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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.

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

Seeing by Numbers tells the story of how something as notoriously subjective and ephemeral as color came to be associated with its very opposite: numerical exactitude, predictability, and above all, standardization. From the commercialized color chart’s little-known ties to the American eugenics movement, to the multi-hued palettes of the postwar domestic interior, to the techno-utopianism of Pantone’s Color of the Year, the book traces how modern color standards, with their built-in cultural and racial biases and technical constraints, have come to shape our digital present.

In doing so, it contends that qualities that scholars, designers, and engineers tend to think of as unique to digital color—such as modularity, numerical representation, and abstraction—in fact predate the advent of modern computing by more than a century. Rather than computational technology “giving” us digital color, the digital color we find on today’s colorful interfaces is really the culmination or apotheosis of a century-long fantasy of reordering sensory experience into predictable mathematical units. Combining archival research with methods from media archaeology, science and technology studies, critical race studies, and cultural studies, Seeing by Numbers ultimately reveals how this fantasy of rationalization has been a key instrument for corporate institutions, white supremacy, and neoliberal notions of selfhood.

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