Alma Steingart is an assistant professor of history at Columbia University, where she focuses on the interplay between politics and mathematical rationalities. She received her BA from Columbia and PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows. In her first book, Axiomatics: Mathematical Thought and High Modernism (Chicago, forthcoming), Steingart traces the influence of axiomatic reasoning on mid-century American intellectual thought, from the natural and social sciences to literary criticism and modern design. She has published in Osiris, Representations, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Grey Room, and elsewhere. Her work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, among others.
In her Academy project, Steingart examines how mathematical thought and computing technologies have impacted twentieth-century electoral politics in the United States. “In recent years, the overwhelming infusion of computational techniques into American electoral politics has received increased scrutiny by political and legal scholars as well as the broader public,” she writes. Contemporary accounts, however, tend to forget that mathematics has always played a role in the constitution of American representative democracy, even prior to digital computing. Steingart’s project investigates how changing computational practices, from statistical modeling to computational geometry, insinuated themselves into the most basic definitions of “fairness” in the American electorate in the twentieth century. Applying theoretical insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS), Steingart uses archival methods to investigate how ideas about what constitutes “bias,” “fairness,” and “discrimination” are determined as much by mathematical and computational metrics as by legal, political, and social ones. Focusing on congressional apportionment, the census, proportional voting, congressional redistricting, political polling, and election forecasts, she argues that the electoral process is the perfect place from which to investigate the incursion of mathematical and computational ways of knowing into the everyday fabric of American life. “My goal is to approach the history of American democracy in the twentieth century not only as a series of political struggles,” Steingart explains, “but also as technical and mathematical ones.”