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How We Became Our Data

A Genealogy of the Informational Person

We are now acutely aware, as if all of the sudden, that data matters enormously to how we live. 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?
In How We Became Our Data, Colin Koopman excavates early moments of our rapidly accelerating data-tracking technologies and their consequences for how we think of and express our selfhood today. Koopman explores the emergence of mass-scale record keeping systems like birth certificates and social security numbers, as well as new data techniques for categorizing personality traits, measuring intelligence, and even racializing subjects. This all culminates in what Koopman calls the “informational person” and the “informational power” we are now subject to. The recent explosion of digital technologies that are turning us into a series of algorithmic data points is shown to have a deeper and more turbulent past than we commonly think. Blending philosophy, history, political theory, and media theory in conversation with thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, and Friedrich Kittler, Koopman presents an illuminating perspective on how we have come to think of our personhood—and how we can resist its erosion.

272 pages | 19 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History of Science

Media Studies

Philosophy: General Philosophy, Philosophy of Society, Political Philosophy

Political Science: Political and Social Theory


"The book is extremely readable, so much so that any undergraduate can grasp its main points and digest its evidence. The book is essential for those of us who practice genealogy and those of us who study Foucault's work, but it should be very useful for less specialized readers. It provides a timely and very important perspective on contemporary society, one that may become especially significant as we develop the tracking tools necessary to stem the current coronavirus pandemic. Koopman has my gratitude for this important piece of work."

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Koopman examines data collection, as well as the human adoption of such data to represent individual identity, in order to make such practices visible before data becomes our second nature. . . . Koopman’s analysis reaches a crescendo when the story turns to personal data’s implications. He invites us to think about the thousands of boxes we’ve ticked over our lifetimes, beside which are written the conventional words of racial taxonomy. The data collected from these boxes is used to build correlations, supporting all manner of political and economic programs."

Public Books

"When did we become our data? Bridging research concerning informatics qua intelligence testing with the bureaucratization of paperwork vis-à-vis the universalization of standardized birth certificate forms, Koopman traces an arachnean genealogy that weaves together the datafication of birth, personality, and race. . . . Koopman’s genealogical approach to algorithmic data qua public health and knowledge practices demonstrates that 'surface politics' such as human welfare projects and official policies are, in fact, brimming with politically dormant exigencies."

Theory & Event

"Drawing from Foucault – both methodologically and conceptually – Koopman advances . . . original claims that have the ambition to transform some of the most deeply rooted assumptions in the field of data politics. . . . Koopman’s book is a rigorous, original, and timely contribution to contemporary political theory."

Daniele Lorenzini | Contemporary Political Theory

"Koopman explores the history of data tracking technology, detailing the emergence of mass-scale recording systems and techniques for categorising personality traits, measuring intelligence and ‘radicalizing’ subjects. These early developments contributed to the creation of the ‘informational person’ who is today subject to ‘informational power’, he says."


How We Became Our Data is a landmark contribution to contemporary philosophy of subjectivities and a must-read for anyone interested in the digital age. Koopman masterfully traces the birth of the informational person, meticulously excavating the informatic archives of the early twentieth century—from birth registration to personality testing to racial data on real estate and crime—to demonstrate how we have become our data today. Koopman develops a provocative new model of how power circulates in the informational age, providing an essential link between the statistical and confessional model of the nineteenth century and the digital profiling of the twenty-first.”

Bernard E. Harcourt, author of Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age

“Of all the critical accounts of our becoming subjects of and to data, Koopman’s is the most unsettling—which is to say, the most necessary. We simply cannot understand the crisis of the present without the two inextricable stories presented in this book: how the concept of information emerges as the necessary precondition for the ‘information society’ and how our lives have become almost unthinkable without the sociotechnical apparatus of documents. That this is ultimately an affirmative and even mobilizing tale, instead of a paralyzing horror, is a credit to Koopman’s narrative skill and meticulous scholarship.”

Rita Raley, author of Tactical Media

“Brilliant. Urgent. Essential. Koopman’s study of the genealogy of our future-present selves, and how we became these informational artifacts, is crucial to developing new critical knowledges for politics, for aesthetics, and for life.”

Davide Panagia, author of The Political Life of Sensation

"How We Became Our Data looks at the design and uptake of three information formats in the United States between 1913 and 1937: birth certificates, personality tests, and real estate appraisal templates...a welcome provocation to think historically and politically about the problems we face as 'informational persons.' Koopman’s concept of 'infopower' provides a way of talking about the con-sequences of the design and use of information formats."

Gregory Laynor | The Information Society

"In his How We Became Our Data: A Genealogy of the Informational Person, Koopman examines early evidence of data and the consequences it has on how we think and express ourselves today. His book looks at those moments when data structures — such as those involved in birth certificates or social security numbers — become obligatory."

Eugene Weekly

Table of Contents


Introduction: Informational Persons and Our Information Politics

Part I: Histories of Information

1. Inputs
“Human Bookkeeping”: The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913–1937
2. Processes
Algorithmic Personality: The Informatics of Psychological Traits, 1917–1937
3. Outputs
Segregating Data: The Informatics of Racialized Credit, 1923–1937
Part II: Powers of Formatting

4. Diagnostics
Toward a Political Theory for Informational Persons
5. Redesign
Data’s Turbulent Pasts and Future Paths
List of Figures

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