When the State Chooses Not to See: The Non-Event of the National Data Center

John Bassney, University of Chicago
Elisabeth Clemens, University of Chicago

Counting, classification, and surveillance have long been central to state-building. But these activities and capacities are particularly significant for theories of the modern state, often focused on the management of populations and new modes of regulation. Although the intensification of surveillance and analysis is evident in many elements of the American state, there is a surprising absence: a centralized, integrated, national system of data collection. Such an agency was explicitly considered in the 1960s, but the proposal was met with fierce criticism. The resulting absence of state programs left a vacuum that was filled by the expansion of already-existing private capacities to monitor individual citizens and aggregate data. Through a close analysis of the three central reports and three Congressional hearings, complemented by archival analysis of key individual and corporate actors, we reconstruct this inflection point in American state-building and the consequences of a durable dependence of state action on privately-managed data systems.

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 Presented in Session 201. The Encoding and Monitoring State