The Applicant Data Card: A Brief History

This exhibition focuses on a mundane, if not obsolete technology: the United States' Employment Service's (USES) job applicant data card.

The data card was the essential information technology of the USES, an agency created in 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to provide job-matching services for unemployed Americans during the Great Depression (1929–1939).

The USES set up employment offices in cities around the country, which served as regional labor exchanges for local job seekers. USES employment counselors intended for the data card to serve as “word picture” of the applicant. It was intended to provide a potential employer with all the relevant information they might need about job candidates.

To the right is a data card describing one John P. Morrris. Below are cards that were produced during the same period, describing John C. Travis and Peter Gorski

Some questions to consider while looking over these cards: What year were these cards produced? What kinds of information do the cards contain about the workers they describe? Why might this information have been necessary during this period?

Coding the worker

How exactly did the USES turn workers into data? Typically job seekers would visit their local USES office and say that they were looking for work. An employment counselor would interview them. The goal of the interview was to collect key information about their work history, skills, and other relevant experiences. This information would be recorded on the data card. Training guide for employment counselors emphasized that the data card should serve as a “word picture” of the applicant. It was intended to provide a potential employer with all the relevant information they might need to know about the individual applying for the job.

The kinds of information included on these cards, and which job applicants were asked to provided to counselors, changed over time as new technological systems, institutional imperatives, and sciences of work took hold within the USES. One of the most important changes that occurred within the USES was the adoption of computers to record and store data and to automate the work of matching applicants to jobs. The USES took up computing amidst a widespread enthusiasm for new information technologies to eliminate human bias from the work of governance. The appeal of computational objectivity” led government officials to plan computerized identification systems across various arms of American bureaucracy after World War II.

In 1969, technology consultant and social scientist Gordon Davies articulated the core dilemma of these projects: how exactly should government agencies “describe men to machines”? The success of government computers systems, he argued, depended on the kinds of descriptors that human programmers built into them to classify American citizens. To manage the complex social problems of the postwar period, these classification systems needed to be specific enough to match citizens of diverse needs and backgrounds with appropriate government services, while also avoiding the reproduction of the very inequalities they were intended to address.

The case of computing in the USES can serve as entryway into understanding the co-constitution of race, computation, and social power in the postwar United States. How government did government officials, computing experts, and racial justice activists reconcile a vision of bias-free computerized governance with the altogether human work of developing descriptive systems to identify, enumerate, and classify diverse citizens?

Data and Difference

The data card was also central to the USES efforts to mitigate discrimination on the labor market, particulary against Black Americans and women. As Black Americans and other marginalized groups organized movements against racial discrimination within American society, the affordances particular to emerging information technologies offered USES officials a vision of racial equality achieved through computational methods. For the bureaucrats charged with overseeing government employment programs, computerized job-matching promised to transform how the state identified American citizens and found employment to them. Per this vision, computers would serve as disinterested decision-makers, processing and acting on citizens’ personal data in a manner lacking subjective interpretation or racial bias, in stark contrast to human bureaucrats. The appeal of computing’s “mechanical objectivity” led government officials to plan computerized matching systems across the federal employment service. However, as the development of these systems did not always align with the visions of unbiased and objective technological governance. Take the two cards below, one handwritten in 1944 and the other a mock-up of a data card as displayed on a computer terminal in 1976, as an example

One of the most important differences between the two cards was the complete removal of racial classification by the time applicant data was computerized in 1976. The system had been consciously designed not to “see” race. No keywords were available in the system to record the racial, religious or ethnic background of applicants. Thus, when applicant data was retrieved from the central databank to identify a potential job-match, the system’s programming sought to ensure that there was no possibility of discrimination against a particular individual or job because of these characteristics. Technical manuals for USES counselors celebrated how the system’s “programming” resolved concerns around discrimination through "adherence to a carefully structured, orderly and logical sequence of data inputs regarding applicant and job characteristics."

Through this new system, USES officials believed they had found an adequate answer to the barriers to employment caused by racial discrimination, allowing jobseekers to be evaluated at a level that was more than just skin-deep. Yet if the new system putatively removed overt discrimination from the job-matching process, race was too deeply ingrained into the structure of American society for it to ever fully be automated away. As commentators pointed out, the racial organization of American society created barriers for placing Black workers in jobs, even after the removal of racial classification from USES systems.

There were several ways in which racial structures continued to "haunt" the colorblind computing system, and in fact contemporary commentators have written much on the dangers of "race-blind" systems that end up reifying the very disparities they are intended to address. What has most interested me, however, is the category of worker traits which were primarily used by special service and counseling units as a search alternative to work experience or aptitude keywords for applicants with minimal employment histories. These were called the negative temperaments (or NEG-TNPTS in the mock card above). Whereas the listing of aptitudes indicated the potential range of jobs that a qualified applicant would thrive in, the negative temperaments indicated the kinds of work that hard-to-match jobseeker would likely find too difficult or overwhelming. I originally did not think too much of this until I came across reference ina report on a 1971 study commissioned by the Labor Department (the home agency of the USES in the federal government) that purported to identify the common psychological characteristics of those who “escape the ghetto.”

The study, the full title of which is “A Study of Successful Persons from Seriously Disadvantaged Backgrounds,” identifies several traits that are the near inversed images of the negative temperaments that were standardized and coded into the job-matching system. Whereas the studied concluded that the successful ghetto-dweller engages in risk-taking behavior, the negative temperaments suggested that hard-to-match applicant did not perform well in emergency, critical, unusual or dangerous situations. Where the successful ghetto-dweller was aware of alternative paths according to the study, the one of the negative temperaments was a dislike like variety or change in work duties and tasks. The list continues. Successful individual: Has supportive, inspiring relationships and a questioning orientation towards life and other people; hard-to match: cannot deal with people beyond giving and receiving instructions. Perhaps the most important distinction: while the successful individual possesses a sense of self, pride, and the feeling of being somebody, the difficult to match cannot convey any interpretation of their own feelings, ideas or facts in terms of a personal viewpoint.

Where traditional forms of work classification were unhelpful, the dichotomy between (in the words of the study) “the successful identity which transcends the ghetto” and the one which remains trapped in it helped structure a distinction between who was and who was not worthy of work in the postwar economy.