Numbered Lives: A History of the Media of Measure

Numbered lives is a new media history of the tools, technologies, and interfaces that we use to count, measure, and weigh our bodies, our selves, and our lives. Positioning current discussions of big data, quantification, and empiric cultures in a long history, I argue that there are important continuities between 21st century interests in “quantified selves” and mathematic technologies of the self that extend back to the 16th century. The media of quantification have always shared in the performative and poetic creation of our realities, and histories such as this are essential to our understandings of modern digital cultures.

Drawing on media studies, media archaeologies, and feminist theories of performative culture and technology, I consider theoretical and practical impacts of our push to imagine lives, deaths, and communities in quantified terms. While this book foregrounds the long history of 21st century forms and technologies, I also argue that contemporary technologies obfuscate their operations in ways that are new and newly disenfranchising. This work also draws on my current work as a new media artist engaged in understanding how bodies and enumerative practices produce ways of knowing and being. In several “Vibrant Lives” installations and the “dataPlay” performances over the last 18 months, I’ve been exploring alternative ways of engaging with quantitative data about human lives. This creative work has given me new purchase on the ways that data is derived from and returns to embodied experience and the role of performance in quantification. It also suggests new avenues for intervening in the product/profit cycles that I argue have long been essential to quantifying media technologies.

Numbered Lives is under contract with the MIT Press and will be out by Fall 2018.