Who made life risky? In his dynamic new book, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual
(University of Chicago Press, 2015), historian Dan Bouk
argues that starting in the late nineteenth century, the life-insurance industry embedded risk-making within American society and American psyches. Bouk is assistant professor of history at Colgate University, and his new book shows how insurers categorized individuals and grouped social classes in ways that assigned monetary value to race, class, lifestyles, and bodies. With lively prose, Bouk gives historical context and character to the rise of the "statistical individual" from the Guided Age to the New Deal. Bouk's primary argument is that risks did not always already exist, nor was risk invented by the medical establishment. Instead, the threat (and reality) of economic crisis helped insurers to create risk as a commodity, and eventually to control the lives it measured. As Bouk phrases it in the interview, "Insurers improved their bottom line by improving Americans' bottom lines." Bouk invites readers critically to reflect upon how we have come to see ourselves through a statistical lens in our daily lives-- an issue of continued relevance in the age of big data and vast analytical capabilities.