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Seeing by Numbers

If you search for the word “color” on Google Images, what comes up first are geometrical abstractions: circles, grids, and other mathematical models with mappable coordinates for each hue. When it comes to digital interfaces, these systems are called “color spaces” and include RGB, HSV, CMYK, and proprietary systems like the Munsell Color System and the Pantone Matching System (PMS). But although these color standards are part and parcel of everyday life under digital capitalism—they mediate our encounters with everything from our smartphone screens to the clothes that we wear—too often they are viewed as a set of apolitical design tools rather than social or political technologies in and of themselves, and their history has yet to be written.


“What’s Your Color?” American Magazine 146, no. 3 (September 1948).
Faber Birren Papers, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, Yale University

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Seeing by Numbers traces how something as seemingly subjective and ephemeral as color came to be seen as standardized—and what the notion of standardization meant for a wide variety of media forms, such as computer graphics, photography, film, television, and painting. From the mass-produced color chart’s little-known ties to the American eugenics movement, to how international color forecasting corporation Pantone reproduces neo-colonial standards of taste, it also reframes color as both a sensory property of light and a technologically encoded marker of race—two definitions rarely discussed in tandem.


Combining original archival research with close analyses of contemporary media objects, the book contends that the color we find on today’s digital interfaces is the culmination of a century-long techno-capitalist fantasy of complete rationalization and quantification. And yet, because the experience of color is impossible to fully harness without significant compromise, this fantasy remains forever out of reach. Color’s capaciousness therefore makes it a useful site for re-examining capitalism’s relentless capture and standardization of the senses. Ultimately, by placing color standards rather than discrete media forms at the center of the narrative, Seeing by Numbers reframes color itself as a medium that offers us a unique lens through which to view the ongoing entanglements of perception, technology, and power.

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