Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media

By Jacqueline Wernimont, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019, 240 pages, $32.00 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-262-039048)

Numbered Lives cover

Jacqueline Wernimont’s Numbered Lives: Life and Death in Quantum Media serves two main purposes: one, it analyzes the use of mathematics to mediate human behavior, and two, it examines how quantum media are not universal but rather take men (and in particular white Christian men) as their baseline. Literary or historical scholars interested in the history of quantum media will be interested in the book based purely on its subject matter, but the book is also particularly strong as an introduction to the problems inherent in data collection and as such is an essential book for students and scholars making their first forays into digital humanities.

Wernimont succinctly defines quantum media as “media that count, quantify, or enumerate” (1), a definition that encompasses early print materials, analog counting devices, and digital data. Historically, Numbered Lives has a broad scope, beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing up to the twenty-first century, and Wernimont divides the project not chronologically but thematically: the book is subdivided into two sections concerned with the counting of death(s) and life (i.e., the tracking of human movement) respectively. Throughout both sections, she uses a critical lens of mediation where she examines how media serve to filter human experiences and to shape personal identity, arguing that quantum media are not passively counting information about human activity but are integral parts of how we live our lives. More specifically, Wernimont is concerned about how the quantum media she studies mediate gender and race, noting that even as quantum media count and track lives, “some lives become meaningful and countable because others are either differently counted or not counted at all; some lives are rendered valuable by the devaluing of others” (11).

In the two chapters dealing with “Counting Death,” Wernimont discusses the publication of media related to death during the eighteenth century. She notes that mortality bills published by parish clerks, scientific books like John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations (1662), and colonial broadsides all served as a means of using mathematics to exert control over dangers, whether as a reaction to outbreaks of plague or to reimagine the risks inherent in colonizing the Americas as risks. This tendency is carried forward into ships’ registers, censuses, and twenty-first-century online death registers, all of which Wernimont observes are aimed at identifying a specific, narrow subsection of the population, namely white men of property. Women’s contributions to the establishment of the statistics that enable those quantum media (or, indeed, the deaths of non-white men) are quietly overlooked or forgotten. This in turn raises grave concerns over the reliability of quantum media as data for analysis in digital humanities projects: the archive, even when it appears thorough or complete, tends to deal only with a subset of the larger population.

In her two chapters on “Counting Life,” Wernimont focuses in particular on the pedometer, whose antecedents she traces as far back as the nineteenth century. While the pedometer took its origins from an interest in measuring land, she notes that it became a method of surveilling human behavior relatively quickly so that by the nineteenth century, they were being used to surreptitiously monitor the travels, work, and exercise of both men and women. At the same time, however, the technology was primarily geared around a quintessentially white masculine lifestyle and monitoring walking, cycling, or heart rate: Wernimont notes that, tellingly, devices and apps designed to conveniently monitor menstrual cycles or breastfeeding schedules were late in coming even in the twenty-first century (142). Similarly, pedometers appear to have been a largely white phenomenon: pedometers made few inroads into the African-American community: when African-Americans were counted, it was as financial investments (144-145). At the same time that the data collected through these devices privileged white male behavior as a baseline, it additionally served as a guideline for performing that identity: “Pedometers and other activity trackers became central to knowing and performing both what one should and could be” (143). Here, even more than in her first section, Wernimont zeroes in on how the gendered assumptions of quantum media can result not only in gaps in the archive but additionally in active societal pressures.

Scholars looking for a thorough application of computation to literary-historical criticism will be disappointed by Numbered Lives, as Wernimont uses close reading and the application of her critical apparatus as her main tool. Crucially, the book serves instead to emphasize the gaps of the data on human behavior generated by quantum media throughout the historical period that Wernimont covers. Wernimont’s decision to begin her analysis in the seventeenth century makes those gaps more apparent so that when she returns to the twenty-first century, she can highlight how modern quantum media remain gendered. As such, Wernimont’s book is an important reminder that any archive of data, regardless of how mechanical or impartial it may seem, is necessarily built around specific concerns, which in turn inflect the kind of data collected. Wernimont’s book is therefore an effective introduction to the ethical concerns necessary to do equitable complete work within the digital humanities. Numbered Lives is an excellent classroom resource, whether as a way to ease students into an understanding of the limitations inherent in digital humanities research or as a way to broach topics of ethics in the field of digital humanities.

John Henry Adams, University of Missouri