Numbered Lives Follow-Up Interview with Jacqueline Wernimont (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.

Jacqueline Wernimont is the author of Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media (MIT, 2018). 

MM: You write that “Tabular and numerical media became the professional tools of the demographer, numerator, insurance broker, and health provider” (81). The labor of counting seems central to your book, and especially quantum media as both products and producers of counting bodies. How would you describe the way these media interact with laboring bodies to make the work of counting publicly visible and valued?

JW: There are so many places my brain wants to go with this question. I was strongly influenced by Mary Poovey’s The History of the Modern Fact in which she talks about the movement from a single account ledger to double entry bookkeeping as a critical step in producing a sense of authority and accountability for accountants in early modern Britain. The ledger books would have income on one side and expenditures on the other side, which is a relatively logical set-up for today’s thinker but was pretty new back then. They would add up the total income and total expense and if those numbers didn’t add up, they would just zero out the ones that didn’t work. What’s so compelling about Poovey’s analysis of the way that early accountants used these books is that it didn’t matter so much what the numbers said. What mattered was that someone had carefully recorded them in detail and could point to a “balance” or zeroing out at the end even if it was a fiction. There’s a way in which the account books stood in for the credibility of the people doing the book-making. They produced a sense of rigor as well as a sense of transparency, which was really important but also fabricated.

Ted Porter is a historian of math whose work I’ve engaged with a lot. He shows that in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century Anglo-American traditions, the use of the number is not necessarily to point to the real world, but to develop trust between people at a distance. Merchants who would only interact with someone occasionally when they came into port, loan agents, and people on expeditions or settling new colonies would use ledger books to build trust at a distance through the labor of numericity. The act of listing the numbers was itself productive of trust. So I do think there’s a way in which these are media that not only reflect counts on the ground but also reflect the counting body and its attempts to testify to its own authenticity and trustworthiness. 

The thing I think is interesting about the people who do the counting (in 16th-18th century texts in particular) is that these documents look like they are testifying to a single person’s authority — the plantation governor, the ship captain, the parish clerk — but what’s left out, I think intentionally, are all of the other counting bodies that come before them: the counting women who go out and produce much more ephemeral sheets of paper and hand them to the parish clerk, the scribes who transfer the counting women’s records to the official record books then give it to the parish clerk, who then sends it up to the king. The same was true for the business and home ledgers that Poovey talks about. Initially, you have these much more narrative accounts, often handwritten, often by people of much lower social status including women, people of color, servants, and even sometimes children in households and they would be transcribed into an account book that quite literally erased their hands, erased their words, and boiled it down to the numbers. You have these ephemeral receipts that were being produced by a large group of counting bodies but that were sort of magically remediated into clear tables that were presented by an authoritative body. So there’s lots of different kinds of counting bodies, I think.  

MM: Your point about activity tracking and women’s domestic labor presents an intriguing paradox. On one hand, the ability to make housework visible through tracking is a feminist feat. On the other hand, this invites surveillance and discipline over that labor. How might we navigate that paradox in our understanding of these human-techno developments?

JW: It’s a great question, Molly. I think it’s actually even more complex. Even in the early quantification of women’s labor there were conflicting motivations. On the one hand we have the effort to make visible women’s work in the home and service sector, on the other was the drive to pull white women in particular back into the now demonstrably “scientific” work of housemaking. Add to that the surveillance aspect and you can see that there is a lot at play in quantifying women’s lives. In terms of how we might ourselves navigate these various kinds of motivations, I think we a) have to know why we are quantifying — to what ends and for whom; b) we need to understand how power is being leveraged and/or created in the act of quantification and the dissemination of that information; and c) we need to enable people to assert control over the quantification of their lives — I feel pretty strongly that people should be able to choose the degree to which their data is shared with others. 

My research has made it clear to me that counting and making visible is always politicized, and it can be politicized in different directions. I wanted it to be politicized in a progressive direction of the recognition of women’s labor but it was almost anachronistic of me to wish that and a very difficult thing for women to do in their particular historical moment of the 1950s and 60s. I’m always frustrated when people say that numbers are neutral, and this is a great example of how they can’t be because they’re always rhetorical and exist inside a particular cultural frame where their meaning is not unlimited. The rhetoric of numbers are constrained by the imaginative possibilities of the historical moment and the particular cultural formations that they’re embedded in. 

I just gave a plenary address at the 2019 Digital Humanities Summer Institute on the quantification of the sex act, and these things are so clearly gendered but also so clearly wrapped up in capitalist enterprise. To return to your question, needing to see women’s housework as labor emerged in order to make space for men’s return home from war and need to get back into the labor force. In this work on quantified sex, I note that menstrual tracking apps, weight tracking apps, and all of the tracking of women’s bodies seems not to be in the service of self-knowledge, autonomy, and greater self-determination for women but really primarily serving capitalist ends under the guise of self-realization. When I went to graduate school, there weren’t a lot of people talking about neoliberalism yet (at least in my literary circles), but it’s clear to me that that’s the kind of system this participates in: the autonomous individual who can self-optimize and be targeted for ads and additional support and device wear. The market isn’t interested in actual emancipation or liberation but rather making money and I find that really frustrating. People argued for a while about why there were no menstrual tracking devices and Spire does it now and the Apple Watch will do it now but they sell that data and do weird things with biofeedback around PMS and advertising to women of a certain age. There’s a part of me that wants there to be a positive side to all of this tracking and wants self-realization to be an okay goal, but I keep running up against the monetization of the desire to know the data and the body itself, so I’m less optimistic. 

MM: Would you say, then, that quantum media is inseparable from capitalism?

JW: Yes, I think it is. I think it’s also inseparable from nationalism. It’s also probably inseparable from a masculinized epistemology, the idea that if we can just break everything down into its component pieces and know it then we can exert mastery and control over it. I don’t quite want to say that all quantified self is the patriarchy because I think that flattens it, but I do think that a masculinized epistemology, an imperial approach to how the individual interacts with the nation, and capitalist market-based economy is intimately tied up in these devices. That goes back to the very first quantum media and even if our modern step tracking seems really distant from that, even if our CDC counts of mortality seem really distant from that, I don’t think they are. 

MM: You write about census data and I found the information that categories of disability are only noted in the census beginning in 1830 absolutely fascinating. It made me think of other ways that we do and don’t count people currently. Our current census forms fall short in terms of recognizing nonbinary gender identities, and there’s ongoing controversy over whether to note citizenship status, as well. These are living questions that you illuminate through a historical perspective. Could you say some more about how understanding our quantum media affects our ideas of personhood in our current moment?

JW: The politics of inclusion and exclusion around quantum media is a really interesting and thorny problem. In my plenary address at the 2019 Digital Humanities Summer Institute, I talk a little bit about the #BlackLivesMatter movement and share an anecdote from Talithia Williams’s “Own Your Body’s Data” TED Talk. There are clear spaces where having data and being counted is a way to ask to be seen. What’s at stake in the census debate right now is that if you ask the citizenship question, you are more likely to discourage non-citizens and Hispanics generally from being counted. 

The census and mortality tracking have always been about the fiscal and legal obligations of the state to its people. Quantum media are 100 percent about money and nationality. In the contemporary moment, the idea that we would disenfranchise huge swaths of the United States based on engendering fear has a significant impact because it means that those states, simply by virtue of having a lower count, will get fewer federal resources for things like hospitals and schools, not to mention the question of representation in government. The obligation between the state and its people was initially about war and specifically how many bodies we can marshal in the service of war. It’s less about that today and more about to whom the state is obligated and to whom resources belong. The debate about the census question is really about the Republican party trying to limit its fiscal exposure in the face of counting. 

The problem with counts is that they can also make people vulnerable. It’s not always good to be seen. There’s a lot of scholarship on the “Indians Not Taxed” category in the history of the census and the political question whether a group would want to be counted by a nation it does not recognize as the sovereign body. It’s partially an issue of money and resources but it also subjecting one’s self or community to enumeration comes with a loss of autonomy and a certain kind of legal risk. People who are undocumented might not want to participate in the census if they think they’re going to be trading resources for their region for a different level of exposure to legal risk. That’s been the case for Native Americans for as long as the United States has existed. The issues don’t go away; they mutate and show up in different spaces. But they remain pretty consistent across time. 

MM: Toward the end of your book, you give examples of how wearable devices have been used in several instances to detect the presence or absence of consent in women’s sexual and bodily violation. I found this an incredibly powerful point, and it calls to mind all the ways in which our bodies are constantly interacting with – and being disrupted by – devices, both with and without our consent. How do you think our understanding of our bodies as intact, discrete entities within our own control has and will continue to change due to quantum media?

JW: The use of things like Fitbits or Alexa devices being asked to testify in a court of law strikes me as really interesting cases of numbers being asked to build trust between people at a distance. The devices are being called upon to testify to the trustworthiness or the authority of the bearer. I could write a whole other book on the idea of quantum media as testimony or testimonials, which I find deeply problematic. 

At the same time, we have a discourse of unplugging alongside a rapid explosion of Internet of Things (IoT) devices. You can have smart homes, smart cities, and smart cars; everything is “smart.” There’s even a smart tampon now. Honestly, I think everything that says “smart” on it is just dumb. There’s a way in which the talk about unplugging from devices and social media is being separated from this “smart” or surveillance technology and I think that although people are getting savvier about always being connected to a device in the sense of your eyeballs being on it, they’re getting less savvy about devices that are operating in the background, or maybe were never savvy about that to begin with. I’m concerned with the many people I know who are intelligent and rational but don’t think about having a Nest system in their homes for heating and cooling. They say, “It’s great! It optimizes everything!” but when the power grid goes down you can’t turn on the heat in your house. A lot of people also have home monitoring systems and the idea that we can take the burden of paying attention off of ourselves and have more meaningful engagement with one another by automating our home is a pretty old narrative but I think it is also a really dangerous one from a surveillance and monetization perspective. The idea that we’ll have drones flying around that will look for strange activity and notify the police department is just …no! 

I have a graduate student working on IoT devices in the home and they are currently testing with an Alexa but put the Alexa in the oven when they’re not doing the testing because you can’t trust it to not be on. People are very unaware of how much the always-on devices can be embedded anywhere. Any time you have a device outfitted with a microphone and an internet connection it’s a security risk; you’re sharing that data with other people. People have teddy bears that are watching their infants but then those teddy bears are hacked by people who start talking to those children in their cribs. The IoT devices create a channel that can be exploited by bad actors from creepy guys who want to talk to your two year old in her crib to companies who want to gather that data and use it to give you ads. They can also be used by nation-states that want to attack our infrastructure. For people who work in cyber security, what’s particularly disturbing is that the more connected everything is, the more fragile the system is. It’s always the case that people in their homes are the ones who have the non-password protected, not locked down, not secure device or router and those things — because they’re connected to other things — then become portals. I think there’s personal risk and then there’s national risk and that those risks are unevenly distributed. In communities where people are being given devices to help with things like diabetes or to monitor pollution in the air, when those are smart devices they’re often also harvesting data about those targeted communities. We could be doing that kind of sensing with analog or devices that aren’t connected to the internet and still be serving those communities without putting them at risk. What worries me the most is that some people are getting “smarter” and getting access to these technologies but often that access comes with an unevenly distributed risk.