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  • How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person by Colin Koopman
  • Rebecka Taves Sheffield
How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person
by Colin Koopman
PAPERBACK, $30.00.
ISBN 978-0-226-62658-1

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 socioeconomic 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 when 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 those data and the processes by which they are collected, ascribed, and reascribed 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 [End Page 294] were refined, as were data collection practices. As Koopman demonstrates, the data were 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...