How We Became Our Data A Genealogy of the Informational Person
by Colin Koopman
University of Chicago Press, 2019
Cloth: 978-0-226-62644-4 | Paper: 978-0-226-62658-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-62661-1
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.001.0001


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.


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


How We Became Our Data is a landmark contribution to contemporary philosophy of subjectivities and a must-read for anyone interested in the digital age. Koopman masterfully traces the birth of the informational person, meticulously excavating the informatic archives of the early twentieth century—from birth registration to personality testing to racial data on real estate and crime—to demonstrate how we have become our data today. Koopman develops a provocative new model of how power circulates in the informational age, providing an essential link between the statistical and confessional model of the nineteenth century and the digital profiling of the twenty-first.”
— Bernard E. Harcourt, author of Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

“Of all the critical accounts of our becoming subjects of and to data, Koopman’s is the most unsettling—which is to say, the most necessary. We simply cannot understand the crisis of the present without the two inextricable stories presented in this book: how the concept of information emerges as the necessary precondition for the ‘information society’ and how our lives have become almost unthinkable without the sociotechnical apparatus of documents. That this is ultimately an affirmative and even mobilizing tale, instead of a paralyzing horror, is a credit to Koopman’s narrative skill and meticulous scholarship.”
— Rita Raley, author of Tactical Media

“Brilliant. Urgent. Essential. Koopman’s study of the genealogy of our future-present selves, and how we became these informational artifacts, is crucial to developing new critical knowledges for politics, for aesthetics, and for life.”
— Davide Panagia, author of The Political Life of Sensation

"Koopman examines data collection, as well as the human adoption of such data to represent individual identity, in order to make such practices visible before data becomes our second nature. . . . Koopman’s analysis reaches a crescendo when the story turns to personal data’s implications. He invites us to think about the thousands of boxes we’ve ticked over our lifetimes, beside which are written the conventional words of racial taxonomy. The data collected from these boxes is used to build correlations, supporting all manner of political and economic programs."
— Public Books

"The book is extremely readable, so much so that any undergraduate can grasp its main points and digest its evidence. The book is essential for those of us who practice genealogy and those of us who study Foucault's work, but it should be very useful for less specialized readers. It provides a timely and very important perspective on contemporary society, one that may become especially significant as we develop the tracking tools necessary to stem the current coronavirus pandemic. Koopman has my gratitude for this important piece of work."
— Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Koopman explores the history of data tracking technology, detailing the emergence of mass-scale recording systems and techniques for categorising personality traits, measuring intelligence and ‘radicalizing’ subjects. These early developments contributed to the creation of the ‘informational person’ who is today subject to ‘informational power’, he says."
— Survival

"When did we become our data? Bridging research concerning informatics qua intelligence testing with the bureaucratization of paperwork vis-à-vis the universalization of standardized birth certificate forms, Koopman traces an arachnean genealogy that weaves together the datafication of birth, personality, and race. . . . Koopman’s genealogical approach to algorithmic data qua public health and knowledge practices demonstrates that 'surface politics' such as human welfare projects and official policies are, in fact, brimming with politically dormant exigencies."
— Theory & Event

"How We Became Our Data looks at the design and uptake of three information formats in the United States between 1913 and 1937: birth certificates, personality tests, and real estate appraisal templates...a welcome provocation to think historically and politically about the problems we face as 'informational persons.' Koopman’s concept of 'infopower' provides a way of talking about the con-sequences of the design and use of information formats."
— Gregory Laynor, The Information Society

"Drawing from Foucault – both methodologically and conceptually – Koopman advances . . . original claims that have the ambition to transform some of the most deeply rooted assumptions in the field of data politics. . . . Koopman’s book is a rigorous, original, and timely contribution to contemporary political theory."
— Daniele Lorenzini, Contemporary Political Theory

"In his How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person, Koopman examines early evidence of data and the consequences it has on how we think and express ourselves today. His book looks at those moments when data structures — such as those involved in birth certificates or social security numbers — become obligatory."
— Eugene Weekly


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0000
[subjectivity;information;data;genealogy;Foucault;Kittler;infopolitics;informational persons]
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.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0001
[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.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0002
[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.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0003
[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.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0004
[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.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226626611.003.0005
[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.