Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 4: Every Step You Take (Molly Mann)

This post is part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Discussion on Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT Press, 2018), by HASTAC Co-Director Jacqueline Wernimont. The book is available here. This post reviews Chapter 4, “Every Step You Take” and was peer-reviewed by Linda Luu.

As part of the larger context of this book, in which Jacqueline Wernimont interrogates “human-techno becoming” from a historical perspective, this chapter addresses step-tracking quantum media in particular. From “waywisers” (early pedometers) to FitBits, Wernimont considers how these tools co-create identity, subjectivity, and meaning for the humans who interact with them. In the effort to establish self-knowledge through data points, these quantum media also establish relationships between the self and “superstructures” of nation-state and corporation.

Wernimont synthesizes a wide range of texts, from Montaigne’s Essais to Margery Kempe’s The Book of Margery Kempe alongside insights into early modern step-tracking technology. She deftly manages this material, organizing it all in service of her inquiry into how, historically, attempts at individual self-knowledge have been deeply interwoven with the discipline and surveillance of bodies in service of institutions — a symbiotic relationship between corpus and corporation. Wernimont observes how waywisers were used in early cartography to establish boundaries and demarcate territories, arguing that these seemingly unremarkable tools were quite literally instrumental to the creation of the nation-state, as well as the “raced, gendered, and classed notions of citizen” that result from it. Wernimont’s juxtaposition of the waywiser with contemporary technologies like the Jawbone or FitBit presents the irresistible argument that we, too, in engaging with these quantum media, produce and perform our own subjecthood.

Throughout Numbered Lives, Wernimont deftly maneuvers temporal leaps to locate past and present-day quantum media within a narrative of self-construction and subjectivity. She identifies a long tradition of outsourcing meaning-making of ourselves to institutions of nation-state and corporation, driven by a cultural imperative to attain self-knowledge. Our reliance on quantum media toward that end, however, constitutes a performance and production of self within larger capitalist and patriarchal structures. Wernimont’s work is a valuable contribution to the fields of digital humanities and science and technology studies (STS), one that historicizes and contextualizes technogenesis to increase our understanding of the self in relationship to quantum media.