The Expansion of the Collection and Analysis of Information

The collection, organization, distribution, and analysis of data on a large scale is something we take for granted in the world today, particularly in the United States. It is something we deal with constantly—our social security numbers, our student IDs, our census data, our GPAs, our purchasing preferences, etc. are all information collected for the purpose of running large-scale organizations like the United States Government, Amazon, or even the College of Wooster. In our first reading this semester, This Fleeting World, David Christian identifies increasingly complex and powerful governments as one of the key features of the modern era; “no government of the agrarian era tried to track the births, deaths, and incomes of all the people it ruled or to impose compulsory schooling; yet many modern governments handle these colossal tasks routinely” (p. 62). His argument is that the demands of modern society, from overseeing massive populations to managing equally massive entities such as schooling and the economy, require the collection and digestion of detailed information on a scale that was previously unimaginable.

In the introduction of his book Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, Bernard S. Cohn describes how and why Britain developed the first bureaucracy that had the capacity and desire to gather and interpret this level of information. According to Cohn, “many aspects of metropolitan documentation projects were first developed in India (by the British)” (p. 4). Regardless of British intentions—be they benevolent, malevolent, or stemming from a simple desire for understanding—the expansion of the administrative functions and processes in the British governing of India, as is the case with many innovations across history, was brought about by a desire to divide people rather than bring them together and ultimately became little more than the weaponization of information. Both Bernard Cohn and professor Bonk address the issues resulting from Britain’s attempt to understand the people of India. Through incompetence, generalizations, and oversimplifications, Britain managed to divide South Asia more thoroughly than if they had taken a massive pair of scissors and cut it down the middle (which they eventually kind of did).

Despite what happened in South Asia, this characteristic of governance has become absolutely critical to the functioning of any large organization existing in the current world climate. The identification and classification of people and entities is far too convenient for both the organizations and the people that interact with them. The information gathered informs decisions and policies and provides benefits to the people classified. Imagine what paying taxes would be like if the government did not know who anyone was, what their income looked like, how many dependents they had, etc.; it would be hectic. The mistake of the British in India was not that they collected information and classified people; it was how they interpreted that information, the way the classified those people, and the fact that they used these to inform policy. Fundamentally, the disaster in South Asia was a result of the ruling body acting without understanding the situation and making uninformed decisions.

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