Discussion of Numbered Lives, Ch 5: From Surveying Land to Surveilling Man (Leelan Farhan)

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.

In this chapter, Wernimont expands upon the Anglo-American fascination with tracking

self-knowledge through an explication of the history of the pedometer. From analog compasses

originally designed for the hunting gentleman, to a dainty version for wealthy ladies in

ballrooms, to our modern day FitBits, Wernimont explores who is allowed to surveille

themselves and others, who is not, and what that meant and continues to mean to Anglo-

American society.


She begins by tracing the origins of the cartographic pedometer, noting that this device

began the process of erasing the bodies’ labour in work and movement. Rather than speaking of

steps and movement as labour, the cartographic pedometer was about the distance a person had

travelled. Unsurprisingly, Wernimont shows how such technology was quickly adopted to

surveil groups deemed to be untrustworthy. The use of the pedometer to monitor workers and

lying lovers indicates a shift from the pedometer as a status of wealth and power, to use that

further exploits the less powerful working class. Consequently, this required a shift in how the

product is marketed, changing who had access to self-knowledge, and what it means to “know

thyself”; a uniquely white, Anglo-American way of being.


Perhaps the most striking example of the expanded pedometer use is how it was marketed

to white, wealthy women. A familiar echo of the double bind still facing women today, the

pedometer was simultaneously used to encourage women to be active outside to stay in shape,

but also to track their domestic labour. Tracking their bodies is not an act of leisurely pleasure,

like it is for the wealthy white man who hunts or owns a FitBit for cycling, but rather, necessary

to constantly validate their labour and act as evidence of their honest, morally-upstanding

existence, for fear of being outcast or shamed. Wernimont later extends this historical reading to

current uses of FitBit data in legal cases, called to testify for or against women. In two

contrasting examples, Wernimont shows how FitBit data — our modern pedometer — has been

used to simultaneously defend women’s honesty, or reveal their false testimonies.


In tracing the history of activity trackers, Wernimont reveals how self-knowledge is

pleasurable for some, but oppressive for others. Furthermore, as the interfaces of our activity

trackers become more and more restrictive, so too, does our ability to construct identities through

quantum media. As Wernimont so beautifully articulates in her historical tracing, the mediation

of our labour and ways of being through activity trackers violently rewrite our identities, whether

it be womanhood, young folks in ankle bracelets, or black American slaves, and later in history,

athletes. For example, activity tracking apps for mothers do not give them room to track what

they deem important, rather, it defines it for them. We are only permitted to “know thyself” as it

benefits institutions, nation states, and the market. As we lose access to the complete picture of

our data, how it is stored and tracked, Wernimont reminds us to interrogate what it means to

exist, live, be, and move, in a world that takes our free labour, only to return sliver of our data,

to be sold as “self-knowledge”.