Self-tracking and social control: what would techno-fascism look like?

Earlier this week I finally bought the Jawbone Up24 after weeks of deliberation. I’d got bored with the Nike Fuel Band, losing interest in the opaque ‘fuel points’ measurement and increasingly finding it to be an unwelcome presence on my wrist. I’d also been ever more aware of how weird my sleep patterns have become in the past couple of years, cycling between rising early and staying up late, with little discernible rhyme or reason. The idea of tracking my sleep in a reasonably accurate fashion, using degree of bodily movement as a cypher for the depth of sleep, appealed to me on a reflexive level. Somewhat more practically, the Jawbone’s silent alarm sounded great: it gently wakes you by vibrating on your wrist at the period within a defined interval at which it detects you are in the lightest state of sleep. It’s only been a few days but it really seems to work. I’ve woken up refreshed in a way that feels oddly natural given the rather novel consumer technology that’s bringing it about.

So thus far I’m rather pleased with this purchase. It also looks so much better than the Fuel band. It wasn’t a major factor in my decision by any means but it’s still nice. However there is something that bothers me about it. The Jawbone Up24 has an “idle alert”. This is how the company describes the feature:

What is an Idle Alert and how does it work?The UP Idle Alert is a great way to remind you to get up and move. You can set an Idle Alert within the app, so the band will gently vibrate if you’ve been inactive for a period of time.

https://jawbone.com/up/faq

This sounds innocuous, right? I spend far too many hours sitting down each week. I’m either working on a computer and sitting in a chair or I’m sitting reading sociology books and papers on my sofa. It has really started to bother me and the idle alert initially struck me as a great way to help ameliorate this problematic trend in my lifestyle. I spent yesterday afternoon working my way through various bits of social theory at home, with the Jawbone gently vibrating every 15 minutes to remind me that I’d been sedentary for that length of time. I stood up, walking around the room while continuing to read and sat down again. It’s only one occasion so it would be a mistake to overgeneralise but I was struck by how much less lethargic I felt than I often would have after spending an afternoon reading at home on my own. Oddly I also forgot to drink coffee, though it’s entirely possible that was a coincidence.

However I spent this morning struggling to copy edit and format an upcoming book when I really wasn’t in the mood for it. I was trying to decipher the superficially helpful instructions provided by the publisher which were, in practice, anything other than helpful. A task that had seemed simple, albeit dull, suddenly acquired an unexpected complexity. I spent the morning getting increasingly stressed out and the Jawbone would not stop fucking vibrating…. oddly it didn’t occur to me to just turn the feature off until after lunch. The constant buzzing on my wrist, as the little device grappled for my attention in a manner that felt creepily agentive, only served to intensify my general state of irritation at the world and frustration with my lack of progress at the task at hand.

I set the ‘idle alert’. I did so because I found it an appealing idea. It was an expression of my own agency. But it left me with a sense of quite how intrusive and aggressive this technology could be if it were ever mandated. How hard is it to imagine a situation where Amazon factory workers are expected to wear similar bands, programmed to issue a vibrating warning after 15 minutes of idleness and to alert the supervisor if the worker is still idle a few minutes later? Is it at all challenging to imagine a comparable band with an RFID chip being used to track and sanction a call centre operator who spends too long in a toilet? The social arrangements invoked here are not a matter of dystopian science fiction. They already exist. My suggestion is that this technology very likely will be rolled out in such settings, at least in the absence of legislative intervention which seems unlikely. How far could it go? What will a debate about its implications look like? What role will voluntary self-trackers and the quantified self play in these debates?

As Emmanuel Lazega has argued, ironically in one of the chapters I was editing this morning, the conditionality of welfare is likely to be an important vector of diffusion for these techniques of control. Earlier this morning, enjoying a relaxed start to the day at the crack of dawn thanks to the silent alarm on my magical band, I listened to a radio discussion of ‘sobriety tags’:

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor whether they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme.

The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing whether it contains alcohol.

If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine. The tags register alcohol consumption but do not monitor movement or where people are.

The scheme is being trialled for 12 months in four London boroughs – Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days.

Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support.

The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending and ease pressure on the police and courts.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/31/sobriety-tags-offenders-alcohol-related-crime-pilot-scheme-london

Consumer self-tracking devices and schemes like this serve to normalise tracking of this sort. What comes next? How hard is it to imagine a situation where a Conservative government, eager to separate ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ demands that welfare recipients submit to monitoring of their alcohol and nicotine intake? How hard is it to imagine a situation where recipients of weight related interventions on the NHS are made to wear activity tracking bands with the threat of withdrawn rights to healthcare in the case of unhealthy eating or sedentary lifestyles? What comes next? Part of me wants to research this stuff, looking at the subjective meanings attached to self-tracking as the devices become mainstream and analysing the assumptions loading into the emerging discourse surrounding the application of this technology for social policy. Part of me wants to write a dystopian science fiction novel about the coming techno-fascism. Part of me just wants to despair about a likely future in which the iron cage becomes an iron straight jacket.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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5 replies »

  1. You’re right, Mark, these coercive uses of self-tracking devices are already in place. Heart-rate monitors are being introduced into school physical education to ensure that students don’t slack off when they should be reaching a certain exertion level. Corporate wellness programs in the US encourage workers to be physically active or face higher health insurance premiums, while car insurers are installing devices in customers’ cars to measure their driving practices and customise their insurance premiums accordingly. Virgin Pulse offers a package to employers of tracking devices that monitor not only employees’ progress towards achieving a certain fitness level or losing weight but also their sleep patterns, because well-rested and fit workers are productive workers (according to their website). The list goes on …

    • Look forward to talking to you about this in person in January – I’d love to commit to looking at as many case studies as I can find at the moment, unfortunately I’ve committed myself to a load of stuff I need to get out of the way first. It seems there’s a lot of important work to be done simply in mapping the proliferation of these cases, let alone working out their theoretical and political implications.

  2. State enforced, or employer enforced, use of tracking technologies deserves much debate. However, Mark, you may have picked a very poor example by involving Alcohol, and particularly when the device is applied to people who have been convicted of alcohol related crime, multiple times.

    It is quite simple: Alcohol abusers are a hazard to society. Alcohol abusers kill random human beings on a regular basis.

    Once again, I support your basic premise, tracking/monitoring/surveillance deserves a great deal of discussion. Therefore, please consider restricting yourself to examples that are more clearly invasive toward the broad spectrum of ‘baseline’ society. Attempting to garner sympathy for multiply convicted criminals, who are clearly a hazard to society at large, weakens your case.

    Thanks for the consideration,

    Danal

    • “Attempting to garner sympathy for multiply convicted criminals, who are clearly a hazard to society at large, weakens your case”

      Not what I was doing! It was just the most recent example I’d heard. Feel free to ignore…

  3. “oddly it didn’t occur to me to just turn the feature off until after lunch.”

    Even more odd that you didn’t just take the annoying thing off!

    🙂

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