How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual

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9780226259178: How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual
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Long before the age of "Big Data" or the rise of today's "self-quantifiers," American capitalism embraced "risk"--and proceeded to number our days. Life insurers led the way, developing numerical practices for measuring individuals and groups, predicting their fates, and intervening in their futures. Emanating from the gilded boardrooms of Lower Manhattan and making their way into drawing rooms and tenement apartments across the nation, these practices soon came to change the futures they purported to divine.

How Our Days Became Numbered tells a story of corporate culture remaking American culture--a story of intellectuals and professionals in and around insurance companies who reimagined Americans' lives through numbers and taught ordinary Americans to do the same. Making individuals statistical did not happen easily. Legislative battles raged over the propriety of discriminating by race or of smoothing away the effects of capitalism's fluctuations on individuals. Meanwhile, debates within companies set doctors against actuaries and agents, resulting in elaborate, secretive systems of surveillance and calculation.

Dan Bouk reveals how, in a little over half a century, insurers laid the groundwork for the much-quantified, risk-infused world that we live in today. To understand how the financial world shapes modern bodies, how risk assessments can perpetuate inequalities of race or sex, and how the quantification and claims of risk on each of us continue to grow, we must take seriously the history of those who view our lives as a series of probabilities to be managed.

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About the Author:

Dan Bouk is assistant professor of history at Colgate University and a member of the Historicizing Big Data working group at the Max Planck Institute for History of Science.

Review:

"Life insurers pondered the lives of ordinary people more than any other institution during the period of America's industrialisation. In this history, Bouk sees the emergence of 'numbered' lives, foreshadowing big data. . . . This fascinating history should teach us not to be fatalistic. Big data is what we choose to make it." (New Scientist)

"By the 1930s life insurance was woven so deeply into the nation's economic fabric that, when the Great Depression bit, many families were prepared to maintain their policies at almost any cost. . . . Much of Bouk's excellent work deals with the mathematical and actuarial engineering that insurers undertook between the two depressions to fortify their finances and expand their customer base." (Financial Times)

"Bouk’s excellent How Our Days Became Numbered takes us back to the terrain of insurance, where he explores the technologies and calculations that actuaries, executives, and doctors used to transform individuals into 'risks'. He shows most concretely how underlying differences in power and wealth became embedded in financial techniques and assumptions. Time and again, those at the top benefit from instability while the least enfranchised are left with nothing. Inequality looms in all these works, but in Bouk’s it constitutes and reconstitutes the architecture of finance itself." (American Quarterly)

"Bouk’s wonderful new book is a timely history of the roots of our contemporary situation. He explores how the American life insurance industry transitioned from its late-nineteenth century
aspirations of predicting fate to an early-twentieth century effort to master death. It is not only a
history of actuarial science, but also a cultural history of capitalism – and a surprisingly gripping
tale for an industry that many, preteens included, are liable to find dull. Bouk narrates the story
through a cast of characters who traipse through graveyards, assemble massive databases, and investigate corporate malfeasance. Statistics about life and death, he demonstrates, are anything but boring; rather, they are animated by and occasion moral debates about family, race, and the future of the nation." (Journal of Cultural Economy)

"It is hard to write engagingly about insurance and the history of statistics. Bouk has succeeded in this feat.
Vivid, sometimes poetic prose, surprising examples, and memorable characters enliven the text. This is a very ambitious book." (The American Historical Review)

"Bouk, a modern US historian working within a relatively new field called the history of capitalism, offers a fresh perspective. In How Our Days Became Numbered, Bouk provides insight into the development of data-driven mechanisms in consumer finance." (Science, Technology, & Human Values)

"An excellent study of the profound and lasting impact of risk making on people's lives." (Choice)

"Readers versed in statistical methods will find Bouk’s treatment of the Armstrong Investigation of 1905 into insurance practices interesting. The actuary Emory McClintock came under fire for his use of arcane smoothing methods, especially in determining income related to the distribution of dividends to policyholders. The smoothing methods pioneered by actuaries like McClintock and heavily criticized in the investigation have been refined and developed over the past 100 years to become a key tool in a statistician’s toolbox. Such discussions make How Our Days Became Numbered well worth the read." (Journal of Interdisciplinary History)

"How Our Days Became Numbered provides a subtle and illuminating history of the debates and practices of the executives, actuaries, and salespeople who confronted the growing prominence and complexity of their transforming profession." (Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences)

"A valuable contribution to the recent windfall of monographs on the history of American life insurance....How Our Days Became Numbered provides a welcome and timely reminder of the treasure trove of politically relevant material that lurks in the archives of corporate America and of the insight that emerges when that record is mined by such capable hands." (Business History Review)

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