Technopolitics of the U.S. census

April 5, 2021


Statistics  /  ,

Dan Bouk and Danah Boyd wrote an essay on the data infrastructure and politics behind the decennial census:

Like all infrastructures, the U.S. decennial census typically lives in the obscurity afforded by technical complexity. It goes unnoticed outside of the small group of people who take pride in being called “census nerds.” It rumbles on, essentially invisible even to those who are counted. (Every 10 years, scores of people who answered the census forget they have done so and then insist that the count must have been plagued by errors since it had missed them, even though it had not.) Almost no one notices the processes that produce census data—unless something goes terribly wrong. Susan Leigh Star and Karen Ruhleder argue that this is a defining aspect of infrastructure: it “becomes visible upon breakdown.” In this paper, we unspool the stories of some technical disputes that have from time to time made visible the guts of the census infrastructure and consider some techniques that have been employed to maintain the illusion of a simple, certain count.

This process, whether we know what’s going on or not, in turn affects voices and democracy across the country. So it’s kind of important.