Dan Bouk researches the history of bureaucracies, quantification, and other modern things shrouded in cloaks of boringness. He studied computational mathematics as an undergraduate at Michigan State, before earning a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His work investigates the ways that corporations, states, and the experts they employ have used, abused, made, and re-made the categories that structure our daily experiences of being human. His first book, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago, 2015), explored the spread into ordinary Americans' lives of the United States life insurance industry's methods for quantifying people, for discriminating by race, for justifying inequality, and for thinking statistically. His recent writings put today's political and economic values of personal data in a much wider historical context and also explore the ways social scientists working with corporations and governments have rationalized the life cycle (and helped invent the "Baby Boomer"!). He's currently writing a narrative history of the U.S. Census of 1940, and sharing his discoveries at censusstories.us.
Talk: "Stories from the Inventory: The History of Personal Data in the 1940 Census"
Abstract: These days, many Americans who want to know where they come from can swab a cheek and submit their DNA for analysis. But even more turn to the census. Sitting at their local library, they begin their ancestral quests in 1940, the most recent count for which personal data have been made public. DNA analysis might seem like the tech-driven approach, but in this talk historian Dan Bouk argues that the 1940 census too must be understood as a high-tech enterprise, one that helped usher in a New Deal for Data in the US. He tells the story of the 1940 census and discusses the stories it told and still can tell about Americans.