We are everywhere entangled with technology. Numbered Lives is a media history of two particularly quotidian media—death counts and activity trackers—that determine who counts, in what ways, and why. To tell stories about quantum media—media that count, quantify, or enumerate—is to tell stories not only about how we create knowledge but also how we come into being with numerate media. What does it mean to be or become with media? People manifest a sense of themselves or others, they “become,” through many open-ended processes and here I am interested in the processes that involve both people and media. Human becoming is an ongoing entanglement between knowing and being, between epistemology and ontology.1 As individuals and communities, we are in perpetual flux, forever engaged in processes of mediation by and cocreation with our technologies. Whether we are talking about quill pens or smart watches, technologies mediate our experiences as people moving in and through the world. Accordingly, genealogies of these media and their entanglements with people can help us understand how they express, produce, and govern Western cultural values around bodies and behaviors. What is more, histories of our media of knowing and becoming can teach us a great deal about how particular bodies and people do or do not become a part of Anglo-American regimes of self-knowledge and control.2
I make no pretenses to objectivity in my methods; objectivity is an early modern innovation activated as a bulwark against religious and political infighting within the sciences, and as a way of cementing patriarchal control over knowledge production in and around the body.3 I care about the ethical impacts of quantum media, and how they play out in terms of both knowledge and everyday lived experience. More than that, I care about how quantum media impact different bodies and lives differently—authorizing and reinforcing group solidarities (some positive, and others not, yet all of them manifesting privileges and oppressions), and creating universal paradigms that can often harm nonnormalized subjects unless interventions are made. Media scholars Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska suggest that we focus not on media objects per se but rather on processes of mediation in order to understand “our being in, and becoming with, the technological world.”4 I am invested in understanding how race and gender (among many other formations) come into being through mediation. While Kember and Zylinska are not invoking intersectionality as such, I see in their emphasis on the entanglements of technologies and lives a powerful sister-theory that foregrounds mediation as fundamentally performative in the sense of “being able to bring about the things of which it speaks,” and draws a clear link between processes of mediation and ethics.5 Accordingly, Numbered Lives does not simply document the historical tangle of quantifying media and human becoming; it also suggests that there is an underlying ethics of mediation to be developed around our being with and becoming through numerate technologies.
Media technologies and practices are ideological, and our histories, which are technologies of knowing too, are similarly invested and interested. Numbered Lives illuminates long histories of our modern quantum media as slender but strong threads woven throughout the fabric of Anglo-American culture. I am interested in continuities, and while media interfaces and means of production do shift with the Industrial Revolution and digital age, there are important residues of and relationships to textual and other analog traditions in even our most innovative new media.6 In attending to quantum media, Numbered Lives borrows from media archaeology a “sharpened awareness of the contours of everyday media apparatuses,” an attention to everyday ecologies that include two genres of media that can feel more bureaucratic than innovative: death counts and activity trackers.7 Quotidian though they may be, such media are transformative, and they have been transforming the ways in which we know and value human lives and deaths for more than three hundred years.
By writing these histories, I am making visible the long-standing, deep imbrications of quantum media, Western capitalist paradigms, and human becoming. Understanding the mediations of human death (necropolitics) and human life (biopolitics) requires both a historical or genealogical sensibility and grounding in an “ethicopolitical orientation.”8 The generative functions of life tracking, including the making of English and American nation-states and citizens, depends on death tracking. Our quantum media count death in order to open up the space to count life in particular ways and in order to protect particular people. To understand the ethics of this generative mediation—this poiesis or human becoming—is to understand the conditions under which the right to expose both life and death is exercised, and how that exposure shapes life possibilities.9 Tracking and quantifying human life, whether motivated by corporate, state, community, or individual reasons, is intimately linked to the ways in which we record and enumerate human death. The ethics of this project reside in my argument that mediations of life and death impact our life possibilities in ways that are gendering, racializing, and colonizing. Working at several disciplinary intersections, including those of critical historiography, media archaeology, and feminist analysis, Numbered Lives takes up a “problematizing and creative task” to denaturalize past as well as contemporary practices while remaining oriented toward the future.10 Numbered Lives disrupts the idea that quantification media and their embodied interactions are new, while also eschewing a teleological narrative that celebrates an inevitable arrival at the modern census or Fitbit. This book not only details what quantum media have been but also asks us to think about what we might want them to be going forward. Understanding historical and contemporary entanglements among our quantum media and selves can enable us to critically leverage our media or set them aside as we wish.11
Numbered Lives is speculative and experimental, reading mediations and making a mess of apparent order in the service of alternative futures. My work here is to reveal how twenty-first-century quantum human-media entanglements have shaped and continue to shape human life and death. In order to do this, I will be drawing attention to the operations of form, category, and content in quantum media. Human-media entanglements produce “matters of value as well as matters of fact” in the service of the “art of governing human beings.”12 In the case of quantum media, these values and facts recursively make certain lives possible or impossible, frequently along lines demarcated by conceptions of race, citizenship, and gender. Said another way, quantum media are racializing, gendering, and colonizing technologies, and their impacts vary based on the bodies with which they are entangled. Bills of sale and ship manifests transformed black people into commodities that were objects of insurance and wealth measurement at the same time that activity trackers began testifying to the character of their largely white wearers. More recently, activity trackers have purported to enumerate every step taken but fail to track feminized movements like pushing a stroller or grocery cart, thus making such activity invisible in the context of health management and personal fitness, and outside the paradigm and valuation of the fit and healthy body. Critically reading historical devices and archival documents from a relatively long historical period (about three hundred years), Numbered Lives details the social, political, and epistemological poetics of quantum media in Anglo-American contexts.
The relationships and interfacings between bodies and media are complex, and they benefit from analytic specificity. At the same time, that analytic complexity is best served by multimodal and transdisciplinary, or even more radically, “undisciplined,” methods.13 This book is a feminist, antiracist, alternative media history. It is also a study of science and technology, a literary reading, a material history, and a contribution to the history of mathematics and math instruments as well as media archaeology and digital studies. Below I detail the many disciplinary attachments of my own scholarly process in the spirit of methodological openness. First, I want to acknowledge Christina Sharpe’s note that transformation requires that “we must become undisciplined” and echo her exhortation to imagine new ways of doing scholarship that allow for “a sitting with, a gathering” that might push against the “racial calculus and … political arithmetic” of imperialism.14
There are no data, tracking opportunities, algorithms, or patterns without bodies. In this book, I am particularly interested in the ways that quantum media organize the Anglo-American understanding and representation of our embodied lives and deaths. A disembodied intellectual history of quantum media would miss the ways that technologies and bodies are forever and always entangled. Such a history would at best be hypothetical and is probably better understood as counterfactual. An immaterial account of quantum media would similarly miss the ways that interfaces “limit and create” our ways of knowing and being.15 Instead, I am foregrounding matrices of bodies and media in order to illuminate the ways in which they interact to produce what we understand to be our lives and selves.16
Drawing on work in science and technology studies along with theories of performativity allows me to think through human-media interactions, intra-actions, and interfaces as embodied and material. Nevertheless, I am nearly always working at least at one level of mediation, considering the forms of step counters rather than steps taken or tabulations of dead bodies versus the moribund forms themselves. This is not the only possible approach. The “strategic formalism” and media analysis that I am using here allows me to talk about the persistence of certain shaping patterns, identifiable interlacings, and structuring categories in quantum media.17 As Caroline Levine suggests, a strategic formalist method is transhistorical, not ahistorical, and “involves reading particular, historically specific collisions among generalizing political, cultural, and social forms.”18 In the case of quantum media, we have a set of remarkably durable, if mutable, media forms—both the mortality table and activity tracker remain relatively unchanged from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. Additionally, these forms have proven immensely portable across time, geography, and political context. Despite this formal stability, the ways that these media make meaning are not necessarily the same across time and space. There are local, contextual shifts and variations, and the media show up in new sociopolitical and epistemological implementations. My task here is to trace the ways in which the stability and change work together to organize as well as structure relationships between enumeration, bodies, and bureaucratic and capitalist structures.
Some will argue that death counts and leisure self-tracking in and with digital technology cannot be considered in the same frame with early modern survey instruments and demographic texts, and that the epistemic difference between early modern England and twenty-first-century America is so large as to constitute a rupture, regardless of apparent continuities. I understand the value of thick detail and ways that small sociopolitical contexts shape meanings. Moreover, I know that insisting on incommensurability and a “sovereign modernity” can be a way of “absolving cultural critics of the hard work of understanding the past.”19 Periodization and minute formal analyses can also be strategies that consolidate power and expertise in forms available to those in positions of privilege and power. There are affordances to and important insights yielded by period-specific research, but a tightly focused formal or historical scope in the case of quantum media runs the risk of producing a sense that women were not active in early mathematical science, black Americans were not part of the midcentury fitness craze, or European colonialists bestowed quantum media on native inhabitants in the Americas. To date, much of the existing work on quantification media has missed that the pedometer existed before 1800, and has failed to see how quantum media has always been connected to Christian notions of reckoning and moral performance. Such work has also largely preserved the sense that enumeration is an objective, uninterested, observational practice that reveals rather than produces. Few conventional media histories explore the relationships between quantum mediations of life and those of death.
In doing a deep history, or perhaps any history at all, one needs to carefully balance genre expectations with epistemological commitments. All work comes from an invested position, and mine is no different. In the case of Lori Emerson’s media archaeologies, for example, she has favored using jumps and cuts to tell an asynchronic, nonteleological history. This method matches her emphasis on variants in media histories: the many different ways that reading and writing (in this case) are medial processes. Emerson’s approach is a crucial intervention in the canon of work on histories of reading and writing, which are often more narratively driven and linear, even when not teleological. The histories of quantifying media are few, however, and I am arguing that the patchwork of various quantifying technologies has effectively obscured common capitalist and normative operations that many media have in common. In some ways what we live is a “variantology” with respect to quantifying media, meaning that there is a plethora of “individual variations,” including those that “defy the ever-increasing trend toward standardization.”20 Part of the work of the variantological approach exemplified by Emerson’s as well as Kember and Zylinska’s work is to disrupt teleological tendencies within media histories; histories of quantification are in urgent need of a different kind of disruption. Empirical sciences tend to exist in an ever-present now, discarding practices and tools rapidly and with few glances backward. In this sense, the facade of the “new” in new media finds its perfect mate in quantifying practices, which are frequently put to work on behalf of progressivist narratives of knowledge and media. What a deep history allows, and what we urgently need, is to see the ways in which the forms of quantum human-technological media encounters are and have long been cocreative with the production of racializing and gendering notions of “truth,” the state, and Anglo-American subjectivity.
Accordingly, rather than cutting between different technoscenes, I use the first of two chapter pairs to follow the tables utilized to count human life and death across time and space in order to understand how tabular, quantum media are entangled with imperial, statist, and capitalist paradigms in ways that produce inequalities in the process of measuring as well as reporting human life and death. In the second half of the book, I collect self-tracking media across time and space in order to see how they have been perpetually wrapped up in Christian imperialism and patriarchal ideas about productivity and a demonstration of piety, even as they also participate in the regulation of certain spaces and bodies. While I follow the sometimes-meandering paths of these quantum media, I also use the media archaeological jump to span large swaths of time. A book that seeks to trace continuities must do this, and I hope that others will take up writing the more local histories of these mediations.21
I also hope that this book will extend the political investments of variantology and “deep time” methods so effectively deployed by Emerson, Matthew Kirschenbaum, and Jussi Parikka into our understanding of quantification.22 The power of a historical and political framing of the contemporary quantification of human life and death is that it allows me to assert that critical family resemblances exist between the Fitbit and seventeenth-century life writing as well as between Anglo-American demography and plantation ledgers. Given the stakes for how people can live their lives and how their deaths might come to matter, I think we need more work that is eclectic, messy, and resistant. We need more work that reaches beyond disciplines to the undisciplined, under the common canon, and connects together unexpected forms, figures, objects, people, and inscriptions. With such work in hand, perhaps we can find matrices that will help us create more just futures.
Referring to “media”—as a noun—points us toward smart watches, laptop computers, and movie screens as objects. This tendency in the vernacular to think of media as inert objects is even more pronounced when we are dealing with analog technologies like books, manuscripts, or a collection of files on a desk. Mediation—as a verb denoting the operations of media situated between us and our technologies and experiences—is not a part of everyday Anglo-American language unless you happen to be an academic or academic in training, or in a different sense (as arbitration between disputing parties) part of the legal profession. While I will be talking about and closely reading media objects, my analysis is deeply informed by Kember and Zylinska’s suggestion that we move “to understanding media predominately in terms of processes of mediation,” which are simultaneously technical and biological, social and political. Processes of mediation, as they observe, allow for “understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with the technical world, our emergence and ways of interacting with it, as well as the acts and process of temporarily stabilizing the world into media agents, relations, and networks.”23 Kember and Zylinska’s emphases on temporary stabilizations focuses our attention on the ways that technology can be both medial—between us and the world—and integral—a constitutive part of both our and the world’s being. The appearance of stable selves, media, and worlds, each of which hold out the possibility of being known, is an effect of the processes of human-techno becoming. We can analyze and historicize such temporary stabilizations using the strategic formalism mapped out earlier, studying mediations that hold together just long enough to read closely, but not long enough that they ossify into rigid or natural forms. Such human-techno becomings are fundamentally poetic processes, in which the media are part of systems that bring forth particular ways of being, knowing, and representing.24
All technologies mediate insofar as they intervene between us and our experiences of the world. Media technologies are a special class, and as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun observes, “media” as a term marks a significant semantic discontinuity between the early modern (roughly 1500–1700) and modern usages in Anglo-American cultures. Chun notes that while “medium” has been in usage since the fifteenth century to describe “an intervening substance,” “media” (first appearing in the contexts of mass media) is an eighteenth-century invention.25 Technologies like the seventeenth-century broadside and bureaucratic mortality paperwork circulated as mass media, and coexisted with more elite (expensive) technologies like the first pedometers. While they may not have been called media prior to the eighteenth century, each of the quantum media discussed here circulated in both mass and elite market settings, and integrated enumerative practices and the related aesthetic rationalism into Anglo-American daily life. Chun’s warning about meaningful linguistic discontinuity is helpful in resisting overly easy mappings of modern categories onto early modern material cultures. Accordingly, I will be marking the ways that interface and sociotechnical settings do or do not change as these mediating technologies emerge and/or are adopted. Despite the anachronism, speaking of these technologies as media is a way of being precise, even before media emerged in the lexicon, about the operations of technologies that were and are involved in processes of inscribing, recording, and/or representing. Not all technologies are a part of these processes of human becoming, but all media are.
This book joins a recent body of scholarly work that is invested in understanding how poetic processes (becomings) and material products are entangled. Take, for instance, Kirschenbaum’s observation that “a mechanism is both a product and a process,” or Xin Wei Sha’s notion of mathematical models as “poetic processes,” both of which point to the ways in which seemingly stable objects contain both process and product.26 Drawing again on the idea of temporary stabilizations, such work considers as well how material and forms operate within a social network, as Bruno Latour does in order to make sense of “vast oceans of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms.”27 Using a strategically formal approach allows me to render this kind of shimmering stability and frustrating fluidity visible as effects of interactions between people and quantum media.
Working to understand the relationships between “media/mediate” similarly allows us to recognize the entanglements between our ideas about “things” and “actions.” Media that act and mediating actions have been the subject of media history and the history of technology works, and they often highlight verb/noun complexes like those at stake in my analysis. Take, for example, Dan Bouk’s work with “measure” and “value,” Mary Poovey’s with “balance,” Lisa Gitelman’s and Cornelia Vismann’s with “record,” “file,” and “document,” and Kirschenbaum’s with “track.” The value of understanding tangled things and actions lies partly in the ability to denaturalize the idea that enumeration and mensuration are neutral and apolitical acts accomplished with transparent media objects. As a case in point consider Karen Barad’s argument: “Measurements are agential practices, which are not simply revelatory but performative.” Drawing on her expertise in quantum physics, Barad’s work has powerfully demonstrated that we live in a world of quantum rather than classical ontology. “There are no pre-existing individual objects with determinate boundaries and properties that precede some interaction, nor are there any concepts with determinate meaning that could be used to describe their behavior.” Instead, as Barad notes, and Kember and Zylinska echo, we have only “intra-actions” or processes of mediation as becoming. Like other mediations, “measurements are material-discursive practices of mattering.”28 Said another way, quantum mediation is all about producing the temporary stabilizations that we know as “object” and “subject,” or as “device,” “nation,” or “citizen.” Stabilizations such as these are created by the media that we use to count, measure, record, track, and value human life and death.
In addition to thinking about mediations before media enters the lexicon in its modern form, in this book I talk about the biopolitics and necropolitics of quantum mediations in a long temporal frame. Michel Foucault points to another disjuncture between the mercantilist biopolitics of the early modern period and those of the “physiocrats” in the eighteenth century and beyond, maintaining that the later biopolitics is decidedly less interested in the rights of subjects.29 For Foucault, the important shift resides not in how the population is mediated (my concern) but rather with how governments or other power agents can exert influence or control over the population. Where mercantilist biopolitics includes a sovereign power that can command subjects who are vulnerable to sovereign abilities to determine who lives and dies, subsequent power agents must calculate and act within a matrix of factors in order to compel or enact change in a body politic. In Numbered Lives, I am interested in precisely how it is that people come to be remediated as part of a body politic and so I follow the media across a Foucauldian temporal boundary in order to understand the ways that fluid media respond to and change with historical, political, and social contexts.
This making of bodies and lives happens at every step of a perpetual process of mediation, which is a reality obfuscated by the false ontological distinction between living organisms and things, between humans and “our” devices. The rhetoric of ownership—a company’s forms, insurer’s databases, or person’s devices—elides not only the agential effects of things but also the people beyond users/owners involved in the life cycle of those things. Excellent work by scholars like Lisa Nakamura and Jennifer Gabrys help us to see how production and disposal are crucial sites for feminist technoscience.30 We need more of this kind of work. While Numbered Lives is not a history of quantum media production and distribution, I am interested in the kinds of labor that the body-being-counted does for others, whether unwillingly in the case of enslaved persons and people who die from disease, or willingly in the case of consumer products. Insofar as this entails documenting “the social and historical conditions under which the body has become a central element and the defining sphere of activity for the constitution of femininity,” I will be focusing on gendered embodied practices.31 The gendering of technologies and practices has historically been an exercise in negation—defining the feminine or female as everything that masculinity/male is not. Accordingly, I spend significant time discussing male authors and masculinized technologies as a way of rendering what and who quantum media tend to produce as valuable, and why.
Numbered Lives understands that the gendering of technology is inextricably entangled with ideas of race and class in Western cultures. By attending to the labor performed by the being-counted-body, this book argues that quantum media play several important roles in the advancement of labor-power structures under late capitalism.32 In particular, quantum media cocreate the sense that a nation can be understood by counting particular lives and deaths, which also establishes certain bodies as valuable to the state while others are not. Quantum media are foundational to the assurance that risk and disease can be productively managed at scale through quantification. Additionally, they produce the idea of a laboring body that is subject to surveillance, whether for health, social status, or worker regulation. Understanding the roles that quantum media play is not only critical to our understanding of twenty-first-century digital technologies but also our ability to recognize the ways in which contemporary capitalism depends on unpaid labor carried out at the level of mediation.
In addition to understanding media histories, we need suggestions of where and how resistance might be activated. Usually the promise of quantified-self practices is greater self-knowledge—a kind of epistemological credit to offset the debt incurred by being counted. As I will explain, this transaction is asymmetrical to the extent that it renders lives through media designed by and for white, affluent, male bodies. What is returned to the white, male user might well be valuable (if still part of a capitalist regime), but how black or brown bodies, or female bodies, can understand the “return” from quantum mediation requires a nuanced analysis of both the labor done and knowledge returned. In some cases the resulting knowledge seems to have little to do with an intersectional identity, instead offering a violent reconfiguring of life as it is understood as valuable to white, patriarchal cultures. A similar asymmetry exists in mortality tracking, as is so painfully clear in refusals by the US government to count police homicides and gun violence more generally. Quantifying technologies play a role in such violence as well as offering paths to enfranchisement and legitimacy. Given the complexity of human-techno becomings, we need many more interventions like this one that document the tangled relationships between technology and state/corporate efforts to know as well as harness the labor of everyday living and dying. Recognizing that mediations of both life and death are leveraged on behalf of the “accumulation and reproduction of labor-power,” I am asserting that quantum mediations of life and death are coconstitutive (things would be different if we only counted death or life). Furthermore, quantum mediations of life and death must be understood as essential vectors of power and wealth accumulation.33 As a consequence, some lives become meaningful and countable because others are either differently counted or not counted at all; some lives are rendered valuable by the devaluing of others.
As someone who has long worked on the relationships between numbers and words, I am especially intrigued by the theoretical purchase of mathematical concepts like those of quanta and matrices.34 The matrix—a supporting or enclosing structure first imagined as a womb, and now associated with a tabular mathematics—is a powerful spirit to invoke. Mathematical matrices place a set or array of figures together in an organized grouping in order to do something. As a figure, the matrix appears not only in sciences of the feminized body and mathematics but also as a form or mold in manufacturing, an interconnecting social, political, or computational network, and a biological substrate. A matrix, in many organics-based definitions, is the media in which something is generated or developed. As a generative form, the matrix is a powerful way of understanding and critiquing binary logics and simple, progressive narratives.
As a figure for interpretative and justice-oriented work, Vivian M. May notes that the matrix is one of the foundational ideas in intersectional practice and theory too: “intersectionality is about matrix thinking.”35 Grounded in matrix logic, intersectional work focuses on simultaneous and “enmeshed multiplicities,” including but not limited to those of race and gender. It also entails a commitment to “resistant forms of knowing” along with “eradicating epistemological, material, and structural inequality”—two commitments that I have learned from feminists of color in particular.36 The matrix logic of intersectional feminism “considers how inequalities intermingle,” and stresses linkages between “the structural and experiential, and the material and discursive.”37 In Latinate texts, “matrix” and “mater” (etymon for “mother,” but also the root for “matter”) can be used interchangeably, and it is no accident that both emerge here together.38 Nor, I suspect, is it accidental that both matter and matrix have largely been excluded from historically dominant knowledge paradigms in Anglo-American traditions.
What I am doing in Numbered Lives is reading matrices of media forms in order to see what power relations are articulated among and across mortality bills, devotional essays, mechanical and digital step counters, slave insurance policies, plantation ledgers, and modern census media. This is another kind of strategic formalism, and one that deliberately intervenes in the ways that we write media history, which too often reproduce structures of exclusion and inequality. Every time I consider mainstream or canonical quantum media, I have explicitly sought out instances of the same or similar forms in archives. When I have found absences, I looked for and frequently found contemporaneous mediations in different forms. I have not sought to write a complete history of any one media or form—although I hope that others will. I sketch out contextual moments within this long history, but some will surely want much thicker histories—and I hope that they write them too.
Speaking of matrices is also a strategy to foreground the structural nature of power as highlighted by intersectional theory in what Patricia Hill Collins has called the “matrix of domination.” Collins frames the matrix of domination as the “overall social organization” of intersecting oppressions and draws our attention to context-specific matrices.39 While Numbered Lives is a wide-ranging book in many ways, the Anglo-American specificity of the media discussed herein is important; this is neither a universal nor necessary story. Intersectional analysis is not, as Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us, “primarily about identity, it’s about how certain structures make identity the vehicle for vulnerability.”40 Accordingly, understanding race and gender in this book requires looking at “a set of sociopolitical processes of differentiation and hierarchization, which are projected onto the putatively biological human body.”41 Part of what I hope to share with Numbered Lives is a deeper understanding of how quantum media participate in the creation of presumed “natural” qualities that are then inscribed as race, gender, and/or citizenship, thereby creating vulnerable states.42 This is the move that takes us from structures of power to embodied lives and deaths, and structures the relationship between the figure of the matrix and “matter.”
The matrix established here of the Anglo-American tradition along with race and gender in quantum media is one of many possible structures. Others might configure their work differently, including by making matrices that explicitly address sexuality and ability, which are not touched on here. Indeed, one of the challenges of work that tackles deep time and intersectional frameworks is scope, and this book should not be understood as engaging with the full range of analytic and material possibilities. We need additional work on how the gendering of quantum media enables and constrains our ways of understanding and becoming raced sexual beings with a range of abilities, and I hope that this book will encourage others to take up that work. Moreover, in following the thread of Anglo-American quantum media, which are entangled in Judeo-Christian, Western, capitalist traditions, I am telling a partial story about particular quantification media and their roles in self-fashioning. In attending to a certain kind of “local” particularity, I am necessarily neglecting the ways in which the quantification of lives and bodies plays out differently in other cultural contexts. One area where work seems to me to be urgently needed is in grasping how colonialist/imperial paradigms are playing out in places where globalized entities like nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and corporations are utilizing quantum media to understand and control people and populations that do not have equal access to and/or may not want to deploy those technologies. I offer this work as a provocation as well as an expression of hope that other scholars will investigate other localized entanglements between human becoming and quantum media.
As a history of active mediation, techné—the knowledge created in doing, making, or building—is obviously important in this book. Poiesis—creation and becoming—is perhaps more central.43 Kember’s and Zylinska’s formulation—“being in and becoming with the technological world”—is telling in its emphasis on active and ongoing processes of creation. Understanding how quantum media are integral to processes of becoming coupled with a careful attention to the forms and process they engender is central to Numbered Lives and how I understand the work of an intersectional media history. Writing history is an act of “creative critique” when that history helps us to see not only what has been done but also that “what is done co-creates what could be done, or what could have been done; in other words actualization co-constructs the potential.”44 We cannot know how to be otherwise without understanding how quantum media are shaping our lives and deaths. Our historical and current doing, making, and being all create the conditions for future possible doings, makings, and beings.
My commitment to understanding the manifold and contingent sociotechnical systems through which we are becoming with technology is what drives my turn to thinking about the performative dimensions of communication as well—a move that I have in common with Barad, Sha, and Kember and Zylinska. Throughout the book, I draw from the idea of performativity activated within new vitalist/materialist and feminist thinking in order to understand how people and our quantum media cocreate our worlds. Gunhild Borggreen and Rune Gade argue that performance is a critical methodology for thinking about quanta of information “not only as accumulation of cultural material, but also as a source to how data lives and operates within a culture by its actions.”45 Borggreen and Gade build on the language of performance to talk about active forces in our world in much the same manner as Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” Sha’s “quickened matter,” or Kember and Zylinska’s “vital media.” Borggreen and Gade argue for the process of “datafication” as performance, a move that allows them to theorize data-driven culture as something in which performance theory can intervene.46 While I am sympathetic to this intervention, as someone who also works by creating performance events, I find it important to differentiate between the performativity of representation (writing and enumerating) and performance. This semantic confusion is an issue in multiple fields, and Diana Taylor suggests the use of “performatic” rather than “performative” as the adjectival form of performance.47 The tangle is instructive, and my own performatic work within both the Vibrant Lives and Border Quants projects informs my understanding of human-techno becoming, and shapes my sense of the value of real-time engagement with audiences, reembodiments of data, and the visceral consequences of enumerative abstraction.48
That said, this book focuses more on analyzing the textual and technological traces of quantum media, and falls more in line with the uses of performativity to characterize language and subjectivity. Judith Butler’s work is foundational here, and she points to the power of the everyday form to bring certain kinds of being to pass. She notes, for example, that the checking of a box to indicate sex on a newborn’s birth record is a performative speech and/or inscription act that whether we resist or not, “inaugurate(s) gender for the vast majority of us.” Butler’s work, along with that of Taylor, has been central to Anglo-American understanding of the performativity of language, and I am suggesting that enumeration is also performative, similarly informing, as Butler puts it, “the lived modes of embodiment we acquire over time.”49 Understanding quantum media as performative in this way enables several crucial interventions: it illuminates the ways in which data and interfaces are not inert, or “merely” descriptive, but rather always already engaged in the processes by which bodies and people have become and are becoming visible to themselves, others, and nation-states. If we want to intervene in these processes, we need to be aware of the ways in which quantum media are performative media that cocreate our possible lives and deaths.
Additionally, quantum media are performative in ways that further extend Taylor’s critique of the traditional binary between memory and history, the repertoire and the archive (a disruption of binary thinking that fits nicely with the matrix logic of intersectionality).50 Canon, created by convention or archive, will not get us far here. Instead, my analyses return again and again to the ways that these quantum media appear in popular or bureaucratic publications. In such publications, they make bodies and persons legible in particular ways to both the self and a broader community, whether as a body worth mourning, high-performance athletic body, or body that must testify. Finally, acknowledging performativity in representation helps to destabilize any lingering notion that the vital actions historicized here are “simple” or “natural” acts of quantification. While counting, measuring, and tracking are old practices, Numbered Lives makes it clear that they are historically contingent and situated practices. Body counts, activity trackers, and personal ledgers shape what it means to be a person, body, or citizen in Western culture; they are part of a never-ending set of intra-actions that are simultaneously creation (poiesis) and representation (techné) and I argue, are best understood using the critical frames of both mediation and performativity.
The repertoire/archive of any given moment is inextricably bound up with the available media. We can see the power of this insight in Vismann’s work, which traces the shift from files as the outcome of regulatory work—a kind of evidentiary artifact—to their now-familiar role as the “training ground for administrative routine.” In the process, she is mapping the human-techno becomings of both the modern individual and citizen (files as self-administration) and that of the nation (archives as nation administration).51 The genius of Vismann’s work is to show us the centrality of everyday tracking/organizational media like files to the production of modern Western selfhood and nationhood. Numbered Lives makes an analogous intervention by drawing our attention to the centrality of the media of measure to Anglo-American subjectivity and civic life. We might think of ourselves as made up of fleshy matter, or perhaps hopes and aspirations, but our media count our steps, lives, pounds, heartbeats, and value. We are everywhere enumerated, and if we take seriously the idea that we are perpetually becoming in relation to our media devices, then we would do well to recognize that quantum media make for Numbered Lives.