The Quantified Self and Taylorization 2.0

There’s a provocative post on Nick Carr’s blog in which he discusses the potential expansion of self-tracking technology as a mechanism of quantified control:

But, as management researcher H. James Wilson reports in the Wall Street Journal, there is one area where self-tracking is beginning to be pursued with vigor: business operations. Some companies are outfitting employees with wearable computers and other self-tracking gadgets in order to “gather subtle data about how they move and act — and then use that information to help them do their jobs better.” There is, for example, the Hitachi Business Microscope, which office workers wear on a lanyard around their neck. “The device is packed with sensors that monitor things like how workers move and speak, as well as environmental factors like light and temperature. So, it can track where workers travel in an office, and recognize whom they’re talking to by communicating with other people’s badges. It can also measure how well they’re talking to them — by recording things like how often they make hand gestures and nod, and the energy level in their voice.” Other companies are developing Google Glass-style “smart glasses” to accomplish similar things.

A little more than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced “scientific management” to American factories. By meticulously tracking and measuring the physical movements of manufacturing workers as they went through their tasks, Taylor counseled, companies could determine the “one best way” to do any job and then enforce that protocol on all other workers. Through the systematic collection of data, industry could be optimized, operated as a perfectly calibrated machine. “In the past the man has been first,” declared Taylor; “in the future the system must be first.”

The goals and mechanics of the Quantified Self movement, when applied in business settings, not only bring back the ethic of Taylorism, but extend Taylorism’s reach into the white-collar workforce. The dream of perfect optimization reaches into the intimate realm of personal affiliation and conversation among colleagues. One thing that Taylor’s system aided was the mechanization of factory work. Once you had turned the jobs of human workers into numbers, it turned out, you also had a good template for replacing those workers with machines. It seems that the new Taylorism might accomplish something similar for knowledge work. It provides the specs for software applications that can take over the jobs of even highly educated professional

There’s a sense in which I agree with Carr here and I’ve written about this in the past. However he glosses over the issue that interests me the most when he talks about the “transformation of QS from tool of liberation to tool of control“. It’s this dichotomy which so fascinates me about self-tracking. On the one hand, I can see how it can function as a quasi-emancipatory technology which augments the human capacity for reflexivity, potentially freeing the individual from the blind force of (socially inculcated) habit. On the other hand, I can just as easily see how this expansion of portable technology for quantification can, particularly when coupled with amenable patterns of affective response from the ‘users’, constitute a potentially terrifying expansion of disciplinary control within the workplace. I could see how, stealing a phrase from Mark Fisher, this results in the ever more effective design of electro-libidinal parasites deployed to manage motivation at a time of intensifying deskilling. Carr usefully draws out a parallel tension which can be found in in the advent of ‘personal’ computing, usefully hinting at the dialectical interconnection between the consumerisation of IT and the centralization of control in cloud services and data centres:

The transformation of QS from tool of liberation to tool of control follows a well-established pattern in the recent history of networked computers. Back in the mainframe age, computers were essentially control mechanisms, aimed at monitoring and enforcing rules on people and processes. In the PC era, computers also came to be used to liberate people, freeing them from corporate oversight and control. The tension between central control and personal liberation continues to define the application of computer power. We originally thought that the internet would tilt the balance further away from control and toward liberation. That now seems to be a misjudgment. By extending the collection of data to intimate spheres of personal activity and then centralizing the storage and processing of that data, the net actually seems to be shifting the balance back toward the control function. The system takes precedence.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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