Questionnaire by Evan Kindley

Questionnaire BY Evan Kindley. New York: Bloomsbury Academic. . $15.
The cover of Questionnaire

Francis Galton was an idealist. He was a scientist, a gentleman, and a reformer. He dreamed, according to Evan Kindley, of “a world remade by asking the right questions.” In 1870, he looked to realize that dream, submitting a seven-page set of questions to 180 of his colleagues in the British Royal Society in which he asked after their education, their temperament, ancestry, religion—even the rim size of their hats. In the years that followed, he would become the “founding father of questionnaire research,” writing several books based on his surveys of his friends and of strangers, and establishing “the self-report questionnaire in the United Kingdom as a legitimate instrument for the collection of empirical data.”

He did all of this in pursuit of a perfect society. Once an “exact stocktaking of the nation” was achieved, Galton believed, it would at last be possible to engineer the ideal country. As it happens, Galton was also a eugenicist. His ideal nation depended on the reproduction of “hereditarily remarkable” individuals and the improvement of “the inborn qualities of a race,” by which he meant the white race, with the purportedly inferior—the poor, the foreign, the Jewish—discouraged from having any children at all.

The story of Francis Galton begins the story of Questionnaire, Evan Kindley’s new entry into “Object Lessons,” a series from Bloomsbury “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” They are ordinarily less abstract. Prior entries include Hotel, Shipping Container, Bread, Bookshelf, Hair, and Hood, but Questionnaire departs. It is not, precisely, an object so much as a medium, and in many cases—opinion polls, BuzzFeed quizzes—not physically an object all. But Kindley’s approach keeps with the spirit and method of the series, tracking the evolution of this particular thing—in this case, standardized sets of questions designed to elicit self-report, and the question of whether or not self-reported answers, no matter how well-designed, no matter how robust their sample, can ever be entirely honest or accurate—over the history of its existence.

Kindley does an admirable job of presenting that history, especially given that Object Lesson entries are, as a rule, very short. (Even with the pocket-sized dimensions of 4.75” x 6.5”, Questionnaire runs only 168 pages). Beginning with Galton, Kindley follows the questionnaire from the Royal Society to the Victorian English bourgeoisie, who amused themselves with “confession albums,” (sample question: “Do you believe in marrying for love and working for money?”) and the Proust Questionnaire (“Your favorite virtue?”), and into the twentieth century’s Army assessments (“Why ought every man to be educated?”), personality inventories like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (“Do you prefer to (a) eat to live or (b) live to eat?”) and Scientology’s Oxford Capacity Analysis (“Would you prefer to be in a position where you did not have the responsibilities of making decisions?”), Adorno’s F-Scale for measuring authoritarian impulses (Agree or Disagree: “No insult to our honor should ever go unpunished”) , Cosmo quizzes (“Have you said or thought ‘It’s all my fault’ more than once this week?”) and Gallup polls (“If the Presidential election were held today, which candidate would you vote for?”), before concluding in our own century, with online dating (“Do you have a TV in your bedroom?”), BuzzFeed quizzes (“Which Generation/City/Country/Job/Band/Harry Potter House do you really belong in?”), and, finally, into Kindley’s fear of a future where the mass collection of a personal data has become a kind of permanent questionnaire, with self-report no longer very voluntary.

Kindley’s style is narrative and engaging while remaining academically rigorous. In the course of telling the questionnaire’s history, Kindley includes some excellent trivia (Galton, the racist, also invented the still-ubiquitous “baby book”; “pollster” was invented as an epithet, a play on “huckster”). There are moments of tenderness, a brief academic history of standardized forms, particularly in his discussion of Scientology’s Oxford Capacity Analysis and its role in the 2008 suicide of a Norwegian college student named Kaja Ballo.

For Kindley, questionnaires tend toward two types: the trivial, and the pernicious.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), for example, is trivial: It doesn’t possess any particular scientific or psychological value, but it is largely harmless, too. The test aims to flatter its takers, reflecting the “insistent belief” of its creator, Isabel Briggs Myers, “that no one type was better than another, that everyone had a different set of ‘gifts’ to contribute to the world.” At best, the MBTI might make someone feel better, or better understood. At worst, Kindley writes, “there are worse things than a waste of time.”

Then, there are the pernicious, like the “widely used Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale,” an outgrowth of psychological testing commissioned by the American Army to assess fitness for combat and later adapted for the business world, part of the scientific management of the workplace popular in the mid-twentieth century. The Humm, which sorted subjects into seven categories (“Hysteriod,” “Manic,” “Depressive,” “Autistic,” “Paranoid,” “Epileptoid,” and, at last, “Normal”), was, according to Kindley, a set of “elaborately designed traps that it was almost impossible not to fall into” and its purpose was anti-unionism. “The 1935 National Labor Relations Act made it illegal to ask prospective employees directly about union affiliations, but certain antisocial personality traits assumed to be linked to radicalism could be identified and used to screen out agitators and other troublemakers,” Kindley writes. Ultimately, “it was cheaper to treat unionism as a psychological problem than it was to raise wages.”

In Questionnaire’s final chapter, Kindley turns towards the future, and worries that these two trends have at last successfully combined in the form of massive data collection via the social web. “In the mid-1950s, American white-collar workers took personality tests when they were forced to by their superiors; six decades later, we take them and retake them, voluntarily, almost every single day of our lives,” Kindley writes. “There is nothing preventing the quiz publisher from logging this data and selling it—perhaps with a detour through a third-party data broker … back to the bored workers’ employer,” where it may be used “to rationalize changes in hiring, management, or corporate strategy. It could be used to justify targeted layoffs: not by ratting out individual underachievers … but by constructing types and categories of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ workers.”

The data is, at last long last, truly available. It even seems fun.

“The politics of Big Data are still up for grabs,” Kindley concludes, “though it’s difficult to believe that things won’t ultimately tilt in the direction of management rather than labor. Bosses will probably prefer pouring money into data analytics—just as they once did into personality tests—to raising wages.”

Or, as Kindley puts it in his introduction: “Today we are both more suspicious and more careless than our seventeenth-century forebears. Our attitudes toward the mass collection of personal data veer wildly, day to day, from avidity to anger to resignation and back again. We know that ‘they’ are watching us and we are outraged and we don’t care.”

Of course, this is not an original worry: the pervasive, vaguely Orwellian character of Big Data is among is the first world’s most pronounced animating anxieties. It is a worry I share, but in reading Questionnaire, I was put in mind of another—not explicitly named, but more remarkable and more troubling: the possibility, already somewhat realized, of a world where the collection of facts is not a means to some nefarious end, but the empty end itself.

We learn early on in the book that the first questionnaires were not terribly reliable. Response rates were so low that a workable sample size could not be achieved (Representative sample sizes, of course, differ by study and in the eighteenth-century, statistics was not yet very thoroughly defined. But these researchers were not facing technical problems: as Kindley puts it, they had “return rates approaching zero. When they came back at all, the respondents often expressed skepticism toward the entire enterprise”). Yet researchers persisted. “Throughout the eighteenth and even into the nineteenth century, the questionnaire was less a viable research technique than a utopian literary genre, linked to an idea of the scientific perfection of society. A better world could be realized, reformers dreamed … if we could simply get people to fill out the necessary forms.”

Kindley does not refer back to the utopian literary genre, but the dream of a better world persists. Every instance of the questionnaire, from the eugenic projects of Francis Galton, to Gallup’s first polls and Adorno’s F-scale for detecting fascism, all the way through to the promises of internet dating services is animated in part by the belief that this, at long last, will provide the information necessary to engineer an ideal society. Even in the most pernicious cases—say, Scientology’s Oxford Capacity Analysis—some noble intention persists: surely the Scientologists, at least, believe that driving people into the arms of their cult will ultimately improve them. While online dating programs are presented as a tool for personal gain, there is always a broader, “disruptive” subtext: This isn’t just a good way for you to meet people, it’s a better way for people to meet people.

But in every case, the project fails. Scientology is a destructive cult. Employee personality tests terrified workers and brutalized unions. Adorno’s F-scale could be refashioned to craft fascist messaging, polls showing who is winning to replace who ought to win. Today, the utopian literary genre is as valorized as ever: data will allow marketing on an individual level, will allow elections to be won by way of turnout analytics, will allow government by pure technocracy, the precision targeting of interest rate adjustments and drone strikes.

What were once tools used in service of answers have become answers in and of themselves. Politics will be solved once everybody accepts the proper facts. Once everyone sees the right charts. Once everyone stops lying about the data. Liberalism today envisions itself as pragmatism incarnate—no ideology, only a sensible and honest reckoning with facts. But facts only tell us what kind of world we have. It’s a fine thing to know, but for all the sober realism in the world, it cannot tell you what to make of it. We’ve seen the result of this confusion, a politics dedicated to the proposition that the best government is the government that makes present economic and social conditions as efficient as possible, denying the possibility that there is any other goal worth pursuing. You cannot gather efficiency data on possibilities not yet realized.

We know: You cannot derive an is from an ought. But you cannot derive an ought from an is, either.

Kindley worries about a world where the totalizing survey will be used for evil ends. We all do. But I wonder if we shouldn’t worry more about the world where the survey is the end itself, where the is eclipses the ought entirely, where we know, precisely, what every person wants, and want only to sell them so much of it as possible. Where the purpose of all this information is an afterthought, an accident with consequences surveyed, recorded, and accepted without action, forever.

Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Iowa City. His previous work has appeared in the New Republic, The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor) and elsewhere. Follow him on twitter @emmettrensin