What kind of machines do self-tracking devices make us into?

Sociologists have been telling us for a long time that the use of new technologies does more than merely give us new potential functions but actually impacts on our subjectivity; it changes who we think we are what we think is possible. For instance, the introduction of the telephone brings with it the expectation, not just the possibility, of communication over vast geographical distances. The telephone network becomes part of our social identity.

Along these lines I have been wondering what the impact of self-tracking devices might be. One of the more interesting suggestions has been from Deborah Lupton who has proposed  that the use of such devices might encourages us to think in terms of a machinic metaphor with the individuals engaging with themselves as self-experimenters with the body defined in terms of inputs and outputs.

I think there is certainly some truth in this although I think the experimentation aspect is perhaps most relevant for the early adopter Quantified Self types. The way in which the everyday self-tracker who uses “out of the box” apps and platforms is likely to be different. If this machinic metaphor does have some traction the interesting question (at least for me) is: what kind of machine?

Rather, than conducting experiments on themselves in order to gain “self knowledge through numbers” and developing their own apps or analytical methods like Quantified Selfers, most people (I think) use devices mostly in the way in which they are intended. For example, most people probably use Fitbits to encourage themselves to walk or run further every day or week.

Most tracking devices seem to focus less on “understanding” or “experimentation” and more on some form of “productivity”; they function to encourage people into more physical exercise or to be more productive. The Fitbit Surge smartwatch is advertised through commanding the customer to be more productive:

Work hard.
But, also, work better.

Designed with advanced smartwatch features, Surge lets you run your day, your way. Text and call notifications keep you on your game throughout the day, while music control helps you find the motivation you need to prepare for a big meeting or beat your best in a big race.

These devices often seem to work on the basis of applying the “nudge” principle to ourselves. The nudge philosophy suggests that if in order to get people to behave in a certain way then the best way to achieve this is to manipulate their environment (or their “choice architecture”) to make the preferred choice easier. Alternatively, a gamification approach is used in which the goal (such as walking a number of steps) is made more desirable through the awarding of prizes or medals.

It is assumed that such an approach leads to good “habit formation”. So people will automatically engage in the positive behaviour without it directly bothering their consciousness. The monitoring of data and the response to stimuli becomes an integrated part of a person’s everyday life and they automatically respond in the desired way.

The development of a new device seems to take this automatic response and integration of technology/data with bodies and subjectivity further. The soon to be released Doppel is a bracelet which gives off a pulse which can manipulate the level of relaxation of alertness of a user. The co-creator told The Guardian that:

 “Everyone tries to change their state – they listen to music, they drink coffee, they meditate – and we see this as another tool and a very effective tool because it is so discreet and it is controllable,”

He continues:

‘Everyone tries to change their state – they listen to music, they drink coffee, they meditate – and we see this as another tool and a very effective tool because it is so discreet and it is controllable,” They found that a beat connected to the body could mirror the tempo of music and how it stimulated and calmed. “We found that we could change someone’s state in this way. We had something which could only ever be a wearable in that it had to be touching [the skin]”

The self is seen as something which is not entirely under our rational control. Rather, we have to almost trick ourselves into behaving in a certain way. Evan Selinger has warned of the possibility that a nudge approach emphasises “automatic processing at the expensive of deliberative alternatives”.

The Doppel reminded me of a point made by François Guéry and Didier Deleule a long time before the emergence of self-tracking devices in their book The Productive Body (originally published in French in 1972). They suggested that for capitalism:

‘[The] ideal machine would be a blind one [whose] every problem can be resolved through touch, in which robotic hands become part of the wonderful mechanical repetition of the productive gesture’ (Guéry and Deleule, 2014: 120).

The ultimate capitalist machine, for these philosophers, would be one which is entirely integrated with the human body and works on the corporeal not the mental level. Such a machine would maximize the productivity of human beings through encouraging useful and repetitive behaviours and discouraging rational reflection on the process.

Is the machine of self-tracking an unthinking machine?


Categories: Digital Sociology, Social Theory, Uncategorized

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