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

Koopman, Colin. How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person. United Kingdom, University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Chapter 0: Introduction: Informational Persons and Our Information Politics

We are what Coopman calls informational persons, "inscribed, processed, and reproduced as subjects of data" (pg. 4). "The extent to which we informational persons are so widely formatted into our data suggests the high stakes of our datafication and its noncomitant politics of information, or what [Coopman calls] our infopolitics" (pg. 4). He defines infopower as how technical formatting fastens its subjects to data.

To lose all of the data about yourself would be to lose not only access to every bureacratic right, but also one's identity. Informational identity existed long before the Internet, with the advent of identification documents. Cooper offers a historical analysis of informational persons based not on what we truly are, in some essentialist framework, but what we are in terms of what we do and can do.

Cooper agrees with Schull's "datafied subjectivity" as "self in the loop": "expressing a form of selfhood in which 'digital tracking tools and their data can become part of the loop of reflexive recomposition' in such a way that we become constituted, and not merely mediated, by our data" (pg. 8). Political differentials occur when some people are "deprived of some crucial bit of informational equipment ... the rest of us have access" to (pg. 9). Yet even the most "paperless" and seemingly remote peoples have become informational, in the sense that they have been documented and sometimes studied, thus becoming a data point. This book examines how informational has become powerfully "universalizable" through a Foucauldean genealogical analysis. Universalizable is used to describe what can "be mobilized to operate anywhere we want it to go" (pg. 10).

Part 1 is focused on early histories of informational identity. The first three chapters examine three domains of infopolitical identity: 1. documentary identity (bureaucratic paperwork), 2. psychological identity (personality metrics in psychology), and 3. racial identity (American redlining practices). These examples offer the perspectives of state, science, and capital on shaping informational identity. In terms of the IPO model of data (input-process-output), the focus on documentary identity is input, the focus of psychological identity is process, and the focus on racial identity is output.

Part 2 is focuses on political implications. Koopman focuses on how the fastenings of infopower differ from discipline and biopolitics. Chapter 5 focuses on responses to resisting infopower, proposing that earlier theories of democracy cannot account for resistance against information. He proposes resistance to infopower "is best mounted at the level of designs, protocols, audits, and other forms of formats" (pg. 22).

Chapter 1: "Human Bookkeeping": The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913-1937

Early American for birth certificates began in 1903, and birth and death certificates were justified with three reasons: "(1) Knowledge of the movement of population (demographic uses); (2) protection of the lives and health of the people (sanitary uses); and (3) protectiong of the rights of the individual and of the community (legal uses)" (pg. 41). These map to Foucault's theories of sovereign power and biopower. They also came to rely on informational technologies, which employ an infopower. A blank birth certificate and a protocol for registration operate as a file standard and a filing protocol, fitting to Coopman's notion of formatting which fastens human identity into a pre-determined informational format. Specific datapoints on a birth certificate's informational format ascribe oppression, like race and gender; other seemingly innocent datapoints like length still tether the subject to an accessible format. The birth registration system still in use was first formatted in the mid-1930s, although some of its mechanics may have changed (including becoming digitized). In the majority of this chapter, Koopman traces the implementation and changes made over the course of birth registration, and how it set a precedent for big data (and the obsession with collecting more data, and the difficulty of auditing more and more data). He believes birth certificates, social security numbers, and other such bureaucratic data forms mark also our birth into databases, as an informational person.

Chapter 2: Algorithmic Personality: The Informatics of Psychological Traits, 1917-1937

Personality psychology "secured its authority from the 1920s to the 1930s by distinguishing its informatics-centered methods from the interpretive methods of other psychological approaches, most notably psychoanalysis" (pg. 66). Personality, personality traits, and personality types were made stable as computable correlates through the algorithmic processing of questionnaires. Psychology combined power and knowledge to construct selfhood, even becoming central to techniques of "governing human individuality, evaluating potential recruits to the army, providing 'vocational guidance', assessing maladjusted children" (pg. 68-69). This chapter traces the history of personality psychology, of what of the 19th century led to its inception in the 20th (e.g., anthropometry).

Chapter 3: Segregating Data: The Informatics of Racialized Credit, 1923-1937

Redlining is the practice of denying home loans based on racial characteristics inferred from a property's neighborhood. Assessors, lenders, and underwriters during the 30s and 40s "employed government-produced rating maps on which were drawn red lines around areas deemed too risky for loans" (pg. 108). These risks were particularly associated with non-white, specifically Black Americans. This created lasting walls among America's cities to this day. Koopman refers to redlining as "an 'informatics of race' that reformatted long-standing racial differences as distinction in data" (pg. 110). He highlights how the politics of racial passing changed. One cannot simply come into a community and declare themselves, because data technologies announce our race for us prior to our own announcements.

The informatics of race that arose in the 19th and 20th century are still in tact, as we fill out forms asking for racial information that becomes racial data that are used to produce racial correlates. Koopman argues race is still produced in two ways: (1) "they are the basis for all manner of political programs and social projects that hang upon racial data"; and (2) such data has the potential to reify racism in unexpected ways (pg. 149).

Chapter 4: Toward a Political Theory for Informational Persons

Power can be divided into 4 categories: technique, operation, subject, and rationality. Technique describes how the power operations. An operation is what power does. "Every technique of power exercises specific operations of power ... and every operation of power is exercised by techniques of power" (pg. 161). Technical operations of power are always focused on a target, the subject. It defines who the subject is and what they can do. A mode of rationality is employed to explain and justify the relationship between technical operations and subject.

Koopman's schematic of infopower: infopower is a mode of power, and its "formatting" refers to the techniques on which this power relies. Its "fastening" refers to how power is operated via such techniques. Its informational persons are the subjects of this mode of power. Infopower facilitates specific styles of reasoning, or a mode of rationality, or a "data episteme" where data itself then expresses a need for more data. "For nearly every but of information we require someone to cough up, our need for that information is premised almost entirely on other information ... [like] all those forms you fill out just to fill then out, with utter disregard for the contents with which you fill them out" (pg. 160). Koopman states that even critics of data are drawn to using data. Data is viewed as the basis of knowledge, an epistemology.

Koopman argues that standards are different from laws, although they may seem similar, because laws produce a binary exclusion and standards "refuse to prohibit" (pg. 162). That is, standards specify "what you must do in order that you may do something else" and "tie our actions to specific shapes" but they do not negate other possibilities. Koopman states that standards/formats are like Foucault's norms in that they do not take away, but elicit, invite, and produce. However, Coopman differentiates standards/formats from norms in that norms "encourage conformity to averages" while standards invite and create possibilities for new specificiations (pg. 162). Koopman states that if his theory of infopower is distinct from other modes of power (biopower, disciplinary power, sovereign power) then it will be unable to be reduced to those other modes of power. In other words, there is something unique about infopolitical formats that cannot be entirely accounted for in other modes of power. However, it is not intended to negate or substitute these other theories, but provide additive layering to them. His argument for how infopower relates to previous theories of power is:
"A craft of information was born within biopolitical and anatomopolitical contexts and from there slowly invaded multiple domains of each, as well as a number of institutions fundamentally oriented by sovereignty. In its earliest appearance, information was itself a mere instrument of other modes of power. Later, that craft of information assumed a gravity of its own such that it became a distinctive assembly of power in its own right: an infopower of fastening, with its own tactical operations, meticulous techniques, enlisted subjects, and correlative rationality of data. ... Infopower makes use of techniques of formatting in order to operate a fastening, canalizing, and accelerating that is targeted toward the many kinds of users, accounts, and records that we informational persons have become." (pg. 172).


Biopolitics is a politics of life, where subjects are living beings construed as populations. Its operation is regulation through techniques like public health policy, demographic management, and medical intervention. Koopman argues that the infopower of race is different than the biopower of race because infopower is not about life or populations, but about accounting. Accounting technologies did not work to regulate the process of appraisals but formatted appraisal technologies. He states that because a political technology can then be leveraged for biopolitical purposes does not mean that it is entirely for that purpose. The infopower of race worked to fasten racial phenotype to individuals' data, ensuring race persists beyond the physical and into the digital.

Anatomopower (Discipline)

Disciplinary power targets its subjects at the corporeal (embodied) level, centering the body as machine, optimizing its capabilities, increasing its usefuleness and docility, and intogreating it into systems of effiency and economic control. "Discipline operates a power of normalization by coaxing bodies (not physically coercing them) to conform to the norm. Its techniques include panoptic surveillance, regular examination, and a meticulous training" (pg. 165-166). Koopman argues that infopolitics is reliant on operations that are invisible, unlike disciplinary power which relies on overt surveillance. For example, algorithmic calculations are invisible to questionnaire takers so that they cannot game tests. Further, infopolitical formatting does not normalize, telling us how we should or must act, "but are focused on dilineating the shapes that we already are" (pg. 166). He argues there is no "conceit of coaxing us to conform to these categorizations ... these categorizations name features (like traits) that we already posess" (pg. 166). Further, he argues that disciplinary power is focused on the corporeal in ways infopower is not connected to, as infopower is pinned to our traits, rather than our bodies. He argues that these traits are disembodies, which is why computer programs can have personalities and personalities can be uploaded into computers.

Sovereign Power

Foucault describes sovereign power as "in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden" and operates through prohibitions through techniques like law (pg. 167). Code may be viewed, as defined by Lawrence Lessig, as law. But Koopman argues this assumes code always operates deterministically rather than probabilistically. He argues that while data may be used to permit and prohibit (e.g., prohibit certain people from entering a country), the initial data does not prohibit, forbid, or exclude, only its subsequent use does. He argues that such databases "only format that which would become warehoused as data" (pg. 168). He argues that formats do not forbid anything, while sovereign power "extinguishes ... that which is deemed impermissible" (pg. 168). Formatting states that a subject not formatted according to its terms is not nonexistent, but must try again or go another way. He argues that infopower is layered on top of previously existing modalities of sovereign power.

Harcourt's Expository Power

Harcourt theorizes that "our selves and our subjectivity ... are themselves molded by the recommender algorithms and targeted suggestions from retailers, the special offers from advertisers, the unsolicited talking points from political parties and candidates" (pg. 170). Harcourt calls this a "digital exposure ... reconstructuring the self" (pg. 170). Koopman laments that Harcourt fails to account for how the "digital relies on the informational as its historical condition of possibility" (pg. 170). Koopman focuses on this condition, how historical conditions of information have shaped contemporary subjectivity. Harcourt argues that power operates by attempting to locate each person's most accurate data double; Koopman argues that we are already composed of data, not doubled by it.

Chapter 5: Data's Turbulent Pasts and Future Paths

This final chapter engages with the role of 20th century political theories of democracy as concretizing infopower. He argues that information theory (from Claude Shannon) is actually a theory of communication "that simply assumed information as its given starting point" (pg. 181). He argues that communication is a response to information, and so it is unable to confront infopower. "Any project of communication must be dependent on prior projects of the formation of information. Without something to be communicated ... there is no prompt motivating the work of communication" (pg. 181). Information was already functioning in society when Shannon formalized it in 1948 as "a signail to be transported without concern for its possible meaning(s)" (pg. 182). He argues that information was so stable as both cultural practice and social technology that it served as a basis for a communicative culture, including entire fields of practice and inquiry, as seen in the communicative turn in the mid-20th-century in many fields (e.g., linguistics). Therefore, the information floods in the 10s and 30s "were the practical conditions from which Wiener's and Shannon's theories began" (pg. 182). "Information theory was born not as a theory of information, but as a theory of communication that simply presupposed information as the material it would transmit" (pg. 183).

From there, Koopman focuses on the emphasis of "deliberation, conversation, and discursive interaction in democratic politics," particularly as they operate within the paradigm laid out by Habermas's discourse and Rawls' public reasoning (pg. 184). He argues that if deliberative democratic theory is a useful intervention then such utility stems from how politics "presupposes previously formatted information as a stuff in need of communicative exchange" (pg. 184-185). Koopman argues we should not confront information via communicative processes; we should be confronting information itself, as the level of formats, given all information is formatted first. He argues that communication theory is unable to engage with the politics of information itself, because it relies on the notion of any information, regardless of its processiging, is necessary for rational discourse. Given this, "communicative proceduralism must also unwittingly reproduce any and all freely processes formats" (pg. 187). In other words, "any vision of a communicative politics that requires inimpeded flows of information as the basic materials for deliberative participation can only entrench existing formats, sometimes for better, and sometimes for worse" (pg. 190).

He proposes "a radicalized procedurialism that is focused on both processes of communication and the processes of information design that any and all communication presupposes" (pg. 188-189). In terms of resisting infopower, he argues that "resistance can be conducted within the operations of infopower: a resistance to this kind of fastening, a resistant to that kind of canalizing and accelerating, and a resistance that mounts these actions by repurposing and releveraging information for alternative designs" (pg. 193).