Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Questioning the Quantified Life

Quantifying Vitality

The Progressive Paradox

Jackson Lears

“The Architecture of Digestion” (detail) by Fritz Kahn (1888–1968) from Man in Structure and Function I, 1943; reproduced in Fritz Kahn: Infographics Pioneer by Uta von Debschitz and Thilo von Debschitz; Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2017.

Our days became numbered long before the rise of Big Data and algorithmic governance. Indeed, the creation of statistical selves in the service of state and corporate bureaucracies was well underway by the early twentieth century, in the midst of what US historians still call the Progressive Era (in deference to the self-description of the reformers who dominated it). Eli Cook, Sarah Igo, Dan Bouk, and other gifted young historians have begun to explore sorting and categorizing institutions that branched out from their nineteenth-century predecessors, which had focused mainly on criminals and deviants. The new sorters were more catholic in their scope—life insurance actuaries quantifying the risks of insuring individual policyholders, pollsters using survey data in an attempt to construct a “majority man” or “average American”—with their efforts culminating in the most ambitious tabulating scheme of all, the Social Security system, in 1935. (This was about the same time, the mid-1930s, when the economist Simon Kuznets was developing the concept of gross domestic product—which became the default metric for measuring the health of the body economic, down to the present.) The difference between Progressive Era biopolitics and contemporary biopolitics involves the intensification and acceleration of tendencies underway for more than a century—more powerful technology, but similar strategies for management and surveillance of the population.11xMichel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979, ed. Michel Sennelart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York, NY: Picador, 2004), summary, 317–24, lecture 7, 159–84; Eli Cook, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Sarah E. Igo, The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Dan Bouk, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Yet that was not the only difference. The meaning of statistics was complicated and darkened by the catastrophes of the mid-twentieth century. Before the 1940s, such government practices as issuing identification cards to individuals, even fingerprinting, remained bathed in a social democratic aura. What could be more benign (except to Republican Party ideologues) than Social Security? No wonder many ordinary folks, especially men, had their Social Security numbers tattooed on their biceps. The furnaces at Auschwitz had not yet been fired. During the postwar decades, in the shadow of Nazi and later Soviet dictatorship, government statistics would never look quite as benign as they had earlier in the century.

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