Sex and Numbers: Pleasure, Reproduction, and Digital Biopolitics

Below you’ll find the recorded talk that I offered for my scheduled plenary at the 2019 Digital Humanities Summer Institute. Due to back injuries (discussed in the beginning of the talk), I was not able to present in person. Instead the DHSI team played this recorded talk. I virtually attended on twitter as well to make it possible to have some Q&A. I’ve included the text of the talk at the very bottom of this post as well.

Bibliography of inspirations, influences, and actual citations

Brian M. Watson gets a big thank you for his pointers to the Kinsey Institute materials, which I hope will yield many more rabbit holes. Nikki Stevens also has my deep appreciation for their support, technical and otherwise, while getting this up.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, AK Press, 2017.

Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000)

Crawford, Kate, Jessica Lingel, and Tero Karppi, “Our Metrics Our Selves: A hundred years of self-tracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 18 vol 4-5 (2015)

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Intersectionality Matters: Why We Can’t Wait for a Social Justice Agenda That Centers Us All.” Keynote speech at the Women of the World Festival, March 14, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DW4HLgYPlA

The Digital Alchemists are a collective that includes the individuals listed here on the Center for Solutions to Online Violence speaker’s bureau. (Hire them and use the Power Wheels – they are a wonderful resource!)

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. New York: Picador, 2008.

Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-78. New York: Picador, 2009.

Kinsey Institute, The Kinsey Interview Kit https://kinseyinstitute.org/pdf/Kinsey_Codebook.pdf

— related: Gebhard, P.H., & Johnson, A.B. (1979). The Kinsey Data: Marginal tabulations of the 1938-1963 interviews conducted by The Institute for Sex Research. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge, UK. Polity Press, 2016.

— (2014) “Quantified sex: a critical analysis of sexual and reproductive self-tracking using apps.” Culture, Health & Sexuality, 17 (4), pp. 440-453

— For more on the disciplining of women’s bodies through new media see also “Vitalities and visceralities: alternative body/food politics in new digital media” (July 24, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract= 3007610

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15.1 (2003) 11-40.

Nafus, Dawn ed. Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2016) and Gina Neff and Dawn Nafus, Self-Tracking (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2016.

For more on the history of mensuration see Schaffer, Simon, “Ceremonies of Measurement Rethinking the World History of Science” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 2015 (2), 409-435. Heilbron, John L.: The Measure of Enlightenment, in: Tore Frängsmyr et. al. (eds.): The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century, Berkeley et al. 1990, 207–242.

The Denver Post “Colorado Springs Students Secretly Photographed” (2019)https://www.denverpost.com/2019/05/27/cu-colorado-springs-facial-recognition-research/

The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, Va.), 24 Aug. 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1913-08-24/ed-1/seq-52/

The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 01 March 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1908-03-01/ed-1/seq-32/

Wernimont, Jacqueline. “The Government is Using the Most Vulnerable People to Test Facial Recognition Software” with Nikki Stevens and Os Keyes, Slate.com, March 17, 2019.https://slate.com/technology/2019/03/facial-recognition-nist-verification-testing-data-sets-children-immigrants-consent.html

Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018.

— “The Living Net,” performance at University of Victoria, British Columbia, June 9, 2016. Multimedia performance with real time data from audience devices with Jessica Rajko. See also “The Living Net: A Haptic Experience of Personal Data” with Jessica Rajko and Stejpan Rajko, CHI EA ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems,May 2017, Denver, Colorado pp. 449-452.

— “What Wearable Manufacturers Think Women Want,” Slate.com, April 4, 2016.              

Williams, Talithia, “Own Your Body’s Data” https://www.ted.com/talks/talithia_williams_own_your_body_s_data

In relation to the opening frame regarding computational literary studies, you can see the Critical Inquiry suite of posts and also a round of follow ups on Cultural Analytics. There were robust conversations on social media and in other blogging venues, google will help you. Da wrote this thread as well.

“Sex and Numbers: Pleasure, Reproduction, and Digital Biopower” (text transcript)

Recording a talk is a strange thing for me to do. I really value presence and I tend to think that a significant part of a talk is embodied performance. I like audience energy (even if it also terrifies me) and I sincerely wish I were there with you. I have learned a lot from Shawn Wilson’s notion of research as ceremony and I particularly appreciate his recognition of what people say no to when they say yes to being together at an event.

I love saying yes to thinking through thoughts together, to learning, making, and breaking together. SLIDE This time, however, I could not say no to the yelps and pleas of my own body in order to say that yes. Like all disks in a spine, mine are degenerating, but they are doing so faster than the average, like 20 years faster – it is very on brand for me that even to the slight jelly disks in my back are in a hurry to grow up/grow old.

SLIDE Travel to UBC’s HASTAC for the amazing conversations about indigenous-centric scholarship and teaching and to the earlier conversations in Vancouver at Simon Fraser’s Digital Democracies event wore out my body, even as it filled my mind and heart. I’ve done a lot of saying yes this spring and I’ve learned that I need to do less to stay out of pain and to make it possible to say yes to events like this when I want to.SLIDE So I appreciate you saying yes to being here with me, even if I’m only here virtually (rest assured, I’m on twitter with you right now!).

Having talked a bit about why I’m not there, I’d like to take a moment and talk about why I am here – here as a part of the DH community.

I have always been a strange bird SLIDE studying molecular biology along with English literature, managing night clubs and then going into academia, part of a lineage of Iowa farmers with multiple family members in the military but also raised with upper middle class white American privileges in Colorado. Even in my most disciplined moments of fitting in – graduate school and my first years on the job market – I was a Renaissance scholar who wrote a dissertation on mathematics and poetry as possible worlds technologies and openly talked about wanting to render poetry into 3D objects that we could throw around the room. SLIDE

I spent three years on the market before finding a position in which I could stay with my partner (who is also an academic) and then spent 10 years at assistant while giving birth to two children, miscarrying one, experiencing wicked postpartum depression, and moving jobs and locations three times. That I am now introduced as distinguished chair of digital humanities and social engagement at Dartmouth often leaves me feeling a bit bewildered (SLIDE) and I am entirely committed to using the various affordances of this position to lift up the great scholars – thinkers, makers, breakers, and killjoys around me. (SLIDE)I’m also fairly committed to being a digital humanist, although I have to admit that its harder some days than others. (SLIDE)

I’m also fairly committed to being a digital humanist, although I have to admit that its harder some days than others. (SLIDE)I’ve been watching the debate around computational literary studies with a fair degree of horror – horror that it continues to be centered as “The DH” in the popular press, horror at the personal attacks, and horror that this is what people are choosing to spend their time fighting over as the seas rise, the tornados spin widely, and black, brown, and indigenous people in North America continue to die due to systematic racism, neo-colonial indifference, and outright campaigns of destruction. Honestly, when trans people are being murdered and women are being legislatively reimagined as vessels for white supremacist nation building – I find it horrifying that people are devoting significant resources to fighting over the value of computing genre in a limited literary corpus.

Let me be clear here – although I’m not a computational literary studies person, I don’t take issue with its existence as a set of methods and I don’t dispute the intellectual value of debate over methods, or even of worrying about how we classify literary genres. That said, in a moment where algorithmic methods are driving cloud storage facilities to displace communities of color, slurpring up natural resources at alarming rates, being used right now (SLIDE) to train weapons of war, when our faces have become something to be mined in public along with our words and the words of our forebears, I do wonder about where people choose to put their time and considerable intellectual power.

(SLIDE )In 2015 while working with the Digital Alchemists on the Center for Solutions to Online Violence a woman looked at the room and asked the white scholars “what are you doing in your work to stop black death?” I was already shifting my scholarship, but it took a sharp turn in the days, weeks, months that followed that question. I now regularly ask myself “what am I doing to ensure that we all get more free?” – to ensure not just bare life, but that the full futures are there for black, brown, indigenous people to realize and shape in their own ways. What am I doing to ensure that my human kin – men, women, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people – are free? What am I doing to ensure that my non-human kin – the bees, the whales, the mushrooms, and the dandelions are also free?

If you find yourself thinking right now, oh god, this is going to be one of those talks (I’m thinking it as I’m writing it), join me in taking a minute to reflect on why that might be. I’m always acutely aware of the disciplinary and patriarchal forms that encourage me to feel weird talking about myself, my feelings, other people, nature. Aware that at least partially abstracted ideas and concepts feel much easier, safer, more “appropriate” – aware that being political or engaged is often read, especially if you’re not a cis male, as being soft, emotional, or irrational. (SLIDE) I opened my piece “Knowing Why Revolution Must Come: Digital Humanities as Poetry and Prayer” for American Quarterly with Joy Harjo’s Eagle Poem. She observes that “to pray you open your whole self” to the world. This is an act not only of openness but also of humility: you “know that there is more / that you can’t see, can’t hear.”

And I still feel like I want to vomit when I think about that piece – not because it’s bad but because it violates a lot of the norms of academic writing and I literally imagine many of my respected colleagues rolling their eyes as they read it. So here I am, sitting in these feelings that I’ve learned from a system that has devalued bodies, rituals, prayers, commune and collectivity and asking us all to take a minute to inhabit humility and to think: what are we doing in our work to ensure that we are all more free?

This is where I get to start talking about sex (SLIDE)

I wrote this book: (SLIDE)

In the book I spend time thinking about the histories of our quantifying technologies. Recalling that I’m a weird bird, I also collaborate with others to create installations or events that help us think about how digital technologies quantify, monitor, and imagine us and to think about how we might make what Wendy Chun calls the promiscuity of our computational devices more visible, tangible even so that people can assess their own relationships to that computational promiscuity. (SLIDE)

But back to the book – I frame the book with wombsOk, that’s an overstatement, but I do ground my media history in matrices and for those of you who are word nerds, you’ll know that matrix can refer to wombs, as well as to mathematical and biological forms. I like those resonances and it makes sense to me that matrix might be what Susan Leigh Star described as a boundary term or object. I’m using what Vivian M. May has called the matrix logic that is a hallmark intersectional work (nb: and for those of you who don’t know, this is a theory and practice that has been developed and deployed in a long lineage of black feminist scholarship and action, which includes May, Kimberle Crenshaw, and others. Second nota bene – there’s a lot of discussion of the fashion of white settler scholars like myself using black, latinx, and indigenous theories and I’m happy to talk with folks about how I’m navigating this. A key for me is to cite, cite, cite. But also to read DEEPLY – reading one Crenshaw essay will not make you an intersectional feminist. Additionally, if you’re not using intersectionality in your work in the service of greater freedoms for women of color in particular, that you might want to stop and consider if you’re appropriating rather than engaging and learning)–

Back to the womb: the matrix logic that I’m using in Numbered Lives 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” and “eradicating epistemological, material, and structural inequality” – two commitments I have learned from feminists of color in particular.[i] The matrix logic of intersectional feminism “considers how inequalities intermingle” and emphasizes linkages between “the structural and experiential, and the material and discursive.”[ii]

Speaking of matrices foregrounds the structural nature of power as highlighted by intersectional theory, as in Patricia Hill Collins’ formulation of the “matrix of domination.”[iii] Collins frames the matrix of domination as the “overall social organization” of intersecting oppressions and draws our attention to context-specific matrices.[iv] The context-specific matrix of my book – Numbered Lives – is that of a long Anglo-American tradition that stretches back at least to the early part of the 16th century. Part of what I’d like to share with Numbered Lives is a deeper understanding of how quantum media participate in the creation and maintenance of presumed ‘natural’ qualities that are then inscribed as race, gender, and/or citizenship.[v][vi] So in the book I think a lot about how whiteness has been constructed in AngloAmerican contexts using these media that cast life and death in terms of numbers. I also think about how different media have been used to measure and track black, and to a lesser extent brown and indigenous, bodies not as lives and deaths but as property and losses.

For those who might not spend as much time as I do wondering how and why we count people, let me give you a sense of what’s cool these days in terms of tracking and since we’re talking about sex we’ll start with – wombs again. SLIDE

Quantified self and wearables are big business these days – according to an IDC report, in 2018 172.2 million wearables shipped world wide, a 31% increase over 2017 and CCS Insights estimates the 2019 market to be worth 25 Billion. Currently, I’m interested in how tech is being imagined in ways that fall in line with historical trends around the quantification of human sexual activity and function, although I have written about the gendering of the larger marketplace as well. (SLIDE)

This research has taken me into the first half of the 20th century, and right now I’m doing work on the quantitative studies conducted by Alfred Kinsey and colleagues at the University of Indiana (side note: these are a particularly rich site for a DHer like me, given that they quantify human sexuality and sexual history while also using punch card technology and large scale data analysis) SLIDE

Kinsey’s studies were interested in binary gendered sexual experiences but there’s a noticeable asymmetry in his interest in the physical structure of the vagina and that of the penis. Vaginas only appear in the Kinsey data as gateways to the womb or uterus or as a trace of sexual activity. He and his colleagues asked people about their age of first menstruation and menstrual duration and technologies, but the only question about the physical structure of either the vagina or the clitoris is about the hymen and its rupture, but not about their physical features.

(SLIDE)Where vaginas and wombs are being quantified today, we see a similar focus on menstruation in today’s “smart” devices (Loon Cup measures volume and color of menstrual blood, as will the “smart tampon” designed by NextGenJane.) Not present in the Kinsey data, but likely to show up when I get to doing research on other quantifications by AngloAmerican sexologists are questions about the musculature of the vagina. And of course we have both apps and teledildonic devices for that today: strengthening the kegel muscles that form the pelvic floor.

Penises in both the quantified sex of the 20th century and today get a different kind of treatment. Kinsey and his team asked interviewees about the length, girth, direction and angle of both the flaccid and erect penis, even asking about the ‘dressing’ – or orientation in trousers – of the member. The concern for penile dimensions continues for the 21st century quantified penis. The i.Con smart condom (which isn’t a condom at all) measures physical features such as skin temperature and girth, and adds in some new mechanical metrics including number of thrusts and thrust speed during sexual activity. It also tracks the number of positions and the duration and frequency of sexual sessions and it will tell you about the calories you’ve burned. The SexFit similarly connects to smartphones and records what the company describes as performance data “such as calories burnt, duration, and thrusts per minute”.A similar set of metrics is core to sexual activity tracking apps as well, like Slog or the now defunct “Spreadsheets”, which will track thrusts number and velocity, sound volume, and duration if you’re willing to conduct your sex on a bed or other single piece of furniture and have your phone out at the same time. It is worth noting that the tracking apps in particular, which rely on the phone’s microphone, gyroscope, and accelerometer seem to imagine sexuality activity as a supine, single location event where a phone can unobtrusively sit nearby. It’s a very particular kind of sexual activity being monitored here, just like the metrics gathered by penis wearables are interested in very particular ways of understanding the member.

At this very early stage in my work on the history of quantified sex, I’m not sure that I can make any definitive statements about the relationships between Kinsey’s data collections and that of our more contemporary devices. I do see that the asymmetry that is present in the Kinsey data, where vaginas and wombs are really only assessed in terms of sexual activity and maturity and penises are subject to all kinds of measurement, is reproduced in modern QS devices. This is a kind of common thread in my work, where the “new” media of today is detailed as actually part of a much longer lineage of quantifying practices that took different media forms but still carry with them the older ideologies and politics. In this case that would be a privileging of the penis as the sexual organ while the vagina and womb are imagined more as receptacles (and this is an OLD schema as Karen Newman has noted). Also the enlightenment drive to know through study and quantification, either for intellectual mastery or for embodied optimization, is part of the legacy here as well.

This drive to know and to optimize in particular brings me back to the question of biopower and biopolitics. Foucauldian biopower operates across a spectrum that includes at one end, disciplinary power as a ‘micro-physical’ technology of power that addresses individual bodies in an effort to optimize both their capabilities and their compliance, and regulatory power, a macro-scientific technology of power that attends to the health of the population as an entity. (Foucault (1990: 139, 2003: 242–53), cited in Rachel Sanders). When one is operating in a neoliberal context dominated by individual responsibility, as we are in the United States and perhaps arguably across the AngloAmerican contexts, biopower operates through non-state as well as state formations. As Nikolas Rose (1999: 49–50) suggests, neoliberal biopower ‘governs at a distance,’ convincing citizens to shape their own bodies and behavior to norms established through the authority of expert knowledge (Rose, 40; also cited in Sanders). In this framework we end up with ‘technologies of the self’ that co-exist with technologies of state power in order to manage human life at both individual and population scales. So we have penile rings that will measure girth for individual edification and then feedback expert or collective data about thrust presumably for some sort of optimization. Note the ways in which this individual-technology-expert loop leaves out the other partner who is presumably part of sexual activity? That strikes me as a particularly neoliberal feature of quantified sex. Isolating the individual who is actually in part of a communal system in order to foreground metrics and personal responsibility for optimization.

In addition, the devices of quantified sex are enacting a kind of anatomization or “piecing” as Jasbir Puar frames it of the human body, and Puar observes that this is an elemental aspect of neoliberal biomedical approaches to bodies and to the creation of bodies and their activities as “multi-sectional markets” (Snyder and Mitchell, cited in Puar). This piecing is perhaps less apparent in the histories that I tell in Numbered Lives, where walking and dying are the major activities. But they have certain commonalities – allow me to step back into some of that work to explain:

Among the first known quantum media in early modern Europe was this device (SLIDE), which appears in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, a gathering of manuscript pages written between 1478 and 1519. Sometimes referred to as a “perambulator,” “waywiser,” “pedometer,” or “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.[vii] While Da Vinci’s measuring and recording device is perhaps the earliest in Europe, it isn’t the first non-textual quantum media, the Inca were already using quipu – a complex textile counting and recording system —  to not only count individuals, but to record productivity in mines and keep inventory in storehouses.

We have a handful of remaining examples of early modern waywisers, including that of English clockmaker Daniel Delander (d. 1733). A partial artifact, the Delander example is a bronze dial that includes measurements in miles, furlongs, and poles. It may well have sat embedded in a handbox like the Germanic device to the right. This piece, dated 1590, is currently held at the German National Museum in Nuremburg. Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, seems to have been at the center of waywiser innovation, including the smaller, more body friendly brass and silver cord operated Johann Willebrand (1682-1720) pedometer on the far right above. 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, and they capture human activity in the same kinds of interfaces usually reserved for the marking of time and celestial movements. Expensive, heavy, and durable, European waywisers and pedometers were initially used for cartographic work.

In Royal Society proceedings and other technical publications, the pedometer was described as “a new geographical instrument which, attached to a man or to the horse’s saddle, uses the steps to display the length of the journey one has made.”[viii] Initially 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 situations quantum media were leveraged as a way of making land claims – transforming matters of value for emerging nation-states such as existence and control of natural resources into matters of international fact. No small feat in an era where standardized measurement was not yet a reality.[ix]

Pedometers and way-wisers were central to the kind of “fixing and demarcating of territory” that Foucault points to as foundational to territorial systems of imperial power.[x] While measuring land can seem rather banal and the aesthetic appeal of early waywisers can draw excited attention, both the banality and the elegance of the devices obscures a fundamental truth about these media: they were instrumental (literally) to colonial occupation, to the work of “seizing, delimiting, and asserting control over a geographical area – of writing on the ground a new set of social and spatial relations.”[xi] This matters not only for our understanding of the politics of space in the colonial era, but also for unpacking the cultural imaginaries that have been a constitutive part of human activity tracking. “These imaginaries,” as Achille Mbembe observes, give “meaning to the enactment of differential rights to differing categories of people for different purposes within the same space.”[xii] To walk or ride with a pedometer or waywiser was to engage in the production of nation, Anglo subjecthood, and to participate in the violences that attended such production.

To map space in the early modern period was an exercise in the production of the idea and material realities of the early nation state. Land measurements were done to assess taxes, to estimate the value of royal hunting land and forestry assets, to cordon off pastures and grazing lands, and to delimit territory for the purposes of laying claim to natural resources such as minerals, jewels, and water. Individual human bodies walked or rode across land while new quantifying media measured either steps or the rotation of a wheel.  In some instances these devices even “printed” their data out in spools of punctured paper designed to help cartographers track and map the terrain travelled.[xiii] These measurements were then integrated into official state and imperial documents that declared terrestrial spaces as part of an ever expanding empire. Royal decrees, official record books, and newly popular books of maps remediated measurements of human travel into demonatrations of dominion and fiscal ownership/responsibility.  <<Molly Farrell has an excellent study of how similarly colonial plantation islands were similarly remediated in the 17th century and in my book I talk at length about this process in American colonies >>

Returning now to our anatomized body in quantified sex – Echoing the historical roots of quantum mediation in colonial land theft, Puar notes that the modern body has become a “terrain of definable localities, each colonized by its particular pathologies dictated by the medicalized marketplace.” So even in these very distant seeming devices – things like penis rings or the very poorly named smart condom – the specter of colonial land theft and the imperial, enlightenment, and capitalist logics haunt shiny new devices. Rather than carving up stolen lands for the purposes of resource extraction and settlement, these logics are now being used to carve up the human body and I think we would do well to consider if resource extraction and settlement are not also at work here (SLIDE).

The logics of nation-building and the fecundity of the national population have long been a part of quantum mediation as well.

(SLIDE)By the end of the 19th century, the “American Pedometer” debuts and is clearly figured as a bio-media that exists in addition to the use of the waywiser/pedometers of Europe for geographical surveying. 19th century Americans were supposed to be interested in tracking for individual health and recreation, “walking,” – an ad for the device reads – “especially in the open air, is acknowledged to be the most economical, the most enjoyable, and in many respects, the most healthful form of physical exercise.”[xiv] Sold exclusively by Tiffany and Co, the $5-7 dollar purchase price was roughly equivalent to a $100-150 dollar device today.[xv] Then, as now, the affordability of quantum media was a relative measure, making the self-regulation imagined under neoliberal biopolitics part of economic and social differentiation in the US (gloss: activity trackers have always been about marking affluence, race, gender, and citizenship).

As the use of pedometers begins to include straight and white presenting women at the turn of the 20th century, there is a rise in ambivalent reports of their pedometer usage in the contexts of elite socialite cultures. SLIDE The 1908 Washington Times magazine section ran a two page spread on the pedometer fad at debutant balls, which included a nearly full page graphic that featured elegantly clad women with pedometers discretely hidden beneath expensive gowns or tucked into bodices. The text at the bottom reports that “after an evening at a ball the debutante can glance at her little pedometer and say to her escort in all truthfulness: ‘Well, I danced just twenty-one miles…this evening.’” [xvi] The piece goes on to suggest that the “pedometer is all the rage in the large cities,” having been imported from the London debutant scene. Suggesting that “no bud is truly elite unless she has a little ticker attached to her bodice” and that “if one is close enough to the young debutant…one can hear the merry tick, tick of the little instrument,” the description is clearly meant to titillate in addition to standing as evidence of a woman’s status as a nationally prized “bud,” presumably destined to further help the nation flower.[xvii]  It at once positions a quantum media as a necessary accessory for cultural prominence and promises men an auditory experience that verifies physical proximity to the nation’s desirable crop.

The article goes on to note that “the facts shown by the figures” may well be “incredible,” but they are nevertheless true, again depending on the power of quantum media to contain the incredible with the deft remediation of what I call ‘aesthetic rationalism.’ While the presence of the pedometer positions young women as cosmopolitan, ‘elite,’ and desirable even in their labors, a cartoon appearing five years later in the Richmond Times-Dispatch suggests that the step-counting craze threatened the social networking and partnering function of the balls as women became more fixated on the numbers than on their dancing partners.  (SLIDE) Lamenting a perceived spoiling of the dance season by the craze, the cartoon and article to which it was attached suggested that instead of the appropriate work of nation and family building, the pedometer-wearing women are creating a “spectacle” in which the debutant is anxiously monitoring her steps while her dance partner sweats with exertion.[xviii] The pedometer driven competition amongst the nations debutants threatened to transform balls into sporting events that leveraged a mens’ physical exertion in dancing rather than serving masculinized heterosexual desires for reproductive sex and matrimony.[xix]  

So we have a trajectory in which pedometers are first used in service of imperial territorial power and then come to serve as media technologies for regulating not only imperial space, but also the imperial and neo-imperial subject. Measuring health and vigor of affluent, straight, white, male citizens in Britain and the US, step counting devices become a way of attesting to the wellbeing of both the individual and the nation. This carries over into the activity tracking of straight, affluent, white women in the debutant scene who are clearly imagined as demonstrating not only their own sexualized vigor, but also the hearty vigor of an imagined heterosexual nation. However, it quickly becomes possible to encode the emergent competition amongst women as a risk to the nation and its masculine fecundity – where feminine participation in tracking culture begins to interfere with the sexual function of the debutante ball, it is quickly derided and tamped down.

I don’t think it is mere coincidence that this is the same historical moment (the first quarter of the 20th century) when weight measurement becomes a significant mediation of the individual female body and of women’s bodies as a class as detailed by Crawford, Lingel, and Karppi. Further, this is also the same time in which the “domestic engineering” craze sweeps across the US and begins to argue that women’s homemaking is in fact work, partially in order to entice white women back into the home after World War One. If we take, for the sake of argument, the first half of the 20th century – 1900-1950 – as a single historical period, then this is also the same period in which Kinsey and his colleagues begin to treat sexual activity as a thing that can be categorized and enumerated in the service of a large-scale effort to understand human sexuality.

As I discuss in Numbered Lives, the tracking of births and rates of reproduction in the course of creating life tables is as old as mortality tracking and was absolutely a central part of the biopolitical projects of both the British Empire and American statecraft. But it is in those first 50 years of the 20th century that we begin to see large-scale, well-funded, systematic collection of numbers on reproductive body parts and sexual activities.

So we’ve got this moment in the mid-20th century when the imperial, patriarchal, capitalist logics of AngloAmerica are being performed in and through these media that count human bodies and human activity and they are proliferating. They continue to proliferate and that proliferation of quantum media accelerates as computing power increases, costs decrease, and computational habits become more firmly entrenched in white affluent AngloAmerican lifestyles. And sexual activity and sexuality are firmly tangled up in these trends and become sites for study, surveillance, and optimization – sex becomes not just biopower at the population scale, but at the individual scale as well. As I’ve suggested – the sexual activity portion of this research is new for me and there’s clearly a lot more archival work that I need to do to understand the histories of quantified sex. I’ve got British studies of sexuality and Masters and Johnson to look forward to (among other things, including the tracking of enslaved people’s fertility and eugenic movements). I’m also stewing in some thoughts about form – media forms, Kinsey used the tabular form that I talk about as a way of managing death and uncertainty and I mentioned he and his team recorded his data on punch cards, as well as numerical data as itself a semiotic form. I’m also interested in understanding more about flows and persistence – how does the data of quantified sex get shared in different historical moments and with different forms? What kinds of persistence or durability is there to this data in its different circulations and formats? And this is a question where my commitment to getting us all more free, to using digital humanities work, media history work, to help protect vulnerable communities comes to the fore. I argue in the book, here, everywhere really, that the history of quantum media is one of violence and the privileging of affluence, whiteness, and masculinity. Where non-white bodies appear it is often as property and/or resources to be mined – this is as true today as it was in the early modern period and across the 18th and 19th centuries. Particular norms of health and wellness, that expertise-technology-wellness matrix, are often weaponized against people of color, particularly those with uteruses.

In this context, quantification and self-tracking can be a mode of speaking back to power as mathematician Dr. Talithia Williams so powerfully demonstrates in her “Own Your Body’s Data” TED talk.[xx] Williams leveraged mathematical expertise in statistics and her own long-standing practice of fertility tracking to push back against doctor’s recommendations during the days leading up to her child’s birth. When William’s expertise and experience was discounted both as a woman and as a black person, she leveraged tabular media, quantification, and a mathematic rendering of patterns to resist silencing. In William’s case this did not persuade her physicians, who continued to use a different set of norming media to try to manage William’s delivery. It did, however, empower her to feel that her decision to not induce childbirth was sound. Gina Neff and Dawn Nafus describe this kind of quantified self-knowledge as part of human processes of  “discovery” and “debugging,”.[xxi] and As Yeshi Milner, the founder of Data for Black Lives reminds us, data is a civil rights tool, some stories are told in data and can only be refuted or refigured with data. So we need data. We also need careful and nuanced understandings of our how media, our computational technologies are carrying forward violent ideologies, practices, and material realities. We need media histories that help us understand how whiteness, affluence, expertise, masculinity, colonialism are created by human-techno assemblages. Black pregnancy related deaths are 3-4 times higher than for white pregnancy in the United States. People of color who seek abortion related care are more likely to die than their white counterparts and that will only become worse as more restrictive laws are passed not only in the United States but across North America and Western Europe as well. Meanwhile, the constructions of vigorous white masculinity through wearable devices is expanding into a multibillion dollar market. As a media historian and digital humanist, I can turn my interests in quantification so that they serve better understanding of these histories, these productive techno-human imaginaries so that we can intervene, choose where to put our resources, and create futures that don’t simply replicate centuries-long violences. (SLIDE) What can you do? (SLIDE) Thank you.


[i] May, Vivian M. Pursuing Intersectionality, 21. The figure of the generative matrix appears in Alexander Galloway’s invocation of the “fertile nexus” in describing his approach to interface. See Interface Effect, 32. Oscar H. Gandy, Jr. offers an incisive analysis of how matrix multiplication, as a statistical method, affect people of color and shape the “quality of life that many of us get to enjoy.” Gandy, Oscar H. “Matrix Multiplication and the Digital Divide,” Race after the Internet, Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2012) 128-145.

[ii] May, Pursuing, 23.

[iii] Collins, Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000), 21.

[iv] Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 246.

[v] As May notes, “using intersectionality entails, ideally, some expectation of accountability to its roots in and ongoing connections to Black feminist liberation politics” and one of the vectors of this accountability is in academic citation practices. Rather than reinforce the erasures of a dominant professional structure, I have made a conscious and consistent effort to seek out the scholarship, theorizing, art, and science of people of color and women. There is much more to be done and my own efforts in this area are ongoing, but I believe that citational practices are an important locus of power. One where transdisciplinary work can perhaps best help break down academic structural inequalities – if you are a white scholar or student reading this, please consider how you might also do the same.

[vi] (economics as) “the regulator of a milieu, which involved not so much establishing limits and frontiers, or fixing locations, as, above all and essentially, making possible, guaranteeing, and ensuring circulations: the circulation of people, merchandise, and air, etcetera” (Foucault Security 51). “pick out something that is no longer the relationship to space and the milieu, but the relationship of government to the event (Foucault Security 51) – for F this is lassiez faire capitalist economics, which operates at the level of the population, rather than of the individual. Or, more correctly, at the expense of some individuals. In BOOK TITLE/Lectures Title – F is working through the idea of scarcity – particularly food scarcity – as an event that 18th century economic theory sought to manage and from this he develops a theory of a security apparatus which works differently from the disciplinary mechanisms”

[vii] McNeilIan, Ian, ed, An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology, (New York: Routledge Companion Encyclopedias, 1996), 461.

[viii] de Bar-le-Duc, Jean Errard,. Avis au lectueur (1584)

[ix] For more on the history of mensuration see Schaffer, Simon, “Ceremonies of Measurement Rethinking the World History of Science” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 2015 (2), 409-435. Heilbron, John L.: The Measure of Enlightenment, in: Tore Frängsmyr et. al. (eds.): The Quantifying Spirit in the 18th Century, Berkeley et al. 1990, 207–242.

[x] Foucault Security 65

[xi] Mbembe 25

[xii] Mbembe 26

[xiii] A self printing pedometer device made some time prior to 1609 is reported on in Hoff, Hebbel E. and L. A. Geddes “The Beginnings of Graphic Recording” Isis vol 53.3 (1962) 293.

[xiv] Scientific American, 246.

[xv] Detroit Free Press, November 22, 1878, 3. Accessed September 12, 2017 Newspapers.com.

[xvi] The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 01 March 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1908-03-01/ed-1/seq-32/

[xvii] The Washington Times. (Washington [D.C.]), 01 March 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1908-03-01/ed-1/seq-32/

[xviii] The Times Dispatch. (Richmond, Va.), 24 Aug. 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85038615/1913-08-24/ed-1/seq-52/

[xix] The Washington Times piece notes that women had begun to buy books in which they could track their dance steps along with notes about partners and events attended. These would make an excellent subject of study.

[xx] Williams, Talithia, “Own Your Body’s Data” https://www.ted.com/talks/talithia_williams_own_your_body_s_data

[xxi] Neff and Nafus, Self-Tracking, 84.

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