A feminist media history of quantification, uncovering the stories behind the tools and technologies we use to count, measure, and weigh our lives and realities.
Anglo-American culture has used media to measure and quantify lives for centuries. Historical journal entries map the details of everyday life, while death registers put numbers to life's endings. Today we count our daily steps with fitness trackers and quantify births and deaths with digitized data. How are these present-day methods for measuring ourselves similar to those used in the past? In this book, Jacqueline Wernimont presents a new media history of western quantification, uncovering the stories behind the tools and technologies we use to count, measure, and weigh our lives and realities.
Numbered Lives is the first book of its kind, a feminist media history that maps connections not only between past and present-day “quantum media” but between media tracking and long-standing systemic inequalities. Wernimont explores the history of the pedometer, mortality statistics, and the census in England and the United States to illuminate the entanglement of Anglo-American quantification with religious, imperial, and patriarchal paradigms. In Anglo-American culture, Wernimont argues, counting life and counting death are sides of the same coin—one that has always been used to render statistics of life and death more valuable to corporate and state organizations. Numbered Lives enumerates our shared media history, helping us understand our digital culture and inheritance.
Jacqueline D. Wernimont is Distinguished Chair of Digital Humanities and Social Engagement and Associate Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College.
“Numbered Lives examines the ethics of the current rush to 'quantify' all human movement—usually justified in the name of self-improvement. Moving from fitbits to life-writings by early women writers to W. E. B. Du Bois's use of statistics, Numbered Lives calls for a re-embodying of statistics in order to explore their possibilities for justice. A must-read for anyone interested in the ethical use of data.”
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media at Simon Fraser University and author of Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media
“Numbered Lives is a radically innovative intervention into media studies by way of early modern literary history. This book contains fascinating and thickly historicized descriptions of early pedometers, slave insurance policies, devotional essays, plantation ledgers, death records and mortality tables, and digital activity trackers and convincingly argues that these objects demonstrate the centrality of the “media of measure to Anglo-American subjectivity and civic life.” Wernimont is one of the finest young digital humanists of her generation. She has written a brilliant monograph that makes good on the unfulfilled promise of the digital humanities to engage meaningfully with critical/cultural analysis.“
Lisa Nakamura, Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor, Department of American Culture and Digital Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
“Numbered Lives traces an important, unforgettable history of who counts bodies and why. Wernimont offers an expansive, well-crafted perspective that links present with past. A necessary work accessibly written. You will never look at a step counter in the same way again.”
Dawn Nafus, editor of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life and coauthor of Self-Tracking