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

By Colin Koopman, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2019, 272 pages, $30.00 paperback (ISBN: 9780226626581)

How We Became Our Data cover

The theory of technological determinism assumes that society’s technologies profoundly shape social structures and cultural values. This perspective broadly aligns with Marx’s assertion that changes in production technology drive our social relationships to organizational structures, as well as Marshall McLuhan's theory that “the medium is the message.” When applied to the study of social movements, technological determinism seeks to demonstrate the extent to which innovation stimulates socio-economic and political change. The issue with this reductionist theory, as Melvin Kranzberg has reflected, is that technology is a “very human activity.”1 Technology is created by people who are already part of social structures and hold particular cultural values. As Raymond Williams and Brian Winston have each noted, technologies also change over time in response to the ways in which people use them.2

Colin Koopman’s How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person offers a sustained critique of deterministic thinking. Writing in the tradition of a critical history of technology, Koopman adopts Foucault’s genealogical method to explore the conditions that aided in the creation of information theory. To do this, he traces the process of how we have become “inscribed, processed, and reproduced as subjects of data,” or what he calls “informational persons”(4). This process began, Koopman argues, in the late nineteenth century wherein certain practices and institutions attached personal data to individuals that they, in turn, reattached to themselves as means of identification, social location, and privilege. The implication of becoming informational persons is that we cannot function in an increasingly bureaucratic society unless we are informational. Bureaucracy, Koopman shows, can only address us as the data that we have become. And that data and the processes by which it is collected, ascribed, and re-ascribed are value-laden practices.  

After establishing the premise of his investigation, Koopman takes a deep dive into three specific but related histories of information. The first history traces the genealogy of birth certificates to early-twentieth century campaigns to standardize birth registrations. At the time of the 1903 Census, most births and deaths were recorded by local parishes as simple lines in registry books. This made it difficult to compare one population to another or develop a statistical understanding of public health or population movement. To remedy this issue, the Census Bureau issued a pamphlet urging communities to adopt a new standard birth certificate form and set of protocols for standardizing the registration process. Over the next thirty years, as standardization became more widespread, forms were refined as were data collection practices. As Koopman demonstrates, the data was then analyzed and used in a range of public programs, from Unemployment Insurance to Old-Age Insurance, access to which was assured only through the “evidential technologies of identity” of a birth certificate and, later, the Social Security Number (58).

The second history Koopman tells is that of American psychologist Gordon Allport’s statistical work to quantify and describe personality traits. In this story, Koopman deploys Foucault’s genealogical method more critically, at times even casting suspicion on the ways in which the Western world has become so accustomed to the notion that personality traits are empirically observable and showing that we have become complacent with the conflation of human diversity into measurable identity data. Through a rich historical description of the emergence and entrenchment of personality testing, all of which reflect the inherent biases of the test creator and administrator, Koopman describes how the traits we now understand as human nature became real. He describes how early personality psychologists used data collection and measurement techniques, many prone to confirmation bias, to fix identity and thus establish an entire science of measuring and refining data about those traits. Koopman adds, “becoming our personalities involved, in part, becoming our data too” (70). 

The subject of the book’s third history is one outcome of fixing identity through this process of subsuming subjectivity and nuance into objective scientific knowledge. In this chapter, “Segregating Data,” Koopman describes the use of geoinformatics data in the practice of redlining. Although redlining has historically referred to the denial of financial services, such as home loans or insurance, based on the ethno-racial characteristics of a property’s neighborhood, it has also been expanded to describe the deprivation of these same neighborhoods to other basic services, such as health care, supermarkets, and telecommunications infrastructure. Here, Koopman offers clear examples of how technologies—in this case, technologies of identity—not only are products of the cultures that develop and use them but also are changed by those cultures. A society already stratified by race will embed existing racial biases into its technologies, ensuring that some people will benefit from, what Koopman calls, “informational power,” while others are subject to this power (175). 

For those readers already familiar with Safiya Umoja Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism or Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, it may be easier to make the leap from Koopman’s historical analysis of pre-Internet data technologies to today’s world of big data and digital economies. Koopman also has another goal, which is to tie his critical histories of technology to the emergence of information theory. He does this in the last two chapters by introducing a political theory for informational persons and establishing the significance of informational power, or infopower, in relation to other forms of power that run across and throughout cultures. By situating this discussion deep in critical histories, How We Became Our Data takes up the politics of information and the ethics of data with enriching analysis and clarity of purpose. 

Rebecka Taves Sheffield, Archives of Ontario

1. Kranzberg, Melvin (July 1986). "Technology and History: "Kranzberg's Laws"". Technology and Culture. 27 (3): 544–560.
2. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London and New York: Routledge, 1974); Brian Winston, Technologies of Seeing: Photography, Cinematography and Television (London: British Film Institute, 1997), and Media Technology and Society (London and New York: Routledge,1998).