Lida Zeitlin-Wu, “The Wheel and the Grid” (3/22)

Dear all,

We hope you’ve had a great—if brief—spring break! Please join us for the first Mass Culture Workshop of the spring quarter, this Friday, March 22! Details below.

There is no pre-circulated paper.

Your 2023–24 Mass Cult coordinators,

Joel and Hugo


The Wheel and the Grid: Color Standards and the Rise of Seeing by Numbers

Lida Zeitlin-Wu, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Digital Studies Institute, University of Michigan

March 22, 2024, 11 AM–12:30 PM, in Cobb 311

Left: Moses Harris, “The Natural System of Colours” (1766). Right: Angélica Dass, Humanae (2012-ongoing).


Search for the word “color” in Google Images and what will likely come up first are geometrical abstractions: circles, grids, and other mathematical models with mappable coordinates for each hue. These modern color models (which include the Munsell, Ostwald, and Pantone systems) are part and parcel of everyday life under digital capitalism, yet too often they are viewed as a set of neutral design tools rather than social or political technologies in and of themselves. In this presentation, I uncover a radical transformation in color media over the course of the 20th century, one in which corporations and institutions attempted to reconfigure the chaos of human sensory experience into a set of measurable and commodifiable data points—what I call seeing by numbers. Moving from the commercialized color chart’s ties to eugenics and the techno-utopianism of Pantone’s Color of the Year, I show how the color standards that calibrate today’s digital interfaces remain entwined with Western-centric, often racialized progress narratives that date back to the turn of the century. I conclude by asking: How can understanding the critical history of modern color standards help us rethink how we engage with the colorful interfaces that surround us?

Lida Zeitlin-Wu received her PhD in Film & Media from UC Berkeley in 2022 and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Digital Studies Institute. Her current book manuscript, Seeing by Numbers, traces how something as ephemeral as color came to be seen as standardized, with an article-length version of one chapter appearing in the most recent issue of Camera Obscura. She is also finishing up two collaborative projects: Color Protocols: Technologies of Racial Encoding in Chromatic Media, a volume co-edited with Carolyn L. Kane (MIT Press, 2025), and Technoskepticism: Between Possibility and Refusal, a multi-voiced monograph by the DISCO Network, a collective of scholars and artists challenging digital social and racial inequities (Stanford University Press, 2025).

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