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  • The Depth Conditions of Possibility: The Data Episteme
  • Ekin Erkan (bio)
Colin Koopman. How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019. 272 pp. $30.00 (pb). ISBN: 9780226626611.

According to Colin Koopman, there is a politics endogenous to data and information itself, and Koopman locates this politics in the formats of data. Drawing from Foucault’s methodological orientation and, more specifically, Foucault’s conception of genealogical historical inquiry by emphasizing complexity, contingency and critique, Koopman asks what are the conditions that make it possible for us to be our data? Koopman does not argue that we are nothing but our data but that, given our epoch of informational culture, data comprises a significant facet of our “being.”

Koopman’s thesis rests on the historical development of data formatting, illuminating how in the development from older analog technologies to more neoteric digital technologies, we have been molded into socio-politically malleable denizens. Koopman’s political analysis of technics regards personality metrics and informatics as the project of measurable-amenability, a para-communicative category that Koopman identifies as valuable for political theory because it allows us to genealogically examine algorithmic culture. Koopman achieves this by drawing attention to the data structures, or “formats,” that are crucial for any kind of algorithmic operation whatsoever (which means that Koopman treats the algorithm transhistorically).

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. Excavating the informatics of documentary identity alongside stabilizing mechanisms (e.g., the enforcement for birth registration through laws, bureaucratic requirements, and commercial practices), Koopman’s survey of “testing” and data-capture formatting begins with the early twentieth century, examining emergent platforms of informational identity and collection technologies. Koopman’s research is stilted upon three categories: documentary, psychological, and racial identity; Koopman maintains that both the “possibilities for, and limitations of, our selves are today deeply informed by bureaucratic paperwork, psychology, and race” (20). Scouring and citing primary text documents including mid-twentieth century reports on assessment, lending, and underwriting, Koopman illuminates the entrenched mechanics of redlining and other racialized operations of normative informational technologies. Koopman examines administrative and social technology such as “check box-clad printed blanks, filing systems, processing protocols, and computational analytics” (155) from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s, noting how these produced the functional foundation for contemporary state-sponsored surveillance, consumer and voter dataveillance, data-driven financialization, and the production of informational congeries of psychographic data. [End Page 496]

Koopman, in the tradition of Foucauldian media archeology (albeit also influenced by the Jürgen Habermas’s and John Dewey’s theories of pragmatist communicative democracy) utilizes a highly historical analysis that, prima facie, evades metaphysics and prioritizes transitional turnings. In turn, Koopman widens “programming” into an epistemic category that occupies the historical practice of formatting informational technology. With contemporary informational personhood under the duress of social media, metadata analysis, and the Foucauldian apothegm of the “conduct of conduct,” Koopman begins with the recomposition of the contemporaneous datafied self by following data’s accoutrement. In appropriating Foucault’s genealogical method while divorcing it from disciplinary (bio)power, Koopman is indebted to Foucault’s genealogical analytics of the present. Notably, while Foucault was certainly not a de-ontologist, his philosophical concern with historical particulars rather than necessary “transcendental” conditions meant that Foucault was not, primarily, an ontologist. This is precisely why Koopman’s use of Foucault relates to political questions such as how and which data are important for the political and epistemic strategies through which we conduct ourselves.

Koopman asserts that the uptake of information theory in the 1940/50s is in need of explanation as it has been overlooked in political analyses of informational practices. Koopman delineates that today’s “informational person” is not determined by the spatio-temporal and statistical embodiment of disciplinary biopower but by “infopolitics,” or the data sets around which conduct accumulates. Although Foucauldian biopower is still operative today, it does not exhaustively account for the politics of Facebook, Google, or...


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pp. 496-500
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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