How Our Days Became Numbered

Review by Clive Cookson of ‘How Our Days Became Numbered’, by Dan Bouk in the Financial Times: “The unemployed lumber worker whose 1939 portrait adorns the cover of How Our Days Became Numbered has a “face fit for a film star”, as Dan Bouk puts it. But he is not there for his looks. Bouk wants us to focus on his bulging bicep, across which is tattooed “SSN 535-07-5248”: his social security number.

The photograph of Thomas Cave by documentary photographer Dorothea Lange illustrates the high water mark of American respect for statistical labelling. Cave was so proud of his newly issued number that he had it inked forever on his arm.

When the Roosevelt administration introduced the federal social security system in the 1930s, it worked out rates of contribution and benefit on the basis of statistical practices already established by life insurance companies. The industry is at the heart of Bouk’s history of personal data collection and analysis — because it worked out how to measure and predict the health of ordinary Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (More)”