Blog Post

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

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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Today, we take for granted the integration of activity tracking using smart devices. It has become accepted in western society as normal as wearing watches or owning smartphones. Tracking steps and using GPS to map activity is as simple as text messaging and social media. While no specific product has cornered the market, the popularity of the Fitbit and the presence of the feature on smartwatches demonstrate the staying power of activity tracking as a form of self-knowledge and behavior modification. While we acknowledge the tradeoffs for privacy through using technology that shares our data with large corporations, the amount and invasiveness of data collected have grown as machine learning technologies have improved. Today, we contribute not only our activity data but also our web browsing history, our voices, and videos of our environments. How did we come to accept the bargain of data trading, and what sort of implications does the recording and control of that data have for the future? Jacqueline Wernimont addresses these topics in her book, “Numbered Lives,” leveraging historical patents, news articles, and records of various technologies to explore how quantum media has been introduced, marketed, and exploited. In Chapter 5: From Surveying Land to Surveilling Man, Wernimont begins by connecting the previous chapters focus on moral accounting and textual records through the mechanical and social revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries..

One of Wernimont’s key observations is that the affordances of the recording device and its flexibility for using the results are expressions of power and control by various groups. Wernimont traces the practices of historical forms of activity tracking, especially life writing and religious record keeping, to modern incarnations through the mechanical and electronic pedometer. She argues throughout that technology which generates personal data, data about the embodied behaviors of people, especially populations which are not white and masculine, can be understood as instruments of control, both direct and indirect. The chapter’s title further solidifies the parallels between measurements of the world to measuring and controlling people that inhabit it. The owner of these tracking devices and who benefits from the data generated is as much political as anything else. The data can serve as proof or certification that some activity took place, such as in the case of supervising work, or prisoners who are limited in their mobility, or they can reveal or obscure facts as in court cases or as witnesses.

Wernimont uses engaging illustrations of figures and cases throughout the chapter to set up the importance of the devices and their uses. For instance, Napoleon was prescribed one by his physician. It represented one of the first devices that combines multiple features into a single device: “in a move fitting the outsized ego of Napoleon, the device places time, date, and human activity in a single frame, rendering the movement of Napoleon’s body on the same plane with that of the great ordering forces of nature” (125). Napoleon was both the subject of and subjected to measurement and control that at the same time as relating his body with larger celestial concerns also functioned as a means of coercing activity at a physician’s order.

But the device’s purpose and marketing varied significantly, and here Wernimont uses the measuring instrument’s function as media to greatest effect: “the transition of the pedometer from an object that declared wealth and power to one used in the decidedly less empowered or outright-exploitative contexts of the livery worker, worried wife, or mistrusted laborers required a market shift” (129). By connecting these disparate circumstances, she manages to trace the story of quantum data through the lives of several spheres at once, highlighting the inequalities and the power dynamics.

Wernimont carefully details several published examples of the arms race between those who surveil using technology and those who are surveilled. “As the pedometer became a vector for surveillance by those in power, people who were able quickly developed hacks designed to frustrate such efforts” (131). The device record activities that are fabricated based on what they were supposed to record, such as those being tracked shaking the device. These strategies reflected the conflicts carried out through the collection and tabulation of data, and help chart the conflicting messages as to what is desired. The same data (number of steps recorded) can be seen as both a number to be minimized, such as reducing steps with the goal of performing domestic labor with efficiency, was viewed as moral, and yet taking more steps outside was seen in a positive light as a way of encouraging desirable leisure activities.

The ownership and visibility of processing that takes place, however, has changed drastically from the earlier forms of mechanical measurement: “where early modern life writing by women was able to take account of the domestic and embodied labors of women, the automation and algorithmic black boxes of twenty-first-century devices limits what is counted, and thereby limits the kinds of lives that can emerge as mediated by these technologies” (142). Wernimont even goes so far as to argue that “know thyself has long been cover for self-regulation and wealth generation in the service of the nation-state and other institutional entities (151)” Examples drawn from the archives of women whose experiences have either been supported or challenged as a result of mechanical surveillance. Indeed, some of the most powerful examples of the idealized masculine body that trackers are designed for are drawn from Wernimont’s own experience. These personal examples provide a powerful coda to a chapter that charts how these assumptions about appropriate activity came to be, and how the measured activity (either deprivation of sleep in the case of caring for newborns or in the appropriate stress response) requires even greater context in order to be understood by mechanical means, and that these efforts are not in turn valued by the developers as compared to other types of knowledge.

The history of pedometers that Wernimont chronicles become more than an origin story of quantum media or the technology itself. It lays out an argument for the necessity of ownership not just over the data itself, but of the prescriptions imbued in the means and manner of recording. For instance, this parallel is highlighted by Wernimont through comparing such mechanical methods to previous life writing by noting “the interface of the manuscript page or book is relatively free from constraint” (141). Today, although the ability to track one’s steps are easier than ever, and even through simply using a product such as Google maps, one’s location can be recorded in an automated diary, the purpose and ends of these recordings are ultimately in service to a few in the position to write the software or to leverage the data for economic or political gain. This topic is absolutely crucial as we enter an age of machine learning technologies which benefit from individual contributions of data from users. These contributions may range from recordings of interactions with Alexa to the video of our front doors through various internet-connected cameras. Wernimont’s careful analysis of the history and the implications of the Quantified Self movement through the mechanical, economic, political and social matrices of the 19th and 20th centuries provides a solid foundation for future work to explore and understand the forces shaping our consumption and production activities.

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