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How Our Days Became Numbered

Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual

Long before the age of "Big Data" or the rise of today’s "self-quantifiers," American capitalism embraced "risk"--and proceeded to number our days. Life insurers led the way, developing numerical practices for measuring individuals and groups, predicting their fates, and intervening in their futures. Emanating from the gilded boardrooms of Lower Manhattan and making their way into drawing rooms and tenement apartments across the nation, these practices soon came to change the futures they purported to divine.

How Our Days Became Numbered tells a story of corporate culture remaking American culture--a story of intellectuals and professionals in and around insurance companies who reimagined Americans’ lives through numbers and taught ordinary Americans to do the same. Making individuals statistical did not happen easily. Legislative battles raged over the propriety of discriminating by race or of smoothing away the effects of capitalism’s fluctuations on individuals. Meanwhile, debates within companies set doctors against actuaries and agents, resulting in elaborate, secretive systems of surveillance and calculation.

Dan Bouk reveals how, in a little over half a century, insurers laid the groundwork for the much-quantified, risk-infused world that we live in today. To understand how the financial world shapes modern bodies, how risk assessments can perpetuate inequalities of race or sex, and how the quantification and claims of risk on each of us continue to grow, we must take seriously the history of those who view our lives as a series of probabilities to be managed.

328 pages | 21 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Economics and Business: Economics--History

History: American History

History of Science

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History


"Life insurers pondered the lives of ordinary people more than any other institution during the period of America's industrialisation. In this history, Bouk sees the emergence of 'numbered' lives, foreshadowing big data. . . . This fascinating history should teach us not to be fatalistic. Big data is what we choose to make it."

New Scientist

"By the 1930s life insurance was woven so deeply into the nation's economic fabric that, when the Great Depression bit, many families were prepared to maintain their policies at almost any cost. . . . Much of Bouk's excellent work deals with the mathematical and actuarial engineering that insurers undertook between the two depressions to fortify their finances and expand their customer base."

Financial Times

"Bouk’s excellent How Our Days Became Numbered takes us back to the terrain of insurance, where he explores the technologies and calculations that actuaries, executives, and doctors used to transform individuals into 'risks'. He shows most concretely how underlying differences in power and wealth became embedded in financial techniques and assumptions. Time and again, those at the top benefit from instability while the least enfranchised are left with nothing. Inequality looms in all these works, but in Bouk’s it constitutes and reconstitutes the architecture of finance itself."

American Quarterly

"Bouk’s wonderful new book is a timely history of the roots of our contemporary situation. He explores how the American life insurance industry transitioned from its late-nineteenth century
aspirations of predicting fate to an early-twentieth century effort to master death. It is not only a
history of actuarial science, but also a cultural history of capitalism – and a surprisingly gripping
tale for an industry that many, preteens included, are liable to find dull. Bouk narrates the story
through a cast of characters who traipse through graveyards, assemble massive databases, and investigate corporate malfeasance. Statistics about life and death, he demonstrates, are anything but boring; rather, they are animated by and occasion moral debates about family, race, and the future of the nation."

Journal of Cultural Economy

"It is hard to write engagingly about insurance and the history of statistics. Bouk has succeeded in this feat.
Vivid, sometimes poetic prose, surprising examples, and memorable characters enliven the text. This is a very ambitious book."

The American Historical Review

"Bouk, a modern US historian working within a relatively new field called the history of capitalism, offers a fresh perspective. In How Our Days Became Numbered, Bouk provides insight into the development of data-driven mechanisms in consumer finance."

Science, Technology, & Human Values

"An excellent study of the profound and lasting impact of risk making on people's lives."


"Readers versed in statistical methods will find Bouk’s treatment of the Armstrong Investigation of 1905 into insurance practices interesting. The actuary Emory McClintock came under fire for his use of arcane smoothing methods, especially in determining income related to the distribution of dividends to policyholders. The smoothing methods pioneered by actuaries like McClintock and heavily criticized in the investigation have been refined and developed over the past 100 years to become a key tool in a statistician’s toolbox. Such discussions make How Our Days Became Numbered well worth the read."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"How Our Days Became Numbered provides a subtle and illuminating history of the debates and practices of the executives, actuaries, and salespeople who confronted the growing prominence and complexity of their transforming profession."

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"A valuable contribution to the recent windfall of monographs on the history of American life insurance....How Our Days Became Numbered provides a welcome and timely reminder of the treasure trove of politically relevant material that lurks in the archives of corporate America and of the insight that emerges when that record is mined by such capable hands."

Business History Review

"The core of the book is Bouk’s fascinating chapter on the role of insurance in promoting a 'modern conception of death, which, paradoxically for an industry based on predicting death, suggested a flexible and negotiable relationship with the grim reaper. With the rapidly diverging life expectancies for rich and poor, our diet fads, and our fitness apps, we are clearly the inheritors of this concept."

Journal of American History

"A fascinating account of how life insurers created statistical systems that measured the value of human life. pioneering work on the biological and scientific basis for Americans’ embrace of quantification and financial capitalism. Bouk has made a truly exciting contribution by underscoring the benefits of fusing the history of capitalism and social histories of science and professional expertise."

Reviews in American History

"How Our Days Became Numbered is an unsurpassed history of risk, statistics, and quantification in modern American life.  Focused upon the power of American corporations to remake American culture and illustrating the ways in which ordinary Americans made sense of the numbering of their lives, Bouk has written a beautiful work of cultural and intellectual history."

Jonathan Levy, Princeton University

"A key tension in modern liberal societies derives from the tendency of states, firms, and knowledge-makers to use statistical techniques to narrate individual experience. In this beautifully conceived and elegantly written book, Bouk explores this tension by examining how numbers make individuals into risks, following the key protagonists—actuaries, medical examiners, and peddlers of fate—as they sought to first forecast and then control American lives. An essential work in the burgeoning literatures on risk, numeracy, and the history of capitalism."

Greta Krippner, University of Michigan

"The history of quantification in life insurance seems like a heavy, serious topic. Bouk shows beautifully how funny it can be, and at the same time how disturbing. A well-ordered life span was needed for business purposes even more than for scientific ones, yet mortality could not easily be stabilized or reduced to an average. The brilliance of this book is in the linking of actuarial calculations of human longevity with themes of racial politics and discrimination that are so fundamental to American history."

Theodore M. Porter, University of California, Los Angeles

"How Our Days Became Numbered is a history of insurance, risk, and capitalism. Looking behind the veil at how private life insurance companies defined and priced 'life risks,' Bouk charts the deep philosophical questions, the inequalities and discrimination, the liberatory possibilities that intellectual pioneers struggled over as they built or fought the statistical infrastructure of risk. From the Panic of 1873 to the Great Depression, from life insurance to Social Security, Bouk charts the critical foundations of the world we live in today. Gripping, engaging, deeply human, and written with artistry and grace, Bouk's riveting history raises fundamental questions about corporate and state power in the reduction of individual human beings to a statistic, a risk--'the statistical individual' 'the statistical citizen'--and in the power those values have not just to predict the future, but to make it."

Barbara Welke, University of Minnesota

"Drawing on the historiographical insights of Foucault (and others), Bouk demonstrates how the discipline of quantification simultaneously 'makes' and 'reflects' new social realities. . . . the work succeeds admirably at using the historical lens of life insurance to explicate the numbering of our days."


"In How Our Days Became Numbered, Dan Bouk manages an extraordinary feat: he provides a history of life insurance that is riveting, and yes, even funny. With sparkling prose and keen insights, he examines the critical role the life insurance industry played in developing techniques of quantifying risk that have become central to contemporary life. Adding an important new dimension to the recent flurry of work on the history of insurance, risk, and capitalism, Bouk takes his readers inside the insurance corporations to understand how risk was constructed and debated as well as outside to examine moments of resistance and acquiescence. His story is at once about the development of new technologies for risk assessment and about the social meanings of these assessments...Bouk succeeds admirably, producing a nuanced history of life insurance that is a model of how to integrate the intellectual, cultural, social, and technical."

John Carson | Technology and Culture

Table of Contents

Preface: Strange Books
Chapter 1: Classing
Chapter 2: Fatalizing
Chapter 3: Writing
Chapter 4: Smoothing
Chapter 5: A Modern Conception of Death
Chapter 6: Valuing Lives, in Four Movements
Chapter 7: Failing the Future
Conclusion: Numbering in Layers
Epilogue: The Cards We Carry


Forum for the History of Science in America: Philip J. Pauly Book Prize

The Society for U.S. Intellectual History: S-USIH Annual Book Award
Honorable Mention

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