Several months ago, I took some time to reflect on important debates about the place of “data” in research and in governing practices (29 April 2022, 30 May 2022, 29 June 2022). While updating my research for the previous entry on genealogy (30 July 2022), I encountered Colin Koopman’s 2019 book, entitled: How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. The timing could not have been better! Therefore, allow me to introduce Koopman’s argument to you as a way of illustrating the contribution that a genealogical sensibility makes to political thinking.
I was happy to find clear links between Koopman’s argument and the position I developed in the previous entries on data: first, that data is produced and second, that data is productive. The first theme refers not to how specific bits of “data” are identified and agglomerated, but rather to how “data” become conceptualized as inert bits of information. The second theme highlights how “data” produce us as particular kinds of subject. Both themes are central to Koopman’s book.
At the same time Koopman’s book offers an extremely useful example of genealogy at work. The key principles of a genealogical sensibility are clearly laid out, and I will use them as a guide to my comments in this entry. First, start your analysis from a problem or concern in the present. Second, consider that everything has a history. Third, identity the practices involved in the production of key concepts and the emergence of the particular concern. Fourth, consider the consequences. Fifth, consider the openings for change.
Thinking back to the previous entry on genealogy, you may recall that by a “problem in the present” Foucault means some concern animating the researcher’s analysis. So, what are Koopman’s concerns about “data”? These are clearly laid out in the blurb describing How We Became Our Data (2019).
“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?”
Koopman then is concerned by the plain fact that we find ourselves enrolled in a thousand databases. He asks: “Who could you be without your data points? What could you do?” (Koopman 2019: Preface).
Recalling that a prime purpose of genealogy is to encourage political subjects to reflect on what it means to be human (see previous entry) Koopman develops the notion of “the informational person”. His book relates the story of the becoming of this form of subject.
Importantly, Koopman’s focus is on how this “informational subject” is constituted. That is, the argument is not that data are mere externalia
“from which we might detach our truer selves as we please, but are rather constitutive parts of who we can be. Who we are is therefore deeply interactive with data. We are cyborgs who extend into our data”. (Koopman 2019: 8)
In a review of Koopman, McWhorter (2020) elaborates:
“We are population and census data, certainly, but more intimately, we are our vital statistics, our credit reports, our personality inventories, our insurance policies, our educational records, our fitbit badges, our Facebook and dating app profiles”.
In a Symposium on Koopman’s book (https://syndicate.network/symposia/philosophy/how-we-became-our-data/), Smith drives home the point:
“Depending on our data, a financial transaction will be approved or blocked, a college admission will be accepted or rejected, entrance to a building will be granted or denied, a job application will be successful or unsuccessful, a border will be crossed or not”.
Now, this “informational subject”, like all political subjects, has a history (see previous entry), and the genealogist’s task is to trace this history. The focus becomes the practices that led to the production of the “informational person”. These practices form the substance of Koopman’s book. To produce a genealogy of the “informational person” Koopman brings his “historical sense” to some selected early moments of the trends that disturb him.
Koopman locates the emergence of informational personhood in the period from the mid-1910s to the mid-1930s. He carefully selects examples to illustrate the “informationalization” of three aspects of identity:
first, documentary identity, illustrated in the development of birth certificates (1913); second, psychological identity, linked to the new data techniques for categorizing personality traits and measuring intelligence (1917); and third, racial identity, connected to new data techniques for real estate appraisal, such as redlining (1923).
The informational subject thus was formed within a disparate array of administrative and technical practices of data collection, formatting, storage, and application. These practices, which highlight how governing takes place through numbers (Research Hub entry 30 May 2022), illustrate important links between genealogy and governmentality (Walters 2012).
Koopman emphasizes the importance of providing “information” with a history. He explains that “accepting information as ahistorical facilitates our tendency to take information technologies as closed, locked and unchangeable”. Through his careful delineation of the development of birth certificates, personality tests and racial profiles he considers what could have been done differently: “we can find in that history a set of moments when data was not closed, but rather glaringly open to contestation and recomposition” (Koopman 2019: ix).
Koopman proceeds to provide a history of “personality”, a term that is often taken-for-granted as revealing the “truth” about human development. He shows that “personality” was a new concept in the period he studies and how it came to be defined as a finite collection of measurable traits, which could be processed as data through algorithms. As McWhorter (2020) describes, according to Koopman, “personalities” are artifacts of information technology as much as they are the truths of ourselves: “they are both, simultaneously”, a point Koopman drives home forcefully.
In terms of consequences, Koopman argues that our data have not defined us all in the same ways. “In those differences”, he says, “lies a whole terrain of power and politics” (Koopman 2019: 9). As an illustration of the costs associated with being “un-datified”, Koopman mentions the precarious position of the paperless, the undocumented, the sans papiers (Jørgensen 2012; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 104) – in his words, “the exception that proves the rule” (Koopman 2019: 9).
In relation to openings for change, genealogical accounts such as Koopman’s show that the conditions which limit the present are contingently formed by extraordinarily complex historical processes (Koopman 2010: 119). The point of identifying this complexity is to eliminate overly simple causal explanations and to alert us to the multitude of factors impacting our lives – how we have got “here” from “there”. At the same time identifying the plural conditions shaping the present creates the possibility of thinking about what intervention in those processes could look like and what needs to be re-thought should change be desired.
In the Symposium on his book (https://syndicate.network/symposia/philosophy/how-we-became-our-data/) Koopman raises the difficult question of how to resist “infopower”. He endorses Jennifer Forestal’s concern, expressed in the Symposium, that our complicity in the operations of infopolitical injustices poses the greatest challenge when it comes to the politics of data. Koopman expresses the hope that refocussing data politics around techniques of formatting would make those politics more tractable. This critique, in his view, should be largely aimed at experts and elites working in technocratic spaces, those who “build the information systems that form the basements beneath our lives” (Koopman 2019: 194).
In terms of our research practices, Tamboukou and Ball (2003) offer some general comments on how the writing up of or writing about/around data may be deeply influenced by a genealogical sensibility. They emphasize that researchers have to become more critical about what counts as data and what does not. Specifically, they need to become more skeptical about how they locate the field of investigation and about how they choose key informants.
To repeat a point made in the preceding entry, at some level, genealogical criticism is always self-criticism. And so, we can see how a genealogical sensibility, invoked in Question 3 of WPR, prompts a commitment to self-problematization (Step 7; Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 20). It follows that, instead of approaching WPR as a collection of separate and separable questions, it becomes important to reflect on the ways in which its several forms of analysis constitute a way of thinking about how governing takes place. Exploring the purpose and intent of genealogy provides a useful starting point for such reflection.
Bacchi, C. and Goodwin, S. 2016. Poststructural Policy Analysis: A Guide to Practice. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Jørgensen, M.B. (2012). Legitimizing policies: How policy approaches to irregu- lar migrants are formulated and legitimized in Scandinavia. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, 6 (2), 46–53.
Koopman, C. 2010. Historical Critique or Transcendental Critique in Foucault: Two Kantian Lineages. Foucault Studies, 8: 100-121.
Koopman, C. 2019. How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McWhorter, L. 2020. Colin Koopman, How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person, University of Chicago Press, 2019, 269pp., $30.00 (pbk), ISBN 9780226626581.Philosophical Reviews.
Tamboukou, M. and Ball, S. J. 2003. Introduction: Genealogy and Ethnography: Fruitful Encounters or Dangerous Liaisons? In M. Tamboukou and S. J. Ball (Eds) Dangerous Encounters: Genealogy and Ethnography. NY: Peter Lang. pp 1-36.Walters, W. 2012. Governmentality: Critical Encounters. NY: Routledge