Blog Post

Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 5: From Surveying Land to Surveilling Man (Lia Tarachansky)

Post by Lia Tarachansky

This post is part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Discussion on Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT Press, 2018), by HASTAC Co-Director Jacqueline Wernimont.

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In this chapter, Jacqueline Wernimont builds on the evolution of tracking technologies since the renaissance and hones in on her critique of data collection as an imperial, gendered, racialized, and corporate methodology of control. “Know thyself has long been cover for self-regulation and wealth generation in the service of the nation-state and other institutional entities,” she writes. Her critique of the dictum ‘know thyself’ as the driving force behind the growing trend to amass quantum data about one’s health and fitness performance comes from a historical analysis of the technology’s uses for domination. “What had once been the specialized instrument of the surveyor and cartographer became both a marker of individual status and tool for the close surveillance of individual bodies.”

Data, in this media archeology, becomes not only a source of knowledge but a weapon and a legal tool. Contrasting the voluntary tracking of the white middle-class with the involuntary tracking of devices of control such as the ankle bracelet and the slave ship cargo list, Wernimont hypothesizes how data collection serves in the creation of whiteness. While data collected on both white and non-white populations transforms the body into discrete units, black bodies have historically been tracked as commodities of varying efficiency in the transatlantic slave trade and later as dangerous bodies in need of surveillance and pacification. The transformation of the body into its quantifiable units also manifested a gendered power dynamic as tracking devices continue to be designed primarily by and for male bodies and contexts. In the process, female bodies as well become objectified as weighed, domesticated, and surveilled units. Wernimont describes how knowledge can be derailed from such data precisely because the numbers are decontextualized from one’s political, familial, and economic reality. How and what data is collected drives socio-political dynamics which is then again manifested in the uses of the collected data.

She further writes how the commodification of the body into discrete units quantified through data-collection devices and apps inevitably leads to optimization, which when applied to the holistic human being tends towards the anxious. The broader the scope of the data, the more complex and progressive quantification becomes, externalizing and decontextualizing concepts of health and success. Already in 1913 the Washington Evening Star warned, “Don’t take a pedometer if the instrument causes you to subordinate the true purpose of the walk to an anxiety to make a certain number of miles in a certain number of hours.”  Such pre-digital wisdom is exemplary of the eye-opening echo of questions raised by the quantum media collection of the turn of the 20th century with our own time, and which are documented in Numbered Lives. Finally, Wernimont raises fascinating questions about the commodification of the data itself, as harvested by unaccountable corporations seeking to capitalize on ever-increasing data sets.

This post was peer reviewed by John T. Murray.

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