Tantalum Memorial, Arnolfini, Bristol UK - Photograph by Jamie Woodley

bnr#57 => Tantalum Memorial, Arnolfini, Bristol UK - Photograph by Jamie Woodley

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 the Scottish Census is being provided by CACI International, a defence contractor who provided the US Army with ‘interrogation services’ at Abu Ghraib.

After all, the late 19th century’s mechanised census tabulation system created by Hollerith (IBM's founder) and Dr. John Shaw Billings, not only saved time and reduced errors for the USA Government, but also led to the Nazi’s ‘efficient’ use of the IBM machines and assisted, through the Dutch census, to reduce the Dutch Jewish population from 140,000 in 1941 to 35,000 in 1945.

To carry out a census you need to have discovered the concept of population, which in Europe seems to have happened sometime during 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 1798, seven years after the French revolution, Thomas 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 attend the newly-founded Royal Institution lectures at 50 guineas a ticket, in an attempt to bend Natural Philosophy into a cheap way to make their land more productive, discipline society and avoid social unrest and the loss of their heads. One of these methods was census of the population.

The 21st Century descendents 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 aimed at controlling, influencing or improving what we think of and do as a population, then databases, like the earlier census, are used to inform 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 the government 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, where 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 press gang onto British Navy ships from the Thames Estuary in Essex without destroying food production for London? What is the least amount of corn I need to produce to feed the population of Manchester or Liverpool and avoid social unrest? The trajectory of the 1801 census was to create a machine in which the mechanisms of governmental power would function fully, creating a state of readiness.

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

As this is largely a Foucauldian landscape I am drawing upon, with some scrap metal, wires, steam engines and electricity thrown in, then discipline, or surveillance, 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 governance; and 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 year’s census – revealing our intimate knowledge and 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 addresses are removed.

A recent high profile example of this openness would be the publication of MPs’ allowances. The website Mpsallowances.parliament.uk allows anyone with an internet connection to view all the MPs’ expenses in something resembling a software panopticon – an equal gaze over all the MPs’ allowances in which the profligate spending of the bad may be foregrounded against the normal spending of the good.

An equalising gaze allows for the production of norms and is normally associated with technologies of power such as the census, in which the 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 innoculation against the infection carried in by its parasite MPs.

Governance in this way appeared to martyr itself in a public atonement for its own infection. In acknowledging and reflecting on its own subjugation before this machine, government enables this technology to amplify its power to create ever larger machines. ‘Look, we did it to ourselves, we are all in this together.’ The equal gaze afforded by the MPs’ expenses database implies and produces 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. Computing power, databases in particular, have inflated new forms of authority by creating new views onto information that have been processed into new forms of knowledge.

By the time of the 1801 census, Natural Philosophy a precursor to contemporary science 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 ‘generally encourage the social sciences to flourish’, applying the apparatus of reasoned enlightenment to the study of the newly discovered population.

The jewel of Natural Philosophy – steam engines – regulated 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 workers, so with 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 Statistics, sees releasing public data as a way to help people understand how government works and how policies are made. This is a move towards an equal gaze for everyone in which we all police each other, as in the case of MPs’ expenditure. HM Treasury has estimated that open data is worth £6 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 make informed decisions and put forward suggestions for government policies based on detailed information.

Within the ambition of these 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 (Opendatafoundation.org)

For ODF, transparency means being able to:

Discover the existence of data Access the data for research and analysis Find detailed information describing the data and its production processes 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 ‘rationalist’ 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 of 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 government’s radical pension reforms of last year were based on the current life expectancy figures of 77.4 years for men and 81.6 years for women. This statistic sent thousands of analysts scurrying off during their 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 – 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, 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 also where it places the user of the data.

Within the technologies of power, the database is a descendent of the census that 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 and their manifold effects. We can think of the mortality rates mentioned 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 truths 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 now embedded 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 makes a database possible), operating processes where data atoms are placed into 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 that has the potential to change the conduct of others.