Related News from STS

Each year MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society offers the Benjamin Siegel Writing Prize to the MIT student submitting the best written work (under 50 pages) on issues in science, technology, and society. The Prize was established in 1990 by family and friends to honor the memory of Benjamin Siegel, S.B. 1938, Ph.D. The $2500 Prize is open to undergraduate and graduate students at MIT from any department or school.

This year’s selection committee, composed of David Kaiser and Rosalind Williams, decided to award the prize this year to two papers that use compelling case studies to illustrate how information systems are also political projects:

  • “Quantifying the ‘National Physique’: Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the British National Anthropometric Survey, 1904,” by Michelle Spektor, HASTS
  • “Deprivation Codes: Mississippi’s Welfare System in the Age of Computers,” by Marc Aidinoff, HASTS

In “Quantifying the ‘National Physique’: Deterioration, Degeneracy, and the British National Anthropometric Survey, 1904,” by Michelle Spektor, HASTS, traces the emergence of plans for a national survey of body measurements of British citizens after a 1903 War Office memorandum warned that 60% of the men considered for military enlistment in the previous two years were physically unfit for service.  A national biometric survey was proposed to study reasons and possible remedies for this dismal state of national health.  As debated by anthropologists, politicians, and others, however, the proposed survey began to be discussed as a means of identifying racial characteristics that might prove superiority of a supposed British “national race.” Would the Survey become primarily a measure of nature or of nurture?

Debates over this question, and skepticism about the value of such an ambitious program, eventually dampened enthusiasm for a national anthropometric survey.  By World War I any plans for it had faded away. However, the issues it raised—especially possible connections between biometrics and national identity—were raised again in 2004 in the form of a proposed “national identity scheme” that would issue IDs linked to a national identity register.   This program was put into effect but was repealed after the 2010 elections.  In its short life it revived, without resolving, concerns about the exclusionary implications of biometric information systems.

The other prize-winning paper, also a case study of information systems that promote political objectives, is “Deprivation Codes: Mississippi’s Welfare System in the Age of Computers,” by Marc Aidinoff, HASTS.  This work begins with the now-familiar announcement by a bureaucracy that it intends to implement a modern, efficient, cost-saving computer system. In the case this announcement was made in 1987 by the State of Mississippi concerning the benefit system known as AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children).  The practical purpose of the system was to distribute practical financial support to those who needed it.  Its symbolic purpose was to demonstrate the modernization of the Deep South through its entry into the “information age.”

The new computer system, however, incorporated suspicions about the honesty of recipients, especially that of “deadbeat dads,” which gave it a coercive dimension.  Its design linked AFDC benefit payments to means of withholding income for debt collection. As the system developed, welfare benefits became connected with law enforcement. They were held up not only for overdue child support but also for other offenses such as suspended licenses.  In the end, the writer concludes, “There was no welfare state separate from the carceral state—the two were integrated as one machine.”

This evolution is presented not just as an abstract argument but as lived experience, through the work habits of a caseworker in Mississippi whose job evolved from looking into the eyes of the recipient to looking mostly at a computer screen.  Similarly, the case study of the British National Anthropometric Survey uses detailed archival evidence to trace the personalities and work experiences of the main actors. Both writers pay careful attention to the language used by the individuals and groups who are making their cases.  They also choose their own language carefully in describing the intentions and motivations of the actors involved.  Most of all, Michelle Spektor  and Marc Aidinoff focus intently on their core argument:  that information systems incorporate intentions and anxieties beyond the stated ones, and that the information age is also always an age of politics.