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ABOUT THIS BOOK
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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Informational Persons and Our Information Politics
We are subject to vast amounts of personal data that others attach to us and that we in turn regularly reattach to ourselves. These data points have become important to the politics of who we are and who we can be. This introductory chapter to How We Became Our Data provides an entry into the book’s two central arguments. The first argument is that we have become informational persons: our information is today so deeply woven into who we are that were we to be deprived of it, we could no longer be the persons we once so effortlessly were. The second argument is that we informational persons are subject to a distinctive modality of power: this is a power expressed in the formats of data which can be labeled an “infopower” or an “infopolitics.” Building on the work of Michel Foucault, Ian Hacking, Friedrich Kittler, Cornelia Vismann, and others, this chapter lays the groundwork for a historical investigation of the conditions that make possible our contemporary data subjectivity and our correlative subjection to the politics of data.
1. Inputs - “Human Bookkeeping”: The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913–1937
[Birth Certificates;Birth Registration;Social Security Numbers;Standardization;Formats;Infopolitics;Informational Persons;Genealogy;Critical Theory;Big Data]
The central argument of How We Became Our Data is that over the past century we have become informational persons whose lives are increasingly conducted through an information politics. This chapter tracks emergent informational persons in the contexts of the bureaucratizing paperwork of the standardized birth certificate in the United States. Haphazard at the turn of the last century, the standardization of birth registration took three decades of effort beginning in 1903, and involved a panoply of agencies including the Census Bureau, the Children’s Bureau, the American Medical Association, and the American Child Health Association. The project was considered completed when, in 1933, every state was registering 90 percent of its births. Shortly after the development of the informational infrastructure that made this early ‘Big Data’ project possible, the Social Security Board would assign Social Security numbers to more than 90 percent of eligible American workers in just three months in the Winter of 1935. Building on the work of political scientist James Scott, this chapter attends to the formats of birth certificates and standard registration in order to excavate the informational conditions at the heart of the most important moments of registration in the lives of Americans today.
2. Processes - Algorithmic Personality: The Informatics of Psychological Traits, 1917–1937
[Psychometrics;Personality Tests;Personality Psychology;Algorithms;Francis Galton;Gordon Allport;Formats;Infopolitics;Informational Persons;Genealogy]
The central argument of How We Became Our Data is that for the past one hundred years we have been organized by a politics of data within which control is exerted by the many formats of our information. Over the past century we have become informational persons whose lives are increasingly conducted through an information politics. This chapter traces personality metrics amid an episode in the stabilization of a prestigious subfield in scientific psychology, namely personality psychology. In 1917, Robert Sessions Woodworth of Columbia University produced for the U.S. Army the first personality test in the history of psychology. Personality testing, rating, and assessment soon took off and could be considered a consolidated field by 1937, when Gordon Allport of Harvard University produced the first academic textbook on the subject of personality psychology. This chapter builds on work in the history of psychology by genealogists including Nikolas Rose, Arnold Davidson, and Michel Foucault. In doing so, it offers a unique angle of attention to the underlying algorithms by which personality psychology achieved scientific success. The result is an account of the informational conditions still central to contemporary conceptions of mind, behavior, achievement, and ability.
3. Outputs - Segregating Data: The Informatics of Racialized Credit, 1923–1937
[Redlining;Informatics of Race;Racial Data;Technological Racism;Formats;Infopolitics;Informational Persons;Genealogy;Critical Theory]
The central argument of How We Became Our Data is that over the past century we have become informational persons whose lives are increasingly conducted through an information politics. This chapter begins with the project of real estate redlining in the United States in the 1930s to tell the story of the production of an informatics of race in the twentieth century that has been used to pursue racism by other, more subtle and insidious, means. During the 1910s and 1920s, the social categorization of race was enrolled in data technologies that to this day always announce our race for us in advance of any arrival. Interrogating the formation of these data technologies offers a way of seeing how sometimes-transformable race was made into ever-obdurate data. Building on recent contributions to the study of racializing technology, especially Simone Browne’s studies of racialized surveillance in light of Michel Foucault’s history of the Panopticon, this chapter offers a detailed inventory of a technology of racialization rooted in data. This critical genealogy excavates the informational conditions that help facilitate the ongoing persistence of race, and hence of racism, in our contemporary data-obsessed moment.
4. Diagnostics - Toward a Political Theory for Informational Persons
[Infopower;Infopolitics;Data Power;Formats;Fastening;Informational Persons;Biopower;Control Power;Genealogy;Michel Foucault]
How We Became Our Data argues that for the past one hundred years we have been increasingly organized by a politics of data within which control is exerted by the many formats of our information. Over the past century we have become informational persons whose lives are increasingly conducted through an information politics. This chapter offers a comparative survey of recent contributions to a critical theory of data in order to show that the perspective of “infopolitics” and “infopower” offered in How We Became Our Data is irreducible to other prominent offerings. Infopower is irreducible to well-known accounts of the politics of discipline, biopolitics, and state sovereignty familiar from the work of Foucault and other recent critical theorists. Though the formats of infopower often hook up with earlier-developed political technologies of normalization and regulation, infopolitical technologies of canalizing and accelerating are in need of an independent analysis that does not misread them through concepts appropriate to what are in actuality quite other operations of power. The political stakes of such a recalibration of our critical diagnostics matters not only for understanding the history of who we have become, but also for confronting possibilities of who we might yet be.
5. Redesign - Data’s Turbulent Pasts and Future Paths
[Communication;Information;Cybernetics;Media Archaeology;Friedrich Kittler;Jürgen Habermas;John Dewey;Walter Lippmann;Claude Shannon;Norbert Wiener]
This chapter develops an argument for what resistance might look like under conditions of infopower. Equally important, it also describes what forms such resistance to infopower are unlikely to take. A key argument is that resistance calibrated to infopower is irreducible to mainstream theories of democratic deliberation that presuppose information in such a way that they cannot confront it as a political problematic in its own right. The chapter criticizes influential communicative accounts of democracy that have structured much of recent normative political theory. Primary targets include the critical theory of Jürgen Habermas and the work of the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. The chapter shows why both of these theories are structurally unable to confront information itself as a political problem. A precursor for a more viable approach is found in the work of Dewey’s interlocutor, and sometimes foil, Walter Lippmann. Rather than suspending communication-centered politics by way of a turn to aesthetics (a prominent option for contemporary political theory), an alternative is sketched in a turn toward technics and technology. On this view, resistance to infopolitical fastening is best mounted at the level of designs, protocols, audits, and other forms of formats.