Future Tense

The Future of Forms

What our bureaucratic paperwork reveals, and what tomorrow’s forms might look like.

Hands holding paperwork on a glitching terminal screen background.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by XiXinXing/Getty Images.

How many forms do you think you’ve filled out this week? Personally, I count five. An intake form for my dog to go to dog day care, a W-9 for a new company I’m writing for, a patient information form at a dentist’s office, a Freedom of Information Act request, and an application for a science-fiction writing workshop. Perhaps you filled out a voter registration form, or a health insurance form, or a tax form, or a visa form. There seem to be an endless number of poorly formatted PDFs or digital dropdown menus for us to wade through these days. The inexorable march of bureaucracy—like climate change—feels inescapable. There will always be more forms to fill out. Even as the world burns and floods, people have to apply for aid.

Nobody appreciates these forms—we simply have to muddle through them. But the design and deployment of paperwork is one of those things that’s simultaneously boring and incredibly revealing. How forms are structured, what questions they ask, what options they give, and who is invited to fill them out can have huge impacts. The interpretation of the data that forms gather reflects what we think is important. The questions these forms ask reveal what the people who designed those forms think is important and what categories the form-makers believe to be the most common.

For instance, in 2018 the Trump administration proposed adding a question about citizenship to the 2020 census, a question that the annual count hasn’t asked since 1950. The attempt sparked a debate about why, exactly, the census needed to include such a question. Those who oppose asking about citizenship argue that by including the question, certain vulnerable communities will simply forgo participating in the census at all, which will result in an undercount of those populations. The question was struck down by two different California judges, one of whom wrote that “the inclusion of the citizenship question on the 2020 Census threatens the very foundation of our democratic system.”

The U.S. census is no stranger to the power of form design. The way the form asks about ethnicity has changed repeatedly as the demographics of the United States have shifted. In particular, the form has struggled with formatting questions of race and Hispanic origin. It wasn’t until 1970 that the form even tried to count Hispanic residents of the U.S., and when it did, it broke those two questions apart—one for race, one for Hispanic origin. The 1970 census asked “Is this person’s origin or descent—” and the options were: “Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish,” and “No, none of these.” The question was a flop. Experts estimate that the census count of Hispanics in America was about 500,000 short that year, because many respondents didn’t know how to answer this question. On the other hand, Americans who were living in Central or Southern America picked that option, not understanding that the question wanted to know about origin as opposed to current location.

Since then, the census has struggled with how to count Hispanic people living in America. Even the order in which the questions are asked changes how people reply. In the 1990 census, the form asked about race first, and then about Hispanic origin. On the 2000 census form, the questions were switched: People were asked about Hispanic origin first and then about race. The flip resulted in the percent of Hispanics picking “White” as their race increasing 10 percent, while the number of people who picked “some other race” went down by the same amount, according to the Pew Research Center.

The census is just one of many examples of how form design reflects how form-makers think about the world. Take the site Nextdoor, a kind of neighborhood forum. It ostensibly exists to help neighbors stay in touch, share information, sell things, and generally keep one another safe and informed. But the site has also been a hotbed of racial profiling—users reporting “suspicious activity” by black neighbors or visitors when in fact all those people are doing is existing. To try to push back on these sorts of reports, Nextdoor changed the way it designed its form for reporting suspicious activity. If the report includes any reference to race, Nextdoor now requires at least two other descriptors like what the person was wearing or hair color. Without those, you can’t post the report, making it just a little harder to post purely racial “suspicious activity.” According to Nextdoor, this small change cut racial profiling in the crime section of the site by 75 percent.

Or take the gender options on official forms. Only recently have forms started offering options beyond the binary of “male” and “female.” In August, the Canadian government announced that people applying for unemployment insurance benefits would be provided with three options for gender rather than the traditional two: male, female, and a nonbinary “X” option. In the United States, there’s a case currently making its way through the courts over whether people should be allowed to mark anything other than male or female on their passports. For people who identify outside of those two categories, the fact that they have to essentially lie on these forms is a clear sign of erasure. When your identity is absent from a checkbox or pulldown menu, the message it sends is clear: You don’t exist.

Archivists mine through forms for information about not just individuals but trends. The National Archives has a huge collection of pension applications spanning from 1775 to 1916, veteran service records, bounty land warrant applications, and more. Forms have led historians to trace everything from the ways in which governments have tagged and tracked people, to how Ivy League institutions and teacher trainings in the United States have excluded black and Latino applicants, to what death certificates can teach us about public health.

In the future, historians will look back on today’s paperwork with a keen eye, scouring it for information about what we care about today. There will be papers about how the transition to new gender options on forms reflected awakenings around gender in the wider culture. There will be dissertations about how the incredible complexity of medical reimbursement forms revealed a bloated medical industry on a path toward destruction. There will be books about what tax forms from this era can teach us about the economic realities of the gig economy and the crushing weight of late capitalism.

But why wait for future historians to have all this fun? In this series, we imagine forms from the future and break down what they say about our impending realities. The forms we fill out tomorrow will seem just as mundane as the forms we fill out today. Only foresight or hindsight can make these annoying bits of logistical wrangling interesting. From the future of credit scores to the kinds of technologies you might have to authorize when you’re dying, join us as we imagine what tomorrow’s pile of confusing paperwork looks like and what it says about the future it comes from.

Read more in Forms From the Future:
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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.