“Human Bookkeeping”: The Informatics of Documentary Identity, 1913–1937
The central argument of How We Became Our Data is that over the past century we have become informational persons whose lives are increasingly conducted through an information politics. This chapter tracks emergent informational persons in the contexts of the bureaucratizing paperwork of the standardized birth certificate in the United States. Haphazard at the turn of the last century, the standardization of birth registration took three decades of effort beginning in 1903, and involved a panoply of agencies including the Census Bureau, the Children’s Bureau, the American Medical Association, and the American Child Health Association. The project was considered completed when, in 1933, every state was registering 90 percent of its births. Shortly after the development of the informational infrastructure that made this early ‘Big Data’ project possible, the Social Security Board would assign Social Security numbers to more than 90 percent of eligible American workers in just three months in the Winter of 1935. Building on the work of political scientist James Scott, this chapter attends to the formats of birth certificates and standard registration in order to excavate the informational conditions at the heart of the most important moments of registration in the lives of Americans today.
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