Hollerith Punch Card

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Socio-Historical Context

Hollerith in the Age of Biopolitics

Alexander Galloway ventures to say that the birth of biopolitics in the United States could very well be pinpointed to the 1890 census, which was the first to implement the tabulation system of Herman Hollerith (Galloway, 80). To be sure, the tabulation of information about individuals, not simply a count, was a move away from the romantic aura of the individual as free-standing, stable agent. As Walter Benjamin suggested about art some decades after 1890, the individual as an ideological remnant of Enlightenment, would soon be reconstituted by the statistical tabulation of its supposed properties—race, health, sex, etc. Indeed, in the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century, in which modernity would crystallize into its late, “full blown” form, the socio-historical “diagram” of biopolitics that Foucault outlines in Society Must Be Defended and the first volume of History of Sexuality (among other places) can be readily discerned.

As has already been commented upon, Foucault coins the term to identify the process by which governance begins to work below the level of the individual (i.e., subjectivity) to the level of life (i.e., the biological). More specifically, he argues that the 18th century is when the problem of technical knowledge emerged. The State launched a political economic struggle in order to reign in various subordinated knowledges that existed during this period, in order to select, normalize, hierarchicalize, and centralize it under the banner of a dominant (read: State), yet multiplicitous knowledge (Foucault, 180).

(1) Selection: The elimination and disqualification of economically expensive knowledges.

(2) Normalization: Making various knowledges communicate with one another and to break down the geographical and technological boundaries between them, effectively making them interchangeable.

(3) Hierarchicalization: The hierarchical classification of knowledges, thus interlocking them.

(4) Centralization: Centralization allows for knowledges to be controlled pyramidally, that is, knowledges can be transmitted upward from the bottom, and also downward from the top.

How this happens, he suggests, is through the production of populations through databasing, one in which the individual is transformed into a “dividual,” (Deleuze) signaling a new era of power, in which the masses are made into statistics, what in today’s world of the health care industry with its administrative record-keeping, for example, would be considered a cruder, less sophisticated version of bioinformatics. As Foucault says, “The disciplinarization of knowledges, and its polymorphous singularity, now leads to the emergence of a phenomenon and a constraint that is now an integral part of our society. We call it ‘science’(Foucault, 182).” In Hollerith’s system, each card represents one person, with the various punch holes representing “some particular value or meaning is assigned; a hole in one place meaning, [for example,] a white person, in another black. . . In this way, we not only recorded the answers to the twenty-six inquiries of the population schedule, but we also recorded the particular [s]tate, county, city, and enumeration-district in which the given person resided” (Hollerith, 679). As Foucault describes, the individual in the age of biopolitics is neither the individual of social contract theory nor that of the theory of rights but something quite different, inextricably tied to a “population.” “What we are dealing with in this new technology of power is not exactly society (or at least not the social body, as defined by the jurists),” Foucault writes, “nor is it the individual-as-body. It is a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted. Biopolitics deals with the population, with the population as political problem, as a problem that is at once scientific and political, as a biological problem and as power’s problem (Foucault, 245).”

The Problem of Demographic (Read: Politico-scientific) Identification in the late-19th to early-20th century

The problem of social identification was an issue that came to a boiling point during Reconstruction, after the so-called emancipation of enslaved descendants of Africans at the end of the Civil War (1861-1865). If there was any doubt before, race had become the primary “trope” (Henry Louis Gates 1993) of American life. Though slavery would be outlawed, the equally pernicious system of Jim Crow would maintain racial separation as one of the primary functions the American political apparatuses. But even prior, in the 18th century, when the institution of slavery was not debated, the status of enslaved Africans in America was a sticking point of discussion for reasons of political representation. The 3/5 clause of 1789, for example, counted slaves as 3/5 of a human in determining the allotment of representatives per congressional district. (Not to mention the well-known “one drop rule” that pronounced anyone with any African ancestry to be considered “black,” that is, as slave.) Hence, the states that would later make up the Confederacy would hold greater congressional power, based on their slave population. Moreover, it is worth noting that the racist fractional consideration of enslaved Africans did provoke a necessity of a governmental tabulation of populations in order to calculate congressional representation. Thus, Foucault’s assertion that the State would be interested in accumulating a dominant, technical knowledge would be latent until the demographic revolution, for which Hollerith’s Electrical Tabulating System would be responsible. The political quanta of citizenship would at this moment be elided with one’s status as “human.” The political and biological would from here on be interimplicated ontologically.

By the period of Reconstruction, it became necessary for the State to keep track of its populations as the Union struggled to heal its wounds while tarrying with the fundamental contradiction of Jim Crow. Black Americans were no longer slaves (hence, theoretically citizens), yet not fully human in the eyes of the law (and the majority of whites). So the maintaining of Jim Crow and later de jure segregation during Reconstruction, as W.E.B. Du Bois suggests, was a matter of reconstituting identities and identifications into fundamentally oppositional categories—black and white (not to mention the always already present oppositional categories of man and woman)(See Du Bois 1998[1935]). Institutionally, a standardized method of obtaining information about individuals was not only necessary but pressing.

The Hollerith system worked so well for the United States in the 1890 census that other countries, notably Britain, adopted it for its tenth census of 1891 (NY Times, 1891). In fact, the New York Times coverage of the discussions for the adoption of the Hollerith system is quite favorable, at numerous points describing the previous census as containing many “blunders” and “shortcomings,” which, it implies, can be avoided with the adoption of the new American system. But more interestingly, the article goes on to explain why it is compulsory for Britain to have a robust system like the Americans: “But will the same blunders and shortcomings not be repeated in England in April[when the census was scheduled to take place]? That is the question which is troubling the average Briton when census matters are being discussed. America has been teaching England many useful things in the past twenty years, and it is thought probable that some at least of Mr. Porter’s crude ideas and slipshod methods may be imitated. After the thorough manner in which these have been exposed and ridiculed such a calamity is hardly to be expected, but the idea of London, like New York, waddling along for ten years under the stigma of a ridiculously incorrect statement of its population is enough to make the most stolid Englishman feel anxious and depressed (Ibid.).” As the article suggests, having an accurate census is important not just for accuracy but for nationalist pride and mental health. Therefore, to throw off the gathering and tabulation of accurate data is not simply undesirable but also unpatriotic. As the article says of the particular status of women in census data, they are possibly “the worst offenders against the requirements of the census, or at least against that particular requirement which requires them to tell their ages,” noting that no woman has yet to be put in prison for resisting to report her proper age (Ibid.).

The Times article also enlightens some of the key biopolitical aspects of the Hollerith system as it describes the stated intentions of the British Census Office for its use. One of them is the regulation of the poor, which some contemporary authors have suggested is precisely the function the public welfare system that used to exist in the United States (pre-Clinton), and which still exists across the European Union in divergent forms (See Piven and Cloward 1993). Prior to the census, statistics on the British poor were shoddily implemented by the Overseers of the Poor, whose positions were part of the Poor Laws of the early-17th century that provided food and clothing on a superficial level but were mostly means to discipline the lowest social strata. Specifically, the article states that one of the most important pieces of information is on the number family members living in a single apartment. Interestingly enough, it interprets this statistic as beneficial for the poor, as it will aid officials to go after real estate brokers and tenement owners who falsely advertise a space the size of a closet as a room, and tackle the “evils of overcrowding.” In light of this, along with governance reaching the level of life, we could also suggest that the Hollerith system contributes to the birth of the “social problem,” which a great deal of contemporary social science research is based on. (One of sociology’s well-respected academic journals is aptly titled [Social Problems]http://ucpressjournals.com/journal.asp?j=sp.)

One such instance of the production of a population as social problem was the Third Reich’s use of Hollerith’s system. As Gotz Aly and Karl Roth suggest, the statisticians that oversaw the project of tabulating populational statistics for the Third Reich were considered “soldiers of science,” that is, they were deemed to be just as valiant as those who were fighting on the front lines (Aly and Roth, 85-98). And indeed, as the British census had, the Nazi census of 1933 was perceived to be a response to security concerns and estimates for future food production, but was in fact the most modern and efficient means of social engineering and control, specifically targeting those of “non-German ethnic backgrounds,” which was nothing more than a coded label for Jews. As the adjoining image of an advertisement from 1933 shows, the Hollerith was seen as an all-seeing, panoptic eye, watching over the German peoples.

Hollerith on Hollerith

Therefore it is unsurprising that Hollerith, in his presentation to the Royal Statistical Society on 4 December 1894 regarding the success of this tabulation system, often refers to one distinguishing feature of his system from past systems of tabulating census data—data compilation (as opposed to collection). He writes, “[W]hile we classed our population as native white, foreign white, and coloured [in the 1880 census, on which he also worked], this was extremely unsatisfactory. . . Again it was apparent that if we wished to consider the progress of the negro[for example] in regard to illiteracy, we should know the number of illiterates at each age-period” (Hollerith, 678). In contemporary statistical language, Hollerith is suggesting that his system provided cross tabulations—a joint distribution of two or more variables, an all but impossibility with the older system used by the census. In this instance, he suggests that one could track literacy through the combination of race, age-period and literacy, which in contemporary social scientific research is called “intersectional” analysis. None of this could be possible without the quantification of the collected data. Additionally, the two operations of sorting and counting could be done simultaneously, or independently of the other (Hollerith, 680).

Moreover, the particular categories of identification (of which there was a total of twenty six) that Hollerith uses throughout his address to the RSS are as random as the usage of his system for the 1890 census. He consistently goes back to several “variables,” as it were, to make his point about the efficiency and superiority of his system of data tabulation. These are age; sex; birthplace of mother; “conjugal condition” [marital status], under which the option of “divorce” is so conspicuously left off; race; citizenship status; and occupation. One of Hollerith’s major selling points for his system is the degree of specificity that it could sustain thanks to its efficiency and sophistication. As he writes, “[f]or the foreign, in addition to the above, whether a citizen or alien, and whether the person could speak English. For the coloured, a distinction as to Black, Mulatto, Quadroon, Octoroon, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian” (Hollerith, 680). One does not have to venture far to see where these categories are remediated today. They can be found in the contemporary categories of the current census as well as the General Social Survey, on which a significant amount of quantitative social science training and research is done. Though this is most clearly what Foucault calls the statistical production of populations, how this process bears on identification and identity are significant as reflected in the raciology of American public discourse. For example, with “Black” and “Mulatto” as separate categories, Hollerith (and by extension the census at large) reproduces the fundamental tension of the American conception of race. It is at the same time reproducing the contemporaneous understanding of races as biologically separable, while also conceding to the possibility of race-mixing. For if one were to suggest that an individual could be both “black” and “white,” then it could be concluded that one should give up on the category entirely. But, in actuality, Hollerith’s example of the specificity achieved by his system(which he intended to be a sign of its superiority), quite simply demonstrates in its barest form, the way in which statistical calculation of populations produces the hegemonic epistemological infrastructure of society’s understanding of itself—the Foucaultian episteme.

Popular and Trade Press on Hollerith

If one were to be wary or even downright skeptical of Hollerith’s self-representation of the tabulation system, we could investigate the way in which popular weeklies and journals such as Harper’s and Scientific American portrayed the Hollerith system to see how it was portrayed not to a scientific community, as his address to Royal Statistical Society had been, but to a business community and also the reading public.

A pictorial advertisement in an August issue of Scientific American shows five images that are “slice of life” snapshots (figuratively, they are actually drawings) organized in continuous fashion. A mustached man—conceivably a “statistics clerk”—at a desk tabulating data; that is, punching in collected data into individual punch cards using the hand-puncher. A few pictures later, you see another image with a woman in the foreground seated at a desk among other people (men and women) also tabulating data. Next to her desk are stacks of paper, assumed to be already punched cards. Below that is an image of a group of men huddled around a table of punched cards that are being thrown at a pile of stacks on the floor, with a young man struggling to stack them properly. One imagines that this is supposed to signify the level of overwhelming efficiency of the electric tabulating system that overtakes even the ability for the young man to stack the books of punched cards.

The enthusiasm for the Hollerith system is spelled in greater detail in an article published in an issue of Harper’s Weekly published on 19 August 1899. It highlights the greater efficiency and accuracy of the system in conducting the census, boasting that it will allow the census to “embrace a greater area; for the first time the inhabitants of Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico are to be included in the count” (Harper's Weekly, 821). Additionally, it congratulates the decrease in labor that the Hollerith system provides, stating that “the improvement effected by the substitution of an automatic process in this work can be judged by the fact that one machine does the labor of twenty clerks under the old system” (Ibid.). And lastly, the article highlights the accuracy of the mechanical computation, which gives the census a level of trustworthiness that is not afforded to humans, who are capable of such things as error. For example, “if one of the details—say that of sex—is not punched, the electric plunger will not register, and the automatic bell at the side of the machine which announces the completion of the record will not ring. It is, then, a comparatively easy matter to go back and supply the missing information” (Ibid.). Lastly, it is worth noting a small detail in light of the suggestion in Foucault’s argument that biopolitics is characterized by the State’s intervention and interest in producing knowledge. The article reports that “the publisher will be the government; the publication will be designated as the Twelfth Census of the United States" (Ibid.).

The success of Hollerith’s electric tabulation system for the 1890 census paved the way for businesses to become interested in Hollerith’s Electric Tabulating Machine. One such industry was the burgeoning railroad companies. An article which appeared on 19 April 1895 in the Railroad Gazette, a trade journal, is indicative of the wave of interest in Hollerith’s system after the 1890: “A number of prominent railroad accounting officers have recently examined, with much interest, an invention for doing the great mass of the figuring in a freight auditor’s office by machinery, at a considerable saving in time and expense, and with perfect accuracy; and as the devices are exceedingly ingenious, and of interest to all accounting officers, whether they are likely to use them or not” (Railroad Gazette 1895). As is the case for many of the articles in trade journals, this article on Hollerith’s system reads almost like an advertisement, though with key points highlighting the way in which the system would be beneficial for railroad accounting officers in particular. What is useful to understand about the Hollerith system in this instance is the presentation to an industrial readership as a model of record-keeping and number crunching, which is in line with Hollerith’s own rendering of the benefits of his tabulation system in his address to the Royal Statistical Society. Moreover, record-keeping is one of the fundamental characteristics of Max Weber’s ideal-type of bureaucracy, which he argues is the dominant mode of social organization in modernity (See Weber 1914). Hence, the Hollerith system is the key turning point in not only the biopolitics of demographics but the rationalization of everyday life.