Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Steam Powered Census
harwood on Thu, 31 Mar 2011 06:54:22 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Steam Powered Census

Steam Powered Census

It should be no surprise to any of us that the 2011 England and Wales
census is being conducted by Lockheed Martin, the same company that we
buy trident nuclear missiles, cluster bombs and F-16 fighter jets from,
or that Scottish Census is being provided by CACI International a
defence contractor who was contracted to provide the US Army
with"interrogation services" at Abu Ghraib. 

After allãthe late 19th centuryâs mechanised census tabulation system
of Hollerith (IBM's founder) and Dr. John Shaw Billings saved time and
reduced errors for the USA Government also led to the Nazis
âefficientâuse of the IBM machines and assisted in the Dutch census to
reduce the Dutch Jewish population from 140,000 in 1941 to 35,000 in
1945 alongside many others. 

To carry out a census you need to have discovered the concept of
population, which in Europe seems to have happened someãtime in the
enlightenment at the end of the 18th century. Population was accompanied
by other nascent technologies of power including electricity,
reciprocating engines, pneumatics, bar charts and accurate maps. 

In 1798ãseven years after the French revolutionãThomas Malthus
published his essay on the 'principle of population' suggesting that
population growth would soon outstrip supplies of food and Britain would
suffer famine, disease and other disasters. Aristocratic gentlemen with
land owning interests could be seen swarming nervously to spend 50
guineas to attend the newly founded Royal Institution lectures in an
attempt to find ways to bend Natural Philosophy into a cheap way to make
their land productive, discipline society and avoid social unrest and
the loss of their heads. One of these methods was census of the

The 21st Century ãdecendents of these specimens are increasingly trying
to convince us of the usefulness of our personal data for the public
good. (With the proviso that it is efficiently collected, quality
controlled and managed securely.) This process, we are informed, will
allow us to reap the various forms of value/benefit produced by
improving myriad forms of efficiency. If we think about government as a
series of tactics, strategies, techniques, programmes and aspirations of
those authorities who wish to control, influence or improve what we
think of and do as a population, databasesãlike that of the earlier
censusãinform various modes of thinking, decision making and acting. We
hope that the information we give up will be used in a timely manner and
hopefully help them make the best use of public finances and to evidence
decisions in a rational and reasonable manner. We also have the
expectation that this process will be as open and transparent to the
public as possible while protecting our individual privacy.

This attitude still embodies many of the arguments put forth by John
Rickman in 1798/99 as a clerk to the House of Commons in favour of the
Census Act in 1800, also known as the Population Act, were he outlined
arguments in favour of a census in which he called for the gathering of
the intimate knowledge of a country. 

The first census in 1801 ordered and disciplined population, revealing
its components, creating a knowledge that could act as a kind of remote
control on the elements it defined. How many people can I impress on
British Navy ships from the Thames Estuary, Essex without destroying
food production for London?How little corn do I need to produce to feed
the population of Manchester or Liverpool to avoid social unrest?The
trajectory of the 1801 census was to create a machine in which the
mechanisms of its power would function fully,creating a state of

The mechanisms of ordering require containers to be constructed, boxes
that discipline the item you place in it by saying what they cannot
hold. In this way constructing a container called âstreetâexcludes
living in the sea or in a forest or on the moon orãin the case of
gypsiesãby the side of the road. The empty container implies the
existence of the object that it is supposed to posses and in the
boardrooms of nascent empire juggling the containers into new machines
to fight wars, famines and plagues, they became more important than the
objects they were meant to contain. They articulated governmentâs
relation to population. 

As this is largely a Foucauldian landscape I'm drawing with some scrap
metal, wires, steam engines and electricity thrown in, discipline, or
surveillence,is always accompanied by punishment.Refusal of the form is
followed by the threat of fine or imprisonment. Recursive discipline:for
the individual to define what they are in relation to governanceïand
for government to discipline itself to create the containers through
which it will discipline the population. The completed apparatus ensures
the norm of most of us tapping at our keyboards or scratching ink into
paper in this yearâs census -revealing our intimate knowledge,our ready
acceptance of control societies.

In its increasing attempt to convince us about parting with or not
complaining too much about the use of our intimate data, government and
other enterprises have set up a number of open data initiatives of which
the census will become one more,after our names and adresses are

A recent high-profile example of this openness would be the publishing
of MP's allowances. The website mps allowances.parliament.uk allows
anyone with an internet connection to view all the MP's expenses in
something resembling a software panopticon, an equal gaze over all the
MPâs allowances in which anomalous spending of the bad may be
foregrounded against the normal spending of the good. 

An equal gaze is normally associated with technologies of power such as
the censusãin which population can be policed for health, crime,
security or be quickly made ready for war. Government,witnessing the
effectiveness of the gaze as a technology of power, turned it on itself
as an inoculation against the infection carried in by its parasite MPs.
Governance in this way appeared to martyr itself in a public atonement
for its infection. In acknowledging and reflecting on its own
subjugation before this machineãgovernment enables this technology to
amplify its power to create ever larger machines. âLookãwe did it to
ourselves, we are all in this together.âThe equal gaze afforded by the
MP's expenses databases is a set of truths, a register of moral
victories on which to build the next round in the arms race of
technologies of power. 

The use of this form of equal gaze of many eyes has steadily been
heading up the political armoury for the last decade or so as computing
power, and databases in particular, have inflated new forms of authority
by creating new views of information that have been processed into new
forms of knowledge. 

By the time of the 1801 census, Natural philosophy had become such a
tangible force in the construction of daily life that its mechanisms
could be spawned off into new processes. John Rickman proposed that the
census would âgenerally encourage the social sciences to flourishâ
applying the apparatus of reasoned enlightenment to the study of the
newly discovered population.

The jewel of Natural Philosophy, steam enginesãregulated themselves and
were seen as possessing the capacity for a universal regulation. The
machine operated at a constant unvarying speed, which in turn
communicated itself to the labour of the workforce who also had to mine
its coal, move it around, feed its furnaces and think,eat and shit at
unvarying speed. Just as the steam engine had the potential to produce
disciplined,ordered workersãthenãwith the census, social sciences
could reduce the organic stench of society into an ordered repository of
potential profit, a force for good and empire. 

Natural Philosophy,the soon-to-be science,had been disciplining nature
into truth machines, systems of ordered procedures for the production,
regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of authoritative
statements. These machines,like their iron and coal brothers and
sisters,grew by a process of breaking down objects, analysing, places,
times, movements, actions, operations that cut up space and time into
manageable chunks.

The current UK Government,through the office of National Statisticsã
sees releasing public data as a way to help people understand how
government works and how policies are made.ãThis is a move towards an
equal gaze for everyone in which we all police each other, as in the
case of MP's expenditure. HM Treasury has estimated that open data is
worth Â6 billion to the economy with data.gov.uk bringing all its
central data together in one searchable website. It believes that making
this data easily available will make it easier for people to ãinform
decisions and put forward suggestions for government policies based on
detailed information. (www.data.gov.uk)

Within the ambition of these forms of open data initiatives,especially
those of government, problems arise when we begin to consider the
prerequisites for participation which fall technically within the area
of transparency. The Open Data Foundation (ODF) suggests the following
guide for open data (www.opendatafoundation.org) 

For ODF, transparency means being to:

      * Discover the existence of data 
      * Access the data for research and analysis 
      * Find detailed information describing the data and its production
      * Access the data sources and collection instruments from which
        and with which the data was collected, compiled, and aggregated 
      * Effectively communicate with the agencies involved in the
        production, storage, distribution of the data 
      * Share knowledge with other users 

Government data produced under this notion of transparency can be viewed
as operating the ventricles of an enlightened power, interconnecting the
domains of government and population. The relative openness of the data
can be seen as an attempt to unfold ârationalistâ attempts to evidence
decisions. This transparency debate creates a protocol between
government and non-government Database Management System administrators
and ethical statistical analysts who summon the latent energies
contained in the new knowledge to power their differing political
factions. This is a data exchange between those who can already perceive
data from its modes of representation or to put it another way
understand the construction of the data and wish to exploit it as a form
of self-reflexive critique of government.

The governmentâs radical pension reforms of last year were based on the
current life expectancy figures of 77.4years for men and 81.6years for
women. This statistic sent thousands of analysts scurrying off during
lunch hour. Flurries of emails later revealed that people in Kensington
and Chelsea's life expectancy for females is 85.8 years, almost nine and
a half years more than Glasgow's 76.4:therefore the question was,who was
living longer and who would pay.

Due to historical and social formations too numerous to mention here,
the gap between the wider public's perception of data and the social
experience it attempts to model, creates a form of indifference toward
the expectations of this kind of narrative. A partial remedy for this
indifference might be found in making data more vital through taking a
more critical view of transparency. This would require seeing it, not so
much in technical terms â the protocols of the enlightened yet unequal
participants of the governed and government - but more in terms of the
data itself having some kind of agency.

Such a perspective can be imagined through a critical reading in which
we are able to see what decisions the data has informed and evidenced
and how that data has been collected, for what purpose and by whom.
Taking this thread a little further it would also be illuminating to see
in which positions the data places the subject of its records, and where
too it places the user of the data. 

Within the technologies of power, the database a descendent of the
census can be seen as an energy source, a motor of change or an
amplifier for the progression of truths within the discourses that
fabricate them. 'Truth', in this instance, should be understood as the
system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation,
distribution, circulation and operation of authoritative statements. We
can think of the mortality rates above as emanating from just such a
truth-creating machine that would be thought of as penetrating illusions
and seeing through to underlying realities. We do not have to agree with
the truth of these machines as we are not trying to say they are true to
everyone, only true to the discourses that produce them. 

The history of the census is embedded now into every machine vibrating
in every fluff-ridden pocket and on every dusty desktop. At the core of
the 21st century census lies the relational machine, (the conceptual
machine that make a database possible) operating processes where data
atoms are placed in structures of entities and relations and queries
process those atoms into information. New knowledge is formed when
government compares the information. This power then emerges as new
knowledge which has the potential to change the conduct of others. 


Centre for Cultural Studies
Goldsmiths College
University of London

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mail.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org