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

Koopman, C. (2019). How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Koopman argues in How We Became Our Data we live in the shadows of our data. Our data precedes us. With extensive documentary and theoretical foundation, Koopman proves convincingly, from one information system to the next, cultural products are inscribed, processed, and reproduced. We “populate databases from social media histories and marketing profiles to predictive policing analyses.” We are a part of the legacy of data infrastructures and subjects of spooled data (p. 4). We are what Koopman calls informational persons.

In How We Became Our Data, Koopman is more interested in what information is included or excluded in administrative forms and questionnaires than encoded or decoded meanings. He focuses on examining universalizing conditions, procedures, and techniques of appearance rather than analyzing the essence and meaning of content.

Koopman’s premise is genealogy can be a practice of critique empowering action against modes of subjectification. It is not just what documents say but how they function. Informational dynamics, including modes of rationality, are, Koopman demonstrates, gaining priority over meaning through datafication.

In How We Became Our Data, Koopman leaves the bulk of policy solution detail to others who can utilize his methodologies or analytics of inquiry. Because Koopman is more interested in “critique as a clarifying practice” instead of an “ensemble of directions” (p. 180). Koopman leaves specific shapes and forms of resistance against information control to designers, coders, organizers, and seminar leaders.

Koopman shows us the history of how informational persons became data matters. The evolution of informational personhood helps us understand how we became our data. We, Koopman argues, inherit “legacy systems” and data formats in federal, state, and local health, financial, and legal, records. Focusing research on politics and the past, Koopman concludes in How We Became Our Data, infopower strata are historically layered and we must excavate and interpret data structures and functions to develop policy solutions.

How We Became Our Data focuses on the emergence of informational personhood in the first three decades of the twentieth century before information was consolidated into information theory. During this period, we were formatted into data with standardization of birth and death certificates, military induced metrics-based psychological and personality assessments, as well as racialized census and housing data systems perpetuating discriminatory redlining in the United States.

The first part of How We Became Our Data includes the first three chapters of the book. These initial chapters deal with histories of information. In the very first chapter of How We Became Our Data, Koopman examines human bookkeeping inputs or how informatics of documentary identity from 1913-37 developed. In the second chapter, Koopman analyzes the informatics of psychological traits and algorithmic personality process from 1917-37. In the third chapter, Koopman analyzes the informatics of racialized credit which segregated data outputs from 1923-37.

In the second part of How We Became Our Data, Koopman focuses on the power of data
formatting and diagnoses problems informational persons face (Chapter 4). In the fifth and final chapter, Koopman proposes a new political theory and new paths to transcend data’s turbulent historical pasts.

Koopman concludes from historical analysis in How We Became Our Data categorization fuels the political accounting, computation, and assessment of large swaths of the population including students, army recruits, job applicants, consumers, and prison inmates.

In terms of technical production of alternative historiography, Koopman unifies sciences with procedural data analyses. He blends relevant methodologies from history and historiography of science and technology with philosophy, political theory, new media theory, and critical theory of data. He judiciously applies the authoritative force of research by Norbert Weiner, Foucault, Adorno, William James, Lippmann, and other leading critical theorists from a wide array of disciplines.

Koopman digs up traditional archival primary source material from governmental, industrial, and corporate institutions and public interest organizations to mobilize critical inquiry into informational personhood. His analytical focus is on documentary, psychological, and racial identity vectors uncovered from in-depth investigations applying a wide variety of primary and secondary source materials. Koopman provides strong evidence for theories from vital public and private administrative records.

Koopman realizes newly reformatted high-tech cybernetic platforms utilizing informatics of control and domination depend on centuries old information technology designs (p.16). He tells the reader information history formats shape and discipline the norms, standards, laws and policies of who we are as informational persons. He knows investigating the history of information requires we acknowledge the manipulability and mobility of new data technologies.

Informatics increasingly shaped selfhood, information theory, and social policy after World War II. Because Koopman is interested in the practice of information before consolidation of information theory during the Cold War, he strategically focuses on the early twentieth century historical “cusp of information consolidation” (p. 14). The creation and evolution of formative data structures matter even more in the algorithm fuelled Digital Age.

Koopman knows our data revolution is still in its infancy today as we deal with big data analytics and state surveillance. He provides a semblance of hope claiming our information technologies are changeable since data design formats can be revised through law and policy as the cyber, ballot, and donor manipulated elections of 2016 in the United States, the Edward Snowden state surveillance data dump, and Equifax consumer credit data breach demonstrate. Koopman concludes digital data exposure restructures self in relation to historically layered modes of superimposed and interpenetrating domains of power.

Koopman theorizes the process of universalizing information impacts who we are and what we can be through the exercise of infopower. Information, he notes, exercises power through the work of varied and flexible formats which shape, constrain and prepare what is collected, stored, processed, refined, retrieved, and redistributed as information. Checking a box in a form or questionnaire, for example, “fastens” data to a format (p. 13-14).

Koopman argues operations of infopower center on inputs, processing, and outputs. Inputs include data collection and storage. Processing covers data analysis and augmentation while outputs deal with data dissemination and reproduction. These three (3) phases form a loop circuit enabling information canalization, amplification and acceleration (p. 159).

Due to a long-ignored politics in information design. Koopman calls on the reader to
conceptualize a politics of information attentive to functions, designs, and operations. He
highlights the power of formatting to diagnose, redesign, and chart our future paths as
informational persons.

The author analyzes formats, databases, and algorithms underlying modes of information display such as charts, graphs, and tables. He concludes birth, personality, and race are datafications of life, mind, and body. Through historical exhibits and well-reasoned points of argumentation, Koopman illustrates how informatic representations are political subjects.

Information technology’s operational and technical procedures have been implemented through administrative scaffolding which codes, fastens, and facilitates injustice and inequality to inputs, processes, and outputs. Information formatting, Koopman tell us, establishes the field or terrain conducting our conduct as informational persons.

Koopman concentrates in How We Became Our Data on “critical investigation of the
complexities and contingencies of technics that can bring us into decisive confrontation with the operation of power” (p. 193). He argues “resistance to infopolitical fastening is best mounted at the level of designs, protocols, audits, and other formats” because Dewey’s and Habermas’ theories of communicative democracy fall short addressing information as a political communications problem.

Koopman provides political theory for informational persons and explains how we can channel data’s turbulent pasts toward better designed futures. He discovers old racism found new and more subtle information forms in building up the core architecture of the twentieth century corporate welfare state.

Because, as Koopman suggests, we must in the twenty-first century, rectify how the politics and ethics of information are organized into what was previously believed to be ahistorical forms and formats, the Harvard Business Review calls high quality work in the growing field of data science “the sexiest job of the twenty-first century.”

Reid Friedson, PhD is Terasem Movement, Inc. Resident Scholar (2018-19). Dr. Friedson was Visiting Scholar in Law and History at the University of Oxford.