuration act of officialdom is expressed in a small snippet of Jemma's birth certificate accompanying Cook's article. In a narrow image whose background is official yellow with blocky black type, Jemma's birth certificate lists her "Place of Birth" as "Automobile." Never mind that "Automobile" can never be a place (though it is of course possible for "an automobile" or "this automobile" to be a place in certain circumstances). For what is remarkable here, and what we usually pass over in one of our silent blinking moments, is the form's request for "Place of Birth — Name of Hospital or Facility." Therein does the birth-registration record quietly format what can even count as the place where one has been born. Just as a wiggling baby who is brought to a county health agency can stand as a kind of proof of the actual vitality of some identity, so too can "Automobile" become an actual place. In both cases, this is made possible — even necessary — because the form requires it.

It is a trivial observation but a remarkable fact that there is a format to the record of being born. What those formats are, their specific design and the requirements they solicit into being, come to have enormous importance to who we are, and who we can be allowed to be.

What Is Your Name?

Consider another ubiquitous technology of informational identity: the name. Names have become such a routine part of our identity that we easily forget that, in order to become effective parts of who we are, they must be made to fit the requirements of identification they are to be used for. Fitting names to the constraints of modern governance was anything but the simple task we might take it for whenever we effortlessly relay our name to a cop or clerk today.

According to historian Jane Caplan, the technology of the name as a universal descriptive designation did not become usable for identification in much of Europe until as late as the nineteenth century. In 1878 a lawyer in England noted that the country had no laws governing names. In many countries, the situation on the ground was even worse than that on the books. In Scotland in 1852, the registrar general reported that surnames could "scarcely be said to be adopted among the lower classes in the wilder districts" while ten years earlier one official reported that the small town of Buckie was home to no fewer than twenty-five individuals by the name of George Cowies. In France the mayor of Metz noted at the late date of 1908 that it was quite common "to find a son bearing a different surname from his father, a brother from a brother, and to discover individuals having borne one name decide to take another." In 1885 an attorney corresponding with the United States Department of State sought to defend a client who wished to spell his name differently on different documents.

Assessing the relative recentness of the reliable standardization of names, political theorist James C. Scott concludes that "the invention of permanent, inherited patronyms was ... the last step in establishing the necessary preconditions of modern statecraft." According to his classic Seeing Like a State, large organizations at the heart of bureaucratic modernity (most obviously states) need to be able to "manipulate" the people with whom they deal. Specifically, Scott argues, in order to govern their subjects, states need them to be "legible." Governed subjects need to be made to fit into forms that organizations are capable of reading, processing, and relaying. This effort of fitting subjects into legible form almost always involves reduction and abstraction — typical features of information wherever it is employed. As Scott summarizes, "In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored." The "social circumference of official patronyms" is thus for Scott just one case of a more general project of "synoptic administrative legibility."

Scott's history is undertaken with an eye to the recurring failure of such projects: his subtitle is How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. For example, he discusses a project of Native American naming standardization that was announced in 1890, initiated in earnest in 1902, and ended in failure by 1913. What I find of equal interest to such failures is how other such projects would in the years immediately following come to make standardized names almost obligatory. If a government project expressly charged with the task could not secure name standardization in the early 1900s, then a panoply of agencies from the 1910s to the 1930s would effectively induce such standardization as a side effect of making it the condition of participation in all manner of programs and projects. Despite beta-version failures at the turn of the century (and earlier), projects envisioning the redefinition of persons as information soon after became wildly successful.

One way to approach the critical theory of data is to show how halcyon visions of informatics are bound to fail, bound to call for resistance, bound to produce misinformation in overwhelming us with their reliable data. But I do not focus my critical genealogy on such sites, for I find more unnerving how projects of datafication bound for eventual failure can nonetheless enjoy extremely long runs of success in the interim — and despite everyone knowing their imprecision, their objectification, and their abstraction. A person is not just a name, we insist. "I am not a number," we chant. Such clichés are perfectly fitted to the informational persons we are. The real problem is that, despite all our familiar objections, we all hold dear to our names and numbers, including the numbers that we are.

We are not only our numbers, of course, but we are our numbers too. Converting a person into a number is certainly an abstraction. Yet who could deny that so many such conversions have come to define the terms of who we can be? Who would refuse to give their Social Security number to the bureaucrat at the government office or the banker evaluating a mortgage application? Who, aside from the extraordinarily wealthy who have become corporations unto themselves and the downtrodden paperless who are forced to have no choice in the matter, could even contemplate such a refusal? However, my point is not that resistance is futile or bound to fail. I only seek to highlight the rarity of resistance so as to raise its stakes. The politics of data is buried so deeply within us that we tend to not notice its work. I thus aim to trace the emergence of information technologies around which quietly accumulated an entire politics of data that we find ourselves entrenched in and yet largely unwilling to attend to. This means attending, at least at the beginning, not to the genealogy of practices of resistance prophesying the inevitable crash of the data regimes we inhabit, but rather the genealogy of how those data regimes came to be a habitat we now live within without even thinking about it.

If that habitat is ours, we have become creatures of it. This is all I mean in saying that we are our data. Following Scott's interrogations of legibility, we can see that what gets formatted by data technologies is not just data, but also subjects of data, or informational persons. My argument contributes to a growing scholarly conversation about documentary identification and registration, many of whose contributors also take Scott's concept of legibility as a theoretical frame. This work focuses on what the editors of a volume on documentary registration aptly summarize as "infrastructures of personhood." One contributor to that volume, writing about identification in nineteenth-century Egypt, observes that "it can be clearly historically documented how it was that bureaucratic forms of identity registration found necessary and expedient to the purposes of state of the governor in Egypt gave rise to a novel legal practice and ultimately to a concept of the individual, rather than any clear prior concept of the individual and their rights having called forth a registration procedure." Following Khaled Fahmy, my interest in exploring documentary identification in early twentieth-century America is not that of charting how a preexisting subjectivity (such as citizenship or individuality) called forth a regime of registration as its mirror, but more that of navigating how the deployment of information technologies of registration ushered in a new mode of subjectivation.

The genealogy of documentary identity detailed below focuses on what remains today the foundation of the American system of documentary identification: the birth certificate. An initiative to standardize a set of universalizable information technologies for birth registration began in 1903 and would not be considered completed until 1933, when every state was registering 90 percent or more of its births. After tracing the contours of this history of birth registration, I briefly take up what is the obvious low-hanging fruit for any book focused on the history of informational identity — namely, registration numbers, which in the American case will mean Social Security numbers. A look at Social Security enumeration in the mid-1930s reveals a moment in which practitioners of informational identity could achieve in a few short months what had previously taken decades. Only a few years after the completion of the three-decade birth-registration campaign, the Social Security Board would assign Social Security numbers to more than 90 percent of eligible American workers in just three months. Both episodes took place in that rosy dawn of the information age. That dawn portended the twentieth-century state putting itself in the position of thoroughly relying on information technology to do its work of formatting the people it would govern, guide, and come to care for.

A Genealogy of Documentary Identity: Registering Birth, ca. 1913–1935

"Who are you? What is your name?" So begins a 1919 publication by the US Children's Bureau titled An Outline for a Birth-Registration Test. This was a moment in which questions like these were gaining prominence as the kind of colloquy one could increasingly expect in the conduct of everyday life. The Children's Bureau counted on its reader to recognize not only his or her own ability to answer these questions, but also the need to be able to do so with evidence that could satisfy a bureaucracy: "Anyone can answer these questions, but some persons may find it rather difficult to prove the truth of their answers." The Children's Bureau was seeking to stabilize a particular piece of information technology as provenance for these needed answers: "Only the person whose birth has been registered can easily establish his age and identity."

A host of organizations were at the time dedicated to installing a national birth-registration system: this included other federal agencies like the US Census Bureau, private organizations like the American Child Health Association and the American Medical Association, and even large business firms like the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. In 1919 their efforts were just beginning to come to fruition. Birth-registration boosters could now foresee success in their project of what they called "human bookkeeping" and "the bookkeeping of humanity."

Birth certificates became so crucial to the bookkeeping of persons not so much because they represent our entry into the oxygenated world outside of our mothers' wombs, but moreso because they format our first points of entry into the information systems that are the atmosphere for so much of what we do in the world. Birth certificates format many of the first stable facts about us as we travel from womb to world. And yet historian Susan Pearson recently notes that "we know almost nothing about how the birth certificate became the foundational form of identification." In learning how this crucial piece of informational identification was assembled, we learn much about how our very selves can be taken to be stable today. Across three decades of assembly, from 1903 to 1933, birth certificates both "shifted epistemological authority," as argued by Pearson, and also transformed modes of subject formation and the operation of power, as I argue below. Central to such shifts, I show, was the development of workable information technologies — including, most important, standard registration forms, a protocol for a registration bureaucracy, and an audit of registration success.


Early-century campaigns for birth registration began in 1903. This was the year in which the Census Bureau, which only the year before was converted from a decennial pop-up shop to a permanent government agency, published a quartet of pamphlets urging states to adopt two technologies of birth registration. These were a new standard birth certificate form and a set of protocols for standardizing registration processes. The guiding details for these forms and protocols were disseminated via the American Public Health Association's model law for birth and death registration, which persists in revised form today as nationwide guidance for a multitude of vital events registration practices.

The 1903 Census pamphlets offered three distinct justifications for the adoption of the technical specifications of the model law: the utility of registration documents as legal records, the utility of registration data for compiling what were then frequently called "sanitary" (i.e., public health) statistics, and values of those data for demographic analyses of population movement. Census's pamphlet no. 100, a compendium of policy papers, research reports, and Congressional resolutions, laid the groundwork. Among the materials collated in the pamphlet was a report from the American Public Health Association coauthored by Cressy Wilbur, the vital statistics chief of Michigan who would soon after assume the position of chief statistician for the Census Bureau's Vital Statistics Division from 1906 until 1914. The report clearly stated the three justificatory strategies used to boost registration. It cited first "the protection of certain rights and privileges of individuals and of families" as afforded by legal registration records; it then adduced as a "subsidiary" justification "the compilation of sanitary statistics" as used by "public health services"; and third, it spoke to the importance of "knowledge of the movement of population." Five years later, a 1908 Census Bureau publication presented under the heading of "Most Important Uses of Registration of Births and Deaths" the same three "reasons demanding the registration of births and deaths, stated in increasing order of importance: (1) Knowledge of the movement of population (demographic uses); (2) protection of the lives and health of the people (sanitary uses); and (3) protection of the rights of the individual and of the community (legal uses)." Each of these reasons can be conceptualized in terms of how birth registration makes persons, to employ Scott's concept, legible. But legibility here was not only a state project; legibility's justifications were accumulated by multiple state and nonstate agencies.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Informational Persons and Our Information Politics

Part I: Histories of Information

1. Inputs “Human Bookkeeping”: The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913–1937 2. Processes Algorithmic Personality: The Informatics of Psychological Traits, 1917–1937 3. Outputs Segregating Data: The Informatics of Racialized Credit, 1923–1937
  Part II: Powers of Formatting

4. Diagnostics Toward a Political Theory for Informational Persons 5. Redesign Data’s Turbulent Pasts and Future Paths
List of Figures

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