Forms of Equivalence: Bertillonnage and the History of Information Management

Alison Langmead

Late in the nineteenth-century, the French civil servant and anthropologist, Alphonse Bertillon, developed a system of criminal identification that sought to classify human beings on individual standardized cards, each containing a consistent set of biometric measurements and observations. This process, which came to be known as “Bertillonnage,” disassembled the visual forms of the human body into pieces of data that the police could then use to individuate, and thus identify, a single human body out of millions. In our paper, we investigate Bertillonnage as an information system that exemplified the most sophisticated approaches to organizing and retrieving data at the turn of the twentieth century. In addition, we demonstrate that the techniques it implemented—which turned on a functional equivalence between the operations of information systems and the human mind—made thinkable a number of subsequent practices well-known to the history of information management. We argue that the physical infrastructure of Bertillonnage served as a set of grubby material practices that exercised a form of technological inertia over later information architectures. Without suggesting a direct, causal relationship, we note that certain of the imperatives and strategies that governed the history of modern digital computing, which scholars have long asserted grew out of the nineteenth-century culture of information, also structured core features of Bertillonnage. Since Bertillonnage is almost always discussed within the framework of the humanities and the history of photography, treating this system in relation to the history of information sciences occasions an overlap between two normally distinct scholarly spheres. This work arose from a collaboration between a digital humanities practitioner whose research agenda focuses on the history of the information sciences and a colleague who focuses on the history of photography and the history of scientific representation.