Skip links

Population Improvement 2.0

In the early 20th century, population improvement was a ‘normal’ phenomenon. Racial theories and the granting of specific qualities to specific groups were not unusual. In his book entitled ‘Lentz’, philosopher and film maker Jurriën Rood describes how lawyer and professor Methorst, who was the director of Statistics Netherlands (CBS) in the twenties of the previous century, wanted to use statistics for the improvement and planning of population. Later on, Sjaak Lentz, the main character of the philosophical biography, played an important role in Methorst’s plans. He was to help statistics by introducing a personal index card and adding it to the system of the population register in the years leading up to the Second World War. That was followed by the identity card. Anyone who knows a little bit about history, knows that Lentz’s registration system had disastrous consequences for the Jews in the Netherlands during the Second World War. The occupier even praised Lentz’s excellent method of registration and the ease with which Jewish wanted lists could be drawn up.

What struck me as a reader is that the choices that were made in the draft of the registration, as Rood describes them, are not so different from present choices. It is clear that Lentz, who was not an anti-Semite or a confirmed sympathiser of the occupier, wanted to make a very good system.

His focus on ‘paper people’ is typical of Lentz. He wanted to use personal index cards to get a paper representation of flesh-and-blood people. The consequence of his working method is that he subsequently started to care more about the paper people and no longer saw the people that it was really all about. The paper people were not an innocent copy of the flesh-and-blood people. It became a control mechanism for singling out and destroying people.

Now you may say that this is all about the ‘past’, ‘no longer relevant’ or that ‘things will not get this bad again’. Are you sure?

In my opinion, this history about an analogous system is a big warning about all sensitivities involved in working with digital data. How do we ensure that digital profiles do not start to live a separate life of their own, and become more important than people of flesh and blood?

What is going on right now, is not the improvement of population groups or races. That is not the way of thinking anymore. Now it is about the behaviour of individuals. Statistics (i.e. algorithms) are used to monitor, control and direct at individual level.

The current conduct and way of thinking comes dangerously close to population improvement.

This column is a translated version of the original text in Dutch that was published in iBestuur Magazine (#43, juli 2022).

Photo by Berend van Rossum on Unsplash