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4. Every Step You Take

Published onApr 01, 2020
4. Every Step You Take
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<p>Figure 4.3 Laurie Frick’s <em>Walking</em>. Image courtesy of the artist.</p>

Figure 4.3 Laurie Frick’s Walking. Image courtesy of the artist.


The two images above form a kind of quantified-self (QS) diptych, each panel with its own aesthetics and temporal context. In 2005, American infographic designer Nicholas Felton created the first of a series of ten bespoke mixed-media reports known as the Feltron Annual Reports, one page of which is the first panel.1 Felton’s publications are elegant design exercises, crafted out of a year’s worth of tracking data for a set of features or behaviors that he selects. At the outset of each year, Felton chooses metrics to track and assembles the tools for his self-surveillance, often focusing on something in his life that he’d like to know more about and/or change.2

In the second panel is a photo of “Everything You Forgot Today,” created by American artist Laurie Frick. Using a collage style she developed in the early 2000s, Frick makes “hand-built,” data-driven artwork. In “Everything” Frick uses cut up materials to visualize, as she puts it, the feeling of twenty-four hours.3 She has since expanded on this to “imagine when everything about you is known.” Describing her work as “hand-built art sourced from a digital algorithm,” Frick embraces a vision of the future where automated tracking means that everything about us is known and “self-delusion becomes impossible.”4

Both panels represent early efforts to work with, support, and advance what was then considered to be new and innovative efforts toward self-knowledge through quantification and tracking. As the diptych suggests, a range of media were leveraged, even in these early instances, and they each have a clear, if different, design aesthetic. While the interfaces differ, both in terms of scale of address (one person or all people) and materialities (a printed, bound report, and gallery-style artwork, they have in common an interest in and advocacy for the enumeration of human activity as a path toward better knowledge. With this diptych, I am interested in the remediations that have to take place to render human activity as something that can be gathered and represented to a presumably interested audience. In this second section of the book, I ask, In what ways can a history of activity-tracking media help us make sense of entanglements between individual bodies, quantum media, and superstructures like the nation-state or corporation? Are there connections between the modern QS and other instances of quantified human-techno becoming to which we should attend? Are the same entanglements activated in “data selfies” like those of Felton and Frick? Are there deep histories that should shape how we understand the lifestyles and art being offered today as part of quantified culture?

Is Quantifying Selves New?

Quantifying human life takes as many, if not more, forms as the quantification of human death. It also has an equally long history. Tracking human life—steps, heartbeats, fluid pressures, and habits—has long been a part of Anglo-American cultures—so long, in fact, that there is a kind of collective amnesia about it. Histories of the QS movement tend to start in the mid-twentieth century. Dawn Nafus and Gina Neff go back further than most, suggesting Ben Franklin’s virtue tracking as an early example.5 Tracking as a way of knowing one’s self is big business, but it is not, as Kate Crawford observes, new.

Wristband and clip-on trackers have grown rapidly in popularity since the release of the Fitbit in 2008, offering various forms of data analysis, including physical activity, sleep quality, caloric burn, and heart rate. The discourse around wearable devices gives the impression of a radically new technology offering precise and unambiguous physical assessment: devices that reflect back the “real” state of the body. Beyond the purely physical, a fundamental claim of wearable devices is that data will bestow self-knowledge—the kind of self-knowledge that will create a fitter, happier, more productive person. This is a seductive promise, but not at all a new one.6

Crawford’s work details the deep connection between twentieth-century commerce, technology, and the regulation and gendering of bodies. In this section of Numbered Lives, I extend the work of Nafus, Neff, and Crawford. In particular, I draw our attention to the historical fact that tracking and the belief that numbers will somehow save us from the messy, memory-taxing work of understanding ourselves stretches back at least to the early modern period (roughly 1500–1700). In addition to extending in time, the forms that are familiar in modern self-quantification are also not new, including textual life writing along with the use of mechanical devices to track distances and activity. In the following two chapters, I argue that there is an unrecognized long history for private tracking as well as anonymized and aggregated data, but that does not mean that either is a transcendent phenomenon. Rather, this history points toward a deep imbrication with the formation of Western capitalist paradigms of knowledge production and information value, and perhaps also its oppositions—which makes the history of activity tracking and big data a topic ripe for feminist intervention.

To return to the pair of twenty-first-century, self-tracking media that I started with, consider Felton’s reports and their change over time. Felton published his annual reports from 2005 to 2014, creating a collection of ten. In early iterations, he cobbled together journaling with a small set of off-the-shelf tracking media. For later editions, he was able to take advantage of larger-scale software and customized apps. Mirroring the changes in tracking media used, over the ten editions of Feltron Annual Reports, the design qualities shift and the scope of the publication expands from an original six pages with significant empty or negative space to a densely packed sixteen pages (compare figures 4.2a and 4.2b).

<p>Figure 4.2 (a) “2005 in Photos.” From <em>Feltron 2005</em> and <em>Feltron 2014</em>. (b) “Q3” (tracking running metrics and related information) from 2014. Images courtesy of the artist.</p>

Figure 4.2 (a) “2005 in Photos.” From Feltron 2005 and Feltron 2014. (b) “Q3” (tracking running metrics and related information) from 2014. Images courtesy of the artist.


Familiar twenty-first-century mediations like the pie chart and bar graph are central to early reports. The spread of vintage cameras to the left of the image contrasts with the ratio of analog to digital photos to the right (0/3754). The pie and bar graphs indicate the relative proportions of the countries where photos were taken and the subjects of photos, respectively. Across the six pages of this first report, the aesthetic of pairing vintage images on the left with minimalist data representation on the right persists, giving the full report a retro and slightly playful feel. The first page of the report sets that tone by graphing “play” against “work” for the year, producing inverse bar graphs in orange and white that suggest “Feltron” is either always at play or at work. By contrast, in figure 4.2b the page from the last report in 2014 has adopted more of the formal conventions of the business report nodded to with Felton’s title. The 2014 metrics are presented like stock trend lines, and sit alongside summary accountings and additional graphic interpretations. The retro image meant to describe the category being counted has been replaced by a dense layout of multiple metrics on a single page. Playful images had helped to convey the levity of the categories that counted in 2005—tourism, photos, fiction read, food eaten, and Stella Artoises enjoyed.

Perhaps matching Felton’s greater use of custom software and hardware to track, the final installment is dominated by metrics generally advanced as important in QS and health-tracking communities: heart rate, weight, activity, sleep, and work. The 2005 report covered seven large categories tracked and enumerated over a year (work/play, travel, music, photos, books, eat/drink, and miscellany) with little info on media or technologies used, and no summative section. By contrast, the 2014 volume has fourteen large categories (locations, travel, computing, sleep, transit, activity, weather, photos, music, heart rate, weight, drinking, and driving—with each having several subcategories). It also includes information about the devices and applications that were the source of his data as well as their degree of completion and breakdowns by category and quarter, and represented in at least four different ways. It is worth noting that nearly all the 2014 report data were captured automatically with a device, application, or both. The report ends with a summary total for the entire year for each category and then correlations between the activities measured.

As a practice and performance of custom tracking, Felton’s reports are idiosyncratic, and reflect his interests, habits, graphics skills, and access to quantum media. At the same time, they echo the informational and visual conventions of corporate and state reporting. For the final edition in 2014, Felton captured all the data automatically via applications and devices, and suggests that this report is unique for its ability to synthesize the data from several automated processes: “This report goes further than the apps that are dedicated to any one of these particular silos. I’m trying to create context between all of them.”7 Published as mixed-media artifacts, Feltron Annual Reports exist somewhere between visual arts, design, and a public form of journaling or life writing. They have drawn significant popular attention, with each edition selling out quickly. Feltron Reports have been profiled in the New York Times and Wired, on Fast Company’s website, and other technology-culture-oriented outlets.8 In addition to appearing in a variety of gallery shows, a complete ten-edition set is part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collection, and the New York Museum of Modern Art also holds the 2006–2011 editions. In 2010, Felton partnered with Ryan Case to craft his personal practice into an application for use by others, Daytum.com. On the “About Us” page for Daytum, the duo describe Felton’s practice as “wry but rigorous,” and suggest that by enabling users to “collect, categorize, and communicate their everyday data,” Datum offers a “new self-expression platform.”9

Felton’s highly designed Annual Reports evoke the bureaucratic genre of the corporate report and indeed his Daytum application is clearly a part of the larger data driven consumer market. Regular accounts on Daytum are free, while premium accounts are available for a cost. The privacy disclosures make it clear that the self-expressions of regular account users are considered public and are subject to use by others. Only Daytum Plus users have the ability to restrict public access to their information. Self-expression here is equivalent to public discourse, a kind of self-disclosure that Felton modeled. Notably his disclosures were not “harvested,” by others except to the degree that his works appear in heritage and arts institutions.

Similar quantum media and data capture informs Frick’s artworks, which have a different design aesthetic, and her works have appeared in many of the same venues. Frick tracks her own activity using a Fitbit, MyTracks, and a CatCam to collect the data that becomes the basis of her creation of hand-built collage pieces that she calls “data selfies.” In the particular example in figure 4.3, Frick has a self-designed algorithm that represents pace and her collective movement by week. Frick’s pieces are large—in this instance, consisting of six panels—and are collages of a range of natural and synthetic materials. While Frick portrays her work as part of a project to imagine a future where everything about you is known, her pieces abstract away from numbers and categories, thereby creating pieces that are far more abstract than those of Felton.10 Rather than appear to transparently present data, Frick’s remediation with the collage further obscures both the individual and her metrics as represented.

<p>Figure 4.3 Laurie Frick’s <em>Walking</em>. Image courtesy of the artist.</p>

Figure 4.3 Laurie Frick’s Walking. Image courtesy of the artist.


In addition to creating tracking, data-based collage artworks, Frick worked with the Austin-based digital design firm thirteen23 to develop her personal algorithm into an iOS application, FRICKbits.11 The app encourages users to “make art” using the “hidden pattern” of a user’s daily travels. Felton’s apps, Daytum and Reporter, similarly sample user activity in order to “paint a bigger picture” with less input labor from the user. In both cases, the apps are running in the background of a cell phone or tablet, and create a particular kind of human-techno becoming as they record metrics shaped by onboard devices (like ambient noise, location, or distance traveled) and then report them back as automated insight. While automated or algorithmically determined insight might be problematic, Frick’s application does not make user data publically available—whatever insights are generated are between a user, her app, and her app’s creator.

In both Felton’s and Frick’s artworks, there is a clear sense that they are engaged in a process of self-discovery—a practice that then extends outward to “users” with each of their respective applications. In many ways, both are responding directly to the explosive market today in self-tracking devices, and the “know yourself better” and self-actualization rhetoric on which much of the market depends.12 Consider the following illustration: the 2013 Jawbone campaign promised self-knowledge through moderately fashionable consumerism; by 2016, the language was a bit more pointed: “There’s a better version of you out there. Get UP and find it.”13 Jawbone’s campaigns to move us all toward greater self-knowledge and subsequent self-actualization exemplify the underlying logic of a vast consumer enterprise: sell people on the idea that they need numbers to understand themselves, then you can sell them the devices to create those numbers and sell that data to third-party brokers. As aspirational lifestyle brands, Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone, Garmin, and Nike+ all suggest to the American (and increasingly, global) consumer that competitive activity tracking offers a path to twenty-first-century self-actualization.14 We are not currently ourselves, they claim, but wearable tracking devices, apps, and other so-called lifestyle integrations can help us map a way to find ourselves—out there, in the data. Such claims assert that processes of abstraction and surveillance enable self-understanding and fulfillment. The good life, they maintain, can be had with the help of a wrist bracelet or clip used to carefully monitor behaviors and behavioral change. Such logic may not be especially unusual. Meditation is a practice based on self-observation as well. But the fact that meaning making is outsourced to corporations suggests a commercialized panopticon embedded in and around bodies and everyday digital practices. The same rhetoric of discovery and revelation along with many of the same technologies are at play in Felton’s and Frick’s works, yet the interpretative work is their own. This is different when the work moves into mobile applications, where authority and ownership are more complicated (more on that later).

While self-tracking is purported to be about self-knowledge and self-expression, it is also big business; the contemporary wearable market was valued at $15 billion in 2015, and is estimated to be worth $25 billion by 2019.15 Eighty-four million wearable devices were sold in 2015, and that volume is expected to triple to 245 million devices by 2019.16 Using Nike as an example allows us a window into the scale of profits. It also makes apparent the rhetorical and epistemological entanglements of QS with Christian and patriarchal life writing, journaling, and spiritual meditation (the subject of the next section). Finally, the following example of Nike’s “Nike+” product line disrupts the narrative of emergence that has been so central to QS self-integration in the United States. In the early 2000s, according to consultant reports and interviews, Nike wanted to “become more a part of runner processes”—running playlist choices, route mapping, goal setting, and achievement tracking and sharing. It also wanted to find ways to bring runners’ processes into design, manufacturing, and marketing; shoe selection, aesthetic choices, and brand adoption were all seen as opportunities to make the customer feel integrated into production. Through this integration, Nike hoped to “co-create a community of runners” explicitly in order to increase shoe and accessory sales. Nike’s engagement with and creation of a running and quantifying community was self-interested; according to one analysis, with Nike+ products and services, Nike was able to increase revenue by $500 million and its market share by 14 percent, all with a $50 million savings in marketing expenditures.17

Felton’s reports, Frick’s art, and the Nike+ campaign are part of a larger Anglo-American interest in the power of numbers to remediate human activity and recording media to help stop the lossy operations of human memory. They each inhabit a particular locus in the larger matrix of a masculinized and celebratory cultural conversation about tracking media along with the lifestyle into which they are embedded. Imagined as both “aspirational” and “grass roots,” the QS movement tells an origin story that begins in the first decade of the twenty-first century. According to Wired magazine contributing editor Gary Wolf, QS is “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in gaining self-knowledge through self-tracking.” In a 2009 piece, Wolf narrates the start of the QS movement as a kind of grassroots effort. According to Wolf, he and Kevin Kelly, who cofounded Quantified Self Labs, suddenly “noticed that many of our acquaintances were finding clever ways to extract streams of numbers from ordinary human activities.”18 Like the seventeenth-century clerks who kept baptism rolls or the civic clerks who compiled the mortality bills, as mentioned in chapter 2, Wolf and Kelly see people transforming human activities into “streams of numbers.” While early modern mortality bills involved an outside set of agents—counting women, clerks, and clergy, in contrast to the self- or machine-assisted remediation of QS—there is a way in which both efforts define human activities by what is or can be counted. Wolf and Kelly’s QS website (quantifiedself.com) was launched in 2007, and operates as a social hub and information portal for the larger QS community.19 The site also serves as the digital face of the company Quantified Self Labs, also founded by Wolf and Kelly. Advertising the hope of “self-knowledge through numbers,” and celebrating a “new culture of personal data,” Wolf and Kelly engage a familiar rhetoric of ownership and agency—people gather, read, and share their own data; it is personal, but in a great many cases, it is public and commodified too.

This tension between the personal and public is critical for understanding cultural mediations that have large-scale impacts. A similar tension was seen in the textual self-tracking of early modern life writers, and the move from private logging to the public demonstration of moral or physical health is important to understanding mediation processes. As Neff and Nafus note, what happens in the QS community is not necessarily the same as what is presented in either founding documents or commercial applications. “At a QS meeting you won’t find people who just swallow the idea that we are now supposed to optimize ourselves.”20 Indeed, quantification and self-tracking can be a mode of speaking back to power, as mathematician Talithia Williams so powerfully demonstrates in her “Own Your Body’s Data” TED talk.21 Williams leveraged her mathematician’s expertise in statistics and own long-standing practice of fertility tracking to push back against doctor’s recommendations during the days leading up to her child’s birth. In a context where Williams’s expertise and experience were discounted as both a woman and black person, she used tabular media, quantification, and a mathematical rendering of patterns to resist silencing. In Williams’s case, this did not persuade her physicians, who continued to use a different set of norming media on childbirth to try to manage Williams’s delivery. It did, however, empower her to feel that her decision to not induce childbirth was sound. Neff and Nafus describe this kind of quantified self-knowledge as part of human processes of “discovery” and “debugging”—terminology that suggests that the human-techno becoming facilitated by quantum media remains firmly rooted in that enlightenment pursuit of knowledge.22 Where it is used with a sense of limits, it clearly has affordances, including as a mode of resistance.

The abstractions and embodied realities produced through quantum mediation can have different impacts when deployed at scale or in aggregation. As with the mortality bills, which were used by the state not to track individual realities but instead to render human loss a known quantity for political, military, and fiscal decision-making, modern activity tracking at scale differs from what an individual might do in order to better understand their own body. What is more, despite the rhetorical openness of suggesting that modern self-quantifiers are “using this tool we all build,” quantum media are not universally available, and the data sets that they produce are not representative of the diversity of the United States and Britain, to say nothing of non-Anglo-American localities.23 As we will see, quantum media can be expensive and technical, leaving out entire communities that are not connected, represented, or understood in the same ways within digital media and cultures. The strong culture of personal data metrics with QS, the ethos of the QS origin story as told by Wolf and Kelly and supported by the fieldwork of Neff and Nafus, needs to be balanced with a recognition of the commercial and state investments in making “personal data” possible as well as aggregating such data in order to render them meaningful.

Wolf describes QS as a bottom-up numerical “method of understanding ourselves,” but it was also (and earlier) one of Nike’s best tools for increasing profits.24 Part of what makes Nike+ so profitable is that people buy the tools (shoes and bracelets) and then freely share their data back to the company. As is the case in most arguments for “big data,” the power of commercial QS derives from the benefits of aggregation; individual information becomes meaningful as part of a much larger data set. As we’ve seen in the previous section, seventeenth-century lives and deaths were rendered meaningful to the English Crown by Graunt’s life tables only insofar as they contributed to the aggregated data along with the knowledge it produced about vital statistics and population change. Individual particularities were not just erased or left out of the tables (a problem enough for the historian) but were rendered meaningless to the state in its own moment too. Moreover, these figures were then turned into the actuarial tables used by the insurance industry to monetize the risk of death. Local death records became official state knowledge of life activities that was then leveraged to create profitable new industries. Though different in many respects, the corporate harvesting of biometrics shares a certain cultural structure with the mortality tables. In the Nike example, runners’ activities are reimagined as value-added “processes,” including the kind of sports metrics and lifelogging that is central to the QS movement. The purchase and use of a Nike product, similar to many other sports wearables, automates the translation of human activity into data streams that like demographic data, are considered meaningful only once aggregated, visualized, and analyzed. QS, when accomplished this way, seeks to empower users by transforming life activities—running, sleeping, eating, walking, breathing, and the involuntary contraction of smooth muscles such as the heart—into the locus of marketing, market analysis, consumption, and production all at once.

To Know Thyself Is to Know Thyself in Action

The know thyself imperative embedded in much QS discourse is old and has always entailed the monitoring of actions.25 According to the classical Greek author Pausanias, “know thyself” and “nothing in excess” were maxims brought to Delphi by the seven sages.26 Though enduring, this push toward self-knowledge and self-management has undergone significant change since Pausanias gave his first tour of the temple at Delphi, including shifting toward ever-greater quantification. While a certain kind of moral and ethical motivation drives every use of Delphic aphorisms—they were originally styled as “maxims useful to the life of men”—those at work today are deeply imbricated in the more modern logics of Western capitalism and patriarchy. Twenty-first-century exhortations to know thyself perform mediations that are still about making an individual legible to a polity or community, but instead of monumental inscriptions, the media are now clip-on discs, smart jewelry and watches, and the apps and mobile devices with which they communicate. Rather than inscriptions in stone presiding over a large central gathering space, the media by which we are meant to know ourselves are now attached to individual bodies, creating a pervasive and perpetual mediation not seen before. As opposed to Apollo governing the good life, we have corporations exhorting us to find ourselves in the data that we give them.

This shift from the inscribed temple to the wristband was neither sudden nor necessary; instead, it involved several other media transformations that included tools that look more like wheelbarrows, personal notebooks, and pocket watches. First in this lineage is the decidedly textual media of the manuscript, and in particular the books of life writing (meditation books, journals, spiritual exercises, and more) through which Western authors sought to gain self-knowledge. Such life writings allow us to see the ways in which a Judeo-Christian tradition of narrative accounting transmuted into the actuarial tables seen in chapter 2 and eventually became modern activity tracking. While contemporary engagements with big data and sleeker, sexier tracking bangles may seem to be a long way away from those first life writing media, the second section of this book details the history that spans the gap. As with mortality tracking, the history of activity tracking entails accretions of media types, including narrative texts, tables, mechanical devices, digital devices, and cloud computing. Along with new media for tracking human activity, we see shifts in the kinds of activity tracking considered valuable. While the media proliferate and there is change in relative usages of media types, there is surprising continuity in the underlying goals. Across the history of activity tracking, each media is involved in rendering an account of a life well lived, or at the least, in reshaping individual and collective behavior in the name of the good life. Each of these mediations occurs between a body in everyday action and social and political evaluations of those actions. In the early modern period in particular, embodied action has a more consistently obvious spiritual cast. As interfaces and forms emerge and recede in popularity and accessibility, the media continue to function as barometers of ethical and moral standing, both privately and publicly. In this respect we can say that there is a kind of genealogy from the social function of narrative life writing and parish registers, even as new media gain in popularity because the newer interfaces work to excise the messy individuality captured by longer-form media. While the ethical performative function remains across time, the processes of meaning making vary with respect to aggregation and individuality. In the digital era, there is a clear increase in emphasis on understanding actions and the embodied self comparatively.

The Nike example is not unique; Misfit, Jawbone, and others all explicitly imagine deep product integration into a community of users. Considering the corporate strategies alongside the communal rhetoric is powerful in part because it reveals the phenomenon that promises the creation of a “macroscopic” view of human life rendered in “readable patterns” as an effect of market forces—an emergent and entangled commodification positioned as a grassroots development of agency. Disease outbreak (like the plague) is in many ways a different social and temporal context from the current QS trend, but there are also similarities. The rhetoric of urgency is present in both, as is an underlying moral critique that suggests that widespread health issues (plague and obesity, say) are due in part to an individual lack of discipline and care. They also deploy the logic of aggregation in order to monetize individual biometrics—in one case producing the risk and insurance industry, and in other the marketing and manufacturing of athletic lifestyle goods and services. One is in service to a national/imperial project, while the other ultimately serves the bottom line of international corporations, and both work to advance the needs of the larger corporate body through appeals to individual enumeration.

Essais: A First Activity Tracking Media

As one of the many “algorithmic dramas” operationalized in the United States and Western Europe, QS stages a morality play where users know not only themselves better but also contribute to the dream of complete, perfect, and democratic knowledge production.27 This is an old drama that begins with intertwined textual media developments in life writing and early modern accounting practices, both of which were deeply invested in the cultural production of authority and expertise. As Matthew Bell observes, “The injunction ‘know thyself’” operated as a religious maxim in classical writing and appears in the philosophical writings of Plato repeatedly, along with Socrates’s assertion that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”28 This antique directive to self-consciousness was a central feature of the Renaissance effort to revive classical modes of writing and thinking. While the Renaissance was so named because of the strong drive to revive the classical past, this revival existed in tandem with the reconfiguration of medieval traditions of life writing, especially the Stoic tradition of withdrawal (solitude) and study seen first in the Petrarchan canon, and then more fully realized and popularized by French author Michel de Montaigne.29 In each of these examples, texts mediate becoming both between authors and their bodies and between authors and their readers. When texts mediated authors to other readers, it was often to demonstrate authorial self-knowledge and moral accountability. Such mediation was widespread first in narrative form, but eventually took advantage of the rising social and political capital of numerical representation.

Whether in Stoic or Christian contexts, know thyself was not simply an exhortation to know but also one to use that knowledge for either control of the self or further contemplation. Jesuit spiritual exercises, for instance, were designed to discipline and train the true believer—to mediate the experience of the unruly human body into a regime of obedience. Despite vastly different sociopolitical contexts, there is a strong resonance between these early modern efforts to control the self and something like the sportswear company Under Armour’s tagline “Rule Yourself.” To know is in some sense to control. The Catholic tradition of life writing or spiritual reckoning stretches back at least to Saint Augustine’s first-century Confessions, in which he recounts his youth as a way of fulfilling his wish to “act in truth, making my confession both in my heart before you and in this book before the many who will read it.”30 With Ignatius of Loyola’s foundational Spiritual Exercises (composed between 1522–1524), the early modern period had a clear model not only for life writing but also for a discipline of tracking and accounting that was grounded in the orderliness of diurnal time and its relationship to biblical time.

Resonating with much later readings of computational command-and-control models, Spiritual Exercises is a series of meditations and writing practices to be followed over the course of four weeks, thus encouraging repetition and developing a sense of the meaningfulness of numbers.31 The first week is structured by the “three powers of the mind, concerning three sins”; thus, a monthlong exercise in enumeration begins with a trinity of intellectual powers meant to serve as a bulwark against the temptations of embodied sin. Among the mediations are the accounts of Christ’s life from twelve to thirty years of age and the thirteen appearances of Christ after the resurrection. Annotations that open a nineteenth-century edition of the text suggest that the quantified and quantifying exercises are valuable in “examining one’s own conscience … prepar(ing) and dispos(ing) the soul to remove all ill-ordered affections, and after their removal to seek and find the will of God with respect to the ordering of one’s own life.” This process of examination ran the risk of generating undue temptation and a sense of despair in readers, who might either encounter new ways to sin or balk at the measure of past transgressions. To manage this, the Exercises explicitly speaks to the need to adjust both the schedule and work so that it was best “suited to the present necessity of the soul.” While the Ignatian model offers some flexibility in the doing, the rhetoric of self-mastery is clear: this is a book of exercises “by which a man is directed in order that he may be able to conquer himself; and, with a determination free from hurtful affections, fix the plan of his life.”32

Montaigne, the father of the essay as a prose genre, began his famous Essais, published in 1580, wanting to retreat into a life of contemplation, “but betraying that intention, his mind bolted off like a runaway horse and gave birth to so many fantastic monsters and chimeras that in order to contemplate their strangeness, he tells us, he began to keep a record of them, that is, to write essays.”33 The essays, or “wanderings” as they were styled, were a media technology for tracking mental activity in order to facilitate contemplation. They were an attempt by Montaigne to provide a stable interface between his unruly imagination and his commitment to the contemplative life. Following Kember and Zylinska’s formulation of mediation as a vital process, we can see Montaigne’s Essais as a technology for “being in, and becoming with, the technological world, (his) emergence and ways of interacting with it.”34 Montaigne’s contemplative practice largely involved his processes of writing and subsequent reflections on his various essays. With the move from manuscript into print, Essais became the media technology used by Montaigne to produce a public vision of himself as a contemplative humanist. Additionally, by facilitating reading about contemplative life, Essais enabled the “becoming with” of his readers, for whom the technology in question is the book itself. Reading Montaigne thus allowed early modern readers to perform through reading and reflecting what he himself sought to perform through writing and reflecting.

Montaigne’s essays are partly about his own process of knowing and tracking a wandering mind, and partly diagnostic. Meaning that while they are narrative, they nevertheless categorize and measure in order to understand how and why his mind wanders—a function that will eventually be largely overtaken by numbers in tables. It can be tempting to assert that Montaigne’s categories and measurements are the same as the diagnostic elements in twenty-first-century self-tracking. Among the differences, however, is Montaigne’s insistence on situated knowledge in the fields of medicine and anatomy. Even in the midst of an early modern rush to diagnostic sciences, Montaigne used the essay to highlight the ways in which “making decisions on the basis of symptoms, of visible signs of the hidden workings of disease,” is always speculative, “incomplete, and indirect, improvisational and situational.”35 For Montaigne, the essay was not meant as a transparent record of experience, or an articulation of certain and systematic (or total) knowledge, but instead as an active grappling with the idiosyncratic and imprecise nature of knowledge of the world and self. It was a process of perpetual becoming—meditation as much as a mediation.

Reflecting on the danger of desiring complete knowledge, Montaigne went so far as to suggest that his peers risked the loss of their own humanity: in seeking to fully know, “how many men have I known in my time made as stupid as beasts by an indiscreet hunger for knowledge?”36 This “indiscreet hunger” arose, according to Montaigne, from a desire to “be beside themselves … to escape from their humanity. That is madness: instead of changing their form into an angel’s they change it into a beast’s; they crash down instead of winding high.”37 Simultaneously invoking Icarus and a divine metamorphosis, Montaigne’s essays argue that to be human is to accept the limits of human knowledge. In tracing his own wandering mind, Montaigne’s essays engage in the very kind of performative mediation described by Kember and Zylinska: entangling self-creation with print media in a matrix intimately linked to a Western, Christian tradition of humility and limited (mortal) capacity.

Early modern readers of the Essais were encouraged to pursue knowledge, to retreat into a life of the mind and pen, but within limits. Following the wandering mind produced an embodied sense of the dangers of trying to know thyself a bit too well; one might come literally crashing down like Icaraus. In this sense, Montaigne breaks from many of his contemporaries, for whom devotional writing was the social sharing of a personal reckoning, a performance of their morality. The medieval traditions of life writing tended to gesture toward accountability as a communal journey of the self toward God rather than for its own sake. Montaigne’s project, in contrast, was to demonstrate the utility of the essay as a form to track “the inconstant and unsettled mind keeping track, pinning down, examining, studying and judging its own inconstant and unsettled movement.”38

As a result, the retreat to self-evaluation imagined by the Essais reconfigures subjectivity as a recursive process enacted through textual media and in service to a kind of self-conscious reflection that was largely absent in masculine medieval writing. While decidedly self-centered, Montaigne’s essays enact a performative ethics—one designed to serve as a model for others—in which he “embraces his ignorance and his own alterity, and thus his inability to ever fully master himself.”39 The wandering, meandering form so characteristic of early essays was meant to testify to the perpetually incomplete knowledge of the just man. This uncertainty in turn legitimated or authorized the knowledge that was presented, however partial. These were Montaigne’s “fictions legitimes”—textual mediations—“that serve in the place of truth” in the search for self-knowledge.40 The Essais grapples with the function of writing as well as its relationship to moral and ethical accounting in a way that differs from that of the contemporary Augustinian tradition. Montaigne highlights the power of providence, prudence, and chance—what he and classical authors call “fortune”—and the ways in which written accounts allow one to watch the wandering of the mind, and adjust the concepts of the good and ethical life accordingly. By contrast, contemporary devotional literature was much more focused on a disciplinary mode designed to direct the devotee away from consideration of himself (or less often, herself) and transform behavior.

Where Montaigne’s essays track his wandering mind, Jesuit (also Catholic) meditations (and hence mediations) were about displaying divine majesty and demonstrating control over wandering impulses as a way of performing belief. An entirely different vision of becoming with textual media is offered by the two traditions; Montaigne’s is recursive, contemplative, and supplied as a formal model, while the Jesuit texts enumerate discrete tasks oriented to discipline and control. Montaigne follows his own mind as it wanders and walks down different paths, always buffeted by fate, chance, or the divine, but still watching himself. Ignatius, in contrast, focuses himself and his readers on the life of Christ as way of controlling the mind and body. Where Ignatius does grapple with mortal behavior, it is in order to create a public reckoning whereby moral belief is made evident to both his divine and mortal readers through a performance of the exercises.

The use of quantum textual media to reckon human/spiritual accounts included Protestants as well. With its emphasis on the personal relationship between an individual and God, the Reformation entailed a “radical alteration of the way people looked at themselves.”41 According to Peter Heehs, this change included the normalization of self-examination and burgeoning of the first-person spiritual account—new forms of mediation that arose to meet the needs created by emergent early modern religious paradigms.42 As mediation performed by an agent of God—the Catholic confessional priest—fell out of favor for some, Protestant spiritual exercises and narrative accounts became the new means to mediate gaps between human and the divine. While the Reformation was a major shift across western Europe and England, devotional and contemplative Protestant and Catholic traditions of self-tracking continued to persist side by side, and as we will see, the different values accorded these two modes of self-tracking continue to shape the QS movement today.

Mixing Media Forms: Narrative and Number

Life writing, as Adam Smyth observes, was not purely literary in the early modern period. Instead, media forms used for self-accounting, including letters, court proceedings, travel narratives, spiritual texts, recipe books, and family bibles, were all part of the quantum media ecology. Among the many types of personal record keeping, Smyth mentions that most numerous were “printed almanacs, annotated with handwritten notes; the financial account; the commonplace book; and the parish register.”43 Margaret Ezell similarly points to examples like Anne Glyde’s “messy volume,” which is precisely this kind of self/family accounting in the form of a domestic commonplace book, gathering recipes, fiscal receipts, medical processes, and family births and deaths into a single, nonchronological account of her life.44 From at least the sixteenth century on, there has been a cultural and material link between the work of fiscal record keeping and that of life writing. Constrained by the costs and impracticalities of separate books in an era when the book was still an expensive commodity, early modern authors wrote about their lives and experiences with a mix of numerical and narrative accounts. The coproduction of the numbered and literary self in these books allows authors and readers to imagine as well as create a culture of subjectivity wherein clear distinctions between literate and numerate subjectivity cannot be made.

Creating media interfaces through which the religious or contemplative self could be known and performed, and in which number and narrative coexist, was not an inconsequential development. Rather, it had significant rhetorical and imaginative impact, and shaped the way that people understood the validity and utility of early modern life writing. The “legitimate” fictions of early modern life writing books contained prose, verse, logs, and tabular accounts. They made meaning in number as much as in word.

As we saw in chapter 2, double-entry bookkeeping is an example of the early modern process of “representational commensuration” whereby transactions of different types were represented in abstracted and simplified form to facilitate a quick review of accounts.45 This process of abstraction set unlike activities together in a single table or ledger at the back of an account book, using the collective tabulation less to offer details about the individual transactions, and more to testify to the merchant’s creditworthiness and honesty. Detailed accounts in the double-entry book were designed to assist merchants and landowners build trust with their creditors and investors—a function that was similarly and earlier accomplished with detailed life accounting on behalf of Christians from Augustine through to Ignatius (and beyond). As we move through this history, we see that public reckoning remains a social function for the texts, but the intercessor—the media/mediator—has changed from the narrative text to the tabular account.

Even as quantum media took on new numerical and tabular forms, early modern life writing continued to be “structured around a network of beliefs pertaining to the events of the temporal realm and their impact on the other eternal realm that superseded it. … [T]hese events mattered not simply in themselves but because they contributed to the sum of a life, acting always, and sometimes inscrutably, as the measure of participation in an ongoing history of entitlement to a part in a greater life to come.”46 The enumerations of the Exercises, for instance, performed the value of marking time and measuring repetitions in order to make them evident to both divine and mortal readers. At the same time, readers were rendering themselves as part of the community of believers for whom exercising the mind, body, and soul was proof of virtue and predestination. In the contemplative tradition of Montaigne, texts tracked a wandering mind for future reflection. In contrast, religious devotional exercises used quantitative storytelling in order to “confirm … the fundamental importance of spiritual order and structure and the ordinariness, the un-uniqueness, of every individual.”47 Even as these media established the individual as meaningful only in relation to the aggregate of believers, they also allowed readers to perform themselves as exceptional, Christian subjects (of salvation, the nation, and the imagination). The textual mediations of men’s lives (and they were mostly, but not universally, men), whether for an audience of their God, communities, or both, happened only in a space where literary and numerical representation coexisted. While the shifting valuation of number over word discussed in chapter 2 meant that numerical accounts accrued ever-greater prestige over time, the realities of putting pen to paper meant that individual authors were able to freely mix the modalities as they saw fit. As life tracking gradually moves into mechanical and eventually digital devices, this modal hybridity becomes increasingly less accessible, with profound consequences for how people come to know themselves as well as participate in the networks and commodifications of quantification.

Women’s Tracking Texts

All media is gendered, including those of personal account and life tracking, and the foregoing history is largely masculine, elite, and literate. The life tracking of women registers important differences. For example, consider the kind of account rendered in Margery Kempe’s medieval The Book of Margery Kempe, which included a set of religious “contemplations,” but was largely dedicated to recording her life and travels. Rather than writing a set of instructions for devotional behavior as modeled in spiritual exercises, she wrote a mystic’s form of autobiography—one focused on her life and travels, and positioned as a point of access to God.48 As a record of an embodied mediation of a divine encounter, Kempe’s book operates on a different register from both the command-and-control mode seen in devotional texts and public (published) surveillance of the wandering mind in Montaigne’s essays. Instead of textually mediating her life by categorizing and abstracting experience, or in order to gain control and insight, the book performs her ongoing dialogue with the divine and opens up a “passageway” for the divine word. As opposed to registering an account of the author’s devotions, the reader is meant to join Kempe in interfacing with God. In Kempe’s text, mediation is a “practice through which the body is translated into a written corpus.”49 Instead of remediating the mind (as in Montaigne) or controlling a believer’s body (as in Ignatius), Kempe’s text invites the reader to join her in a remediation of one’s own embodied experience.

Kempe’s book begins as a story of a “creature, which many years had gone wild and ever been unstable,” and then became a deeply devotional woman. Kempe wrote retrospectively, and suggests that her work is inspired and ordered by divine grace. This grace is what authorizes the account event after many years have passed; the memories she has recorded are true precisely because they have withstood the ravages of time. Further, the book supposes that it is divine intervention that enables others to read the garbled text recorded by Kempe’s male, mostly illiterate amanuensis. The account is keenly concerned with Kempe’s body and bodies in general, including her resistance to her husband’s desires for sex. When he insists that she must consummate their relationship, she replies, “I may not deny you my body but the love of my heart and my affection is drawn from all worldly creatures and set only in God.”50 Where the life accounts of European men tended to prioritize the powers of the mind or divine over the mortal and corporeal, Kempe’s text focused on the violations, ruination, and recovery of her body. For her, the recovery of her body enables her to remediate divinity through mortal flesh rather than to liberate or control her body. Kempe’s life writing transforms her body into an accounting of divine grace.

The emphasis on embodied experience is partly a record of Kempe’s experiences and partly a devotional trope for contemplation. As was conventional for the period, the body of Christ is a major figure for meditation in Kempe’s book. Unlike in the Catholic tradition, it is nearly always paired comparatively to Kempe’s own body, as when Jesus observes “daughter, thou art not yet so poor as I was when I hung naked on the cross for thy life, for thou hast clothes on thy body and I had none.”50 While the focus on Christ’s body is utterly conventional, the rhetorical move to keep the divine body in view through and alongside Kempe’s body is novel and important for the ways that it stands as an alternative to the surveillance as well as control seen in other modes of life writing. Centered on leveraging embodied experience and its reanimation in writing, Kempe’s model of embodied life writing would later be taken up in rather-surprising form by David Hume in his defense of the essay as a genre capable of bridging the gaps between the “learned and conversible worlds.”51

Ezell observes that the “religious culture of the seventeenth century encouraged women and men from a wide range of social backgrounds to keep records of the events of their lives and to use this material for reflection and, in the case of some groups such as the Quakers whose adherents included laboring and servant women as well as those in the gentry, for exhortation and public prophecy.”52 Some of these men and women drew on the contemplative or prophetic traditions, and others followed in the more controlled Jesuit tradition, recording and authoring life stories as a spiritual accounting, including the measuring and recording of time. Women’s accounting tends to differ in what is mediated. For instance, early modern Puritan writer Elizabeth Baker was a very careful esteemer and redeemer of her time: At home in her family, the works of her general and particular calling took her up: When necessary business and great duties gave way, she was seldom without a Book in her hand, or some edifying discourse in her mouth. … She used good company practically and profitably, making use of what she heard for her own spirituall advantage.53

Like that of Kempe, Baker’s writing demonstrates that Puritan women’s life writing could be just as concerned with the performance of a spiritual reckoning as their male contemporaries, but with crucial differences in the embodied reality. Where men followed meandering minds or put themselves in the mind of Christ, medieval and early modern English women’s “being in and becoming with” was situated in the social spaces of the home and materiality of bodies.

As the example of Baker suggests, English life writing as spiritual and material accounting was not limited to Catholics but was a pervasive element in the dominant Protestant/Anglican tradition as well. The minister John Ley notes that Jane Ratcliffe began in 1654 making a “daily account in writing,” including “the frame of her heart in every dayes duty, in Meditation, Prayer, Hearing, Reading,” and a listing of her daily sins, any resolutions or promises, and whether they were kept, “all special providences to her self, husband, Brothers, and others, and the improvement of them,” and her response to the loss of her son. Her final entry was “two or three dayes before her delivery in Child-bearing.”54 Such “daily Accounts,” as they were known, were meant to be edifying reading even for those who did not have the time to record their everyday minutiae. As in the textual media of men, women’s early modern life writing when circulated either in manuscript or print form enacted a double mediation: on the one hand, negotiating between an author’s lived experience and her spiritual life, and on the other hand, interfacing between those with the luxury of self-mediation and the rest of early modern society who might learn, judge, or both.

The sociohistorical contexts of early modern Europe facilitated several shifts in women’s life writing after the medieval period. In particular, Michelle M. Dowd and Julie A. Eckerle point to the “spread of Protestant doctrines about introspection and unmediated relationships with the divine, the political and religious upheavals of the Civil Wars, and the development of experimental science” as catalysts for a new “cultural environment that privileged both self-reflection and an ideologically nuanced approach to individuality that set the stage for women’s unprecedented production and publication of life writings.”55 Noting that this shift coincides with Graunt’s mortality tables discussed earlier, I would modify this slightly and say that while Protestant women argued for direct access to God, the textual media of the period clearly show that this relationship was actually remediated rather than unmediated. The difference lay in the agent of mediation, which had been a priest or other human intercessor in Catholic traditions. One of the major transformations of the Protestant Reformation was the substitution of media as intermediaries. This shift enabled early modern women to participate in the religious tracking and accounting cultures in new ways. Specifically, women leveraged exisiting mediating processes modeled by men and created new ones as they sought to construct as well as share their own sense of self and society. Women’s self-tracking habits demonstrate “how life writing considerably blurs the distinction between public and private experience,” and create new opportunities for becoming with technology.56 As we will see in the coming discussions of digital life tracking, women’s life writing meets its match in twenty-first-century regimes of access, commercialization, and increasingly gendered marketing strategies.57

Mechanical Tracking and the Colonial Turn

While life writing in alphabetic and numerical forms was a major part of both early modern women’s and men’s lives, the emerging nontextual quantum media were largely men’s devices. Our first view of the mechanical tracking media in early modern Europe includes Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a gathering of manuscript pages written between 1478 and 1519 that includes renderings of a mechanical device for measuring distances traveled. Sometimes referred to as a “perambulator” and at other times an “odometer,” the device is not named in the manuscript itself. Instead we have three views on the device, which resembles a wheelbarrow and measures distance with a gear system that drops a stone for every full rotation of the large wheel.58

<p>Figure 4.4 Close up of the “waywiser” detail in <em>Codex Atlanticus</em>.</p>

Figure 4.4 Close up of the “waywiser” detail in Codex Atlanticus.


Just seven years after the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essais, we have textual evidence of similar devices being used to survey land.59 This is not the first nontextual quantum media (as discussed in chapter 2); the Inca were already using the quipu to not only count individuals but also record productivity in mines and keep inventory in storehouses.

The pedometer, as far as we know, was a new technology to early modern Europe, and Jean Fernel, a French artisan and physician to Catherine de Médicis, used the oldest-known pedometer in 1525 to measure a degree of the meridian from Paris to Amiens (such a measure allows one to compute the size of the earth).60 Across the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the literature uses a variety of terms interchangeably to refer to these devices, including “waywiser,” “hodometer,” “odometer” (briefly), “perambulator,” and “pedometer.” Where the waywiser was designed initially as a pushed cart, the pedometer was linked directly to the foot action of either a horse or human. Mathematician Jean Errard described the device as “a new geographical instrument which, attached to the horse’s saddle, uses the horse’s steps to display the length of the journey one has made.”61 Such devices were especially popular in what is now Germany, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Cartographer Paul Pfinzing produced a magnificent example in Nuremberg for use in his Methodus Geometricus, published in 1589, and Augustus, Elector of Saxony (1553–1586), used a similar device to measure his territories.

We do have a few remaining instances of early modern waywisers, including that of English clockmaker Daniel Delander (d. 1733) in figure 4.5a. A partial artifact, the Delander example is a bronze dial that includes measurements in miles, furlongs, and poles. The face stands 1¼ inches high, presumably to make room for the works below, and is a little over 4½ inches in diameter. It may well have sat embedded in a handbox like the Germanic device in figure 4.5b. This piece, dated 1590, is currently held at the German National Museum in Nuremburg.

<p>Figure 4.5 (a) Delander waywiser brass face. Photo by Leah Newsom. (b) German 1590 pedometer. Image courtesy of the German National Museum in Nuremberg. (c) Pedometer, gilded brass and silver, cord operated, 1682–1720. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group Online Collection.</p>

Figure 4.5 (a) Delander waywiser brass face. Photo by Leah Newsom. (b) German 1590 pedometer. Image courtesy of the German National Museum in Nuremberg. (c) Pedometer, gilded brass and silver, cord operated, 1682–1720. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group Online Collection.


Germany seems to have been at the center of waywiser innovation, including the smaller, brass and silver cord-operated pedometer by Johann Willebrand (1682–1720) in figure 4.5c. While Germany was a hub for device making of all kinds, Thomas Sprat, historian and record keeper of the British Royal Society, included a waywiser that “measures the length” of distance traveled in his account of society members’ instruments in 1667 (John Wilkins was one of the cofounders of the society, and it may have been his).62 Described in an early nineteenth-century technical dictionary, the waywiser was “a mechanical instrument, in form of a watch, and consisting of various wheels and teeth; which, by means of a chain, or string, fastened to a man’s foot, or to the wheel of a chariot, advance a notch each step, or each revolution of the wheel; by which it numbers the paces or revolutions, and so the distance from one place to another”—in other words, the wearable waywiser is attached to the human body in order to mechanically automate step counting.63 The artistry and materials of these devices testifies to their status as instruments for the wealthy. Made of heavy brass and silver, they are framed with elaborate floral etchings, capturing human activity in the same kinds of interfaces usually reserved for the marking of time and celestial movements. Expensive, heavy, and durable, the early modern waywiser joined textual and textile tracking media in order to measure human activity, but with a different objective. The essay and activity ledger were textual traditions designed to perform piety and serve as a moral accounting; the European waywiser, by contrast, was initially used for cartographic work.

Embodied Action as Cartography

The development of the waywiser in England and throughout continental Europe included devices that attached to horse-drawn carriages, rolling pushcarts, and small personal devices that were carried on or attached to the body. Unlike the essay and devotional texts central to the know thyself tradition, these devices flourished not because of an interest in human activity in and of itself but rather because human and/or animal motion—walking or riding—was used as a proxy to measure distance. In these cases, quantum media were leveraged as a way of making land and natural resource claims, thereby transforming matters of value for emerging nation-states into matters of international fact. This was no small feat in an era where standardized measurement was not yet a reality.64 The distance measurements of waywisers traced a human activity—walking or riding—across land. These measurements, along with observational topographical data, were then transformed with textual inscription into maps and deeds of ownership or rights of enclosure.65

In this way, pedometers and waywisers were central to the “fixing and demarcating of the territory” that Foucault points to as foundational to imperial territorial systems of power.66 While the measurement of land can seem rather banal and the appeal of the aesthetics of early waywisers can draw excited attention, both the banality of the practices and elegance of the devices obscure a basic truth about these media: they were instrumental (literally) to colonial occupation. As cartographic tools, waywisers were central to imperial practices that included the “seizing, delimiting, and asserting control over a geographical area—of writing on the ground a new set of social and spatial relations.”67 This matters not only for our understanding of the politics of space in the colonial era but also for unpacking the cultural imaginaries that are an occluded yet constitutive part of twenty-first-century human-activity tracking. “These imaginaries,” as Mbembe observes, give “meaning to the enactment of differential rights to differing categories of people for different purposes within the same space.”68 Said another way, the seemingly banal act of using waywisers makes them important devices in the mediations that produced not only the nation-state but the raced, gendered, and classed notions of citizen too. To walk or ride with a pedometer or waywiser was to engage in the often-violent production and performance of nation and subjecthood.

On the maps where the waywiser/pedometer is known to have been used, the data are translated into textual representations, and the activities of the bodies driving/carrying those media are nearly completely erased. Take, for example, John Ogilby’s 1675 posthumous Britannia—a text famous for its gorgeous images and maps of England—which was produced using both a pushed waywiser and the worn/carried pedometer (both instruments appear in the frontispiece image in figure 4.6a).

<p>Figure 4.6 (a) Frontispiece from Ogilby’s <em>Britannia</em>. (b) Full island map from Ogilby’s <em>Britannia</em>.</p>

Figure 4.6 (a) Frontispiece from Ogilby’s Britannia. (b) Full island map from Ogilby’s Britannia.


The title page of the text announces it as “an illustration of the kingdom of England … by a geographical description of the principle roads thereof.” Ogilby’s terrestrial body and its extensive activities stand behind his claim that the roads were “actually admeasured,” even as the text “illustrates” a god’s-eye view of the island and its infrastructure. The dedication to King Charles II makes clear the value of an illustration of the land; the book is designed to “improve our commerce” from “the prime center of the kingdom, your royal metropolis.” Ogilby places such commerce in a long lineage of imperial efforts to record “distances through their vast extended territories exactly registered and enumerated.” As it had been for the Persian, Macedonian, and Roman Empires, the text claims, it was crucial for Britain to have a “certain” understanding of the scale of the empire. This was for both military and commercial purposes; a king needed to know the scale of “peace and war” as well as “security and interest.” Ogilby himself describes the textual remediation at work here as a “performance” that turns his “mean abilities” to measure (with technological automation) into a vision of Britain as the “exemplar of industry and ingenuity.”69

Ogilby remarks in the dedication that England faced competition in the world of quantum media and imperial becoming—most notably from France and Belgium. He had good cause to want to shore up England’s credibility in this area. While measuring human activity was clearly in use in England by the latter half of the seventeenth century, continental Europeans had been using pedometers for the purposes of land surveying and geodesy throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Britannia’s dedication takes the “mean” activity of Ogilby’s walking and automated measurements of the waywiser, and rearticulates them as a performance of the peace and prosperity of Charles II’s reign. It places the imperial performance of Britain in line with the great empires of history and as a model for rival Western powers. It is a sharp example of how the human activity at the center of the production is quickly effaced in favor of the concerns of the empire and/or nation-state. Ogilby’s physical body is simply an instrument here, and its entanglement with a quantum media functions to certify the commercial and technological prowess of Britain. At the same time, the textual media is “mean” or instrumental in many ways as well. Designed to enable a reader to see the commercial and military arteries of England, maps such as these transmuted the “base” activity of the human-pedometer-text assemblage into arguments about the value of land for a sovereign.

The matrix of human-technological becoming under British imperialism is deeply tied to articulations of royal/imperial landholdings. To map space in the early modern period was to produce both the idea and material realities of the early nation-state. Land measurements were done to assess taxes, estimate the value of royal hunting land and forestry assets, cordon off pastures and grazing lands, and delimit territory for the purposes of laying claim to natural resources such as minerals, jewels, and water. Individual human bodies, like that of Augustus or Ogilby, walked or rode across land, while new quantifying media measured either steps or the rotation of a wheel.

<p>Figure 4.7 An eighteenth-century example of the early body-worn pedometers made by Spencer and Perkins. The long fob would have attached to the wearer’s belt or pants’ waist. While not visible in the image, the iron hands still show evidence of blueing, a process that renders the metal a brilliant blue and is an indicator of expense. From the author’s collection.</p>

Figure 4.7 An eighteenth-century example of the early body-worn pedometers made by Spencer and Perkins. The long fob would have attached to the wearer’s belt or pants’ waist. While not visible in the image, the iron hands still show evidence of blueing, a process that renders the metal a brilliant blue and is an indicator of expense. From the author’s collection.


In some instances, these devices even “printed” their data out on spools of punctured paper designed to help cartographers track and map the terrain traveled.70 These measurements were then integrated into official state and imperial documents that declared terrestrial spaces as English or part of the Kingdom of Germany, for example. Royal decrees, official record books, and newly popular books of maps remediated the measurement of human travel into articulations of dominion and fiscal ownership/responsibility.

Mapping in the early modern period was both a state enterprise and interesting to the flourishing European scientific societies. In late November 1662, Wilkins showed his waywiser to members of the Royal Society and “was desired to leave his first engine of this kind with the society.” The following year, on July 30, Christopher Wren gave a lengthy account of his work to the same group, including a discussion of how a waywiser might be mounted on a carriage and be visible to act as a “pleasant diversion to the traveller and would be an acceptable present to his majesty.”71 Both Wren and Wilkins were well known in mathematical communities, and their adoption of quantum media comes as no surprise. Shortly after Ogilby’s text was published demonstrating the mediating power of mapmaking, and roughly fifteen years after Wren and Wilkins shared their devices with the Royal Society, there is a kind of flowering of the historical/archival record on the development of the pedometer along with its use to measure both land and sea. For instance, according to Thomas Birch’s History of the Royal Society, in 1683 Robert Hooke showed society members his maritime waywiser, which he had developed twenty years prior, and “by which the way of a ship through the sea might be exactly measured … [with] the whole engine being designed to keep a true account, not only of the length of the run of the ship through the water, but the true rumb or leeward way.” Hooke described what is now known as a “chip/line/patent log” as one part waywiser and one part navigation line, which worked by “feeling as it were and distinguishing the several qualifications of the ships course.”72 Automating the measurement of a trip had become a major area of scientific inquiry and technological development for those at the center of the royally funded efforts to produce the knowledge as well as machinery essential to Britain’s colonial project.

The term waywiser has been applied across time in ways that help us see the transition of step-counting media from cartography to the management of human activity. Tracing the various meanings for waywiser is useful in understanding the complex matrix of textual media, pushed or driven measurement devices, and worn step counters that make up the early history of quantum media. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, waywiser could describe a carriage-wheel-mounted device, the pushcart-style device first imagined by Leonardo, or a pedometer worn on the body.73 Particularly important is the shift from media where people had to self-record their activity (as with journals and tables) to those that automated enumeration and even recording. Once worn on the body, a waywiser essentially becomes an automating media, relieving the bearer of having to actively measure distances traveled. A trade card advertising the Spencer and Perkins pedometer/waywiser (figure 4.8) makes it clear that the objects are designed for men of means and are of a piece with other items of conspicuous consumption such as fine watches.74

<p>Figure 4.8 Spencer and Perkins advertisement for the waywiser/pedometer. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group Collection Online.</p>

Figure 4.8 Spencer and Perkins advertisement for the waywiser/pedometer. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group Collection Online.


Spencer and Perkins was among the first to broadly sell and advertise, and it did so in a way that made it apparent that the waywiser was a classed, raced, and gendered innovation; I have yet to discover an account of a woman with a waywiser or an early pedometer prior to 1874.75

Early modern men produced a particular idea of space throughout the British Empire using a media-human assemblage, which included a human body that moved across land as new media devices automated the measurement of that space. These measurements were then remediated into the final component of the assemblage: textual maps that produced the idea of the walkable city, peaceful kingdom, and prosperous British Empire. I opened this section with a modern diptych in which step counting and/or activity tracking is a common mediation advertised as in service of better personal knowledge. In the textual tradition, we have seen that there is a clear connection between self-tracking and the performance of individual character and morality. Further, the life writing of early modern England posited individual activity as meaningful only as part of a religious collective even as it allowed authors to perform themselves as exceptional Christian subjects. With the innovation of mechanical activity tracking, we see that such quantum mediations were initially oriented toward national and imperial land control. As the waywiser began to be advertised as a fine instrument and sold next to the familiar pocket watch, it still carried with it the legacy of imperial cartography and kinds of human-techno becomings that were permitted in such contexts (namely those of wealthy, white, adult men). As the waywiser gave way to the pedometer, perhaps in name only, we also saw new modes of control and knowledge production for the small devices. As I will detail in the next chapter, race, gender, and class are all still at the center of the mediation process, even as the nation-building work of quantum mediation continues.

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