Blog Post

Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 4: Every Step You Take (Linda Luu)

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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The fourth chapter, “Every Step You Take,” opens the second half of the book which focuses on the counting of life and takes off from the first half which focuses on the counting of the dead. Wernimont situates this chapter in the cultural phenomenon of the quantified self (QS) and what has been called the QS movement. As in other chapters, Wernimont’s primary task is to historicize contemporary forms of quantum media and reveal their origins in earlier technologies of self-knowing and world-making in order to establish the crucial connection between quantum media and techno-becoming.

Following the notion of techno-becoming, drawn from Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, which posits that the appearance of stable selves is produced and reproduced through our interactions with various kinds of technologies and media, Wernimont shows how contemporary forms of self-tracking claim to offer access to a self-actualized self. Wernimont keenly observes that the QS movement is characterized as both aspirational and grassroots; the idea being that, through the collection of personal data, we can uncover new truths about ourselves. Wernimont's point that personal data is only seen as meaningful when it is aggregated, visualized, and analyzed, often by corporations that own and sell self-tracking technologies and their produced data such as Nike and Fitbit, proves that the idea that self-tracking is a grassroots practice is an illusion. Rather, the QS movement fashions a particular narrativizing of the self that brings bodies further into “the locus of marketing, market analysis, consumption, and production” (99) and the normative desires and subjectivities towards which state and corporate interests are oriented.

Wernimont then traces contemporary self-tracking to 16th century Christian life-writing, Jesuit spiritual exercises, and other forms of self-accounting such as letters, court proceedings, travel narratives, recipe books, receipts, and family bibles, all of which constitute what she describes as the “quantum media ecology” (106). Her suggestion that performing religious subjectivity is a precursor to performing certain normative standards of health, gender, and consumerism brings to mind Weber's analysis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The most compelling part of the chapter for me was Wernimont’s discussion of the pedometer as a colonial and imperial technology. Wernimont traces early forms of the pedometer as far back as the 16th century waywiser, used as a mapping technology to measure distance from one location to another and establishing a relationship to and over the land as well as inaugurating colonial and imperial endeavors. In this chapter, Wernimont effectively adds to her argument throughout the book for viewing quantum media as racializing, gendering, and colonizing technologies. She destabilizes the novelty surrounding quantum media and the quantified self by insisting that counting itself is a practice that has always worked within modernity to produce particular onto-epistemologies of the human and our relationship to land, space, and time.

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