Wearing the Self

The world (or just fanboys) will soon be waiting with baited breath as Apple launches its entry into the wearable technology market with the release of the iWatch.

Apple's HealthKit interface

Apple’s HealthKit interface

With the bundling of the Apple HealthKit into iOS8, the trailblazers of the mobile digital technology industry have moved into the hybrid mobile/wearable space, and towards a wearable rather than haptic interface future for mobile technology.

The intertwining of mobile and wearable technology is in tandem with the tethering of these technologies to the body and to the vast databanks and data analytic algorithms of big data companies that use this information to assess the trends and predictabilities of everyday life. We term these technologies as enablers of the “quantified self”. The quantified self is itself a product of the continual measuring of datapoints harvested from the individual and continually compared to the measured past and a predicted future. On a different tack, the ever reliable Adam Curtis has recently argued that digital tracking technologies – the bedrock of the big data driven smart city – are responsible for holding people in a digitally-engineered stasis. Curtis traces a genealogy of the development of surveillance and spying technologies and relates this to growing paranoia and control in governance that can only be sated eventually by the algorithmic governance afforded by digital technology. In the present day, these hidden digital technologies and systems in effect freeze time by virtue of their withdrawn operations and recording and representations of the present, while comparing that present to the recorded past. The aim of such systems is “to discover patterns, coincidences and correlations, and from that find ways of stopping change”. The cumulative effect of the wealth of systems involved in cryptographic governance of our lives (consumerism, managing the body, the global financial system etc…) is, according to Curtis, to govern into a state of immobility that is responsible for perpetually repeating the past and that is terrified of change.

While Curtis’ arguments are open to critique and discussion far beyond what I will offer here, they do allow for a consideration of what kinds of spaces are being created for users and people subjected to these technologies. In this post I want to focus on the notion of data collecting technologies being a critical part of a logic of artificial homeostasis in the smart city, and what this might mean for us as critical theorists, geographers and philosophers. The state of immobility identified by Curtis is in opposition to the idea that we should be looking at new

Almost certainly what the iWatch will not look like. Source: wearechampionmag.com

Almost certainly what the iWatch will not look like. Source: wearechampionmag.com

and altered mobilities that are emerging through the continual co-presence of digital technology. As a phenomenologist, I am particularly interested in this with relation to the phenomenological appreciation of place and how these “technologies of immobility” may affect how place is experienced. In particular, the use of technologies that are involved in the production of information for the “quantified self” are of interest; these are technologies that on the whole promise benefits to the user through a disciplining to achieve a particular goal. As such, the notion of recording and comparing that Curtis bemoans is a feature of this kind of technology. Some key theorists have engaged with quantifiable self technology with regards to the spatialities and mobilities that they afford, and here I want to consider what kind of subjective experiences of space may arise from an ubiquitous presence of these technologies. Briefly, I will consider this utilising a three-faceted framework. Firstly, technologies of management of the body (as one of the categories of technology that Curtis considers so critical in this stasis-inducing milieu) will be positioned within Foucault’s notion of technologies of the self. From there, those technologies are scrutinised with regards to the intentionality or logics of digital media, drawing on Friedrich Kittler. Finally, I offer some a challenge for a research agenda that will allow for a greater understanding of these issues.

Foucault’s Technologies of the Self is (in my reading) the most Nietzschean of Foucault’s works, even given the genealogical roots of Foucault’s accounts of the development of human sexuality or panoptical society that relates closely to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morality. I position Foucault NietzscheTechnologies of the Self as Nietzschean because of the clear line between the Apollonian and Dionysian views of the self that are presented, and how Foucault argues that technologies of the self have obscured the concept of the self. This obscuring comes from ancient Greek paradigm shifts from a “take care of yourself” view of the self to a “know yourself” view. In this, the concern for the soul and the self as soul is replaced or obscured with the technologies of writing and recording of the activities of the body as a way of “knowing thyself”. In essence, the need for contemplation and self-examination that Socrates relays as critical to Alcibiades in the dialogue Alcibiades is replaced with journalling and historicising the activity of the person. The self though is not clothing, tools or possessions; it is to be found in the principle that uses these tools (Foucault, 1988: 17). The types of technologies that are grouped in the quantified self debate are therefore technologies of “know thyself” where thyself is quantified and represented in a quantified form.

The impact of quantifiable self technologies is to conduct an abstraction of previously hidden or withdrawn human processes as data by wearable technologies, and to hermeneutically position this information as the self. The process of abstraction reveals human processes that then become both the conscious concern of the user and a commodity that can be used to reshape behaviour and potentially be used in the commodity form as a source of revenue or profit. The technologies are of course increasingly popular, networked gadgets that are part of the popular discourse on the emerging “Internet of Things” where data collection on an industrial (or some might argue super-industrial) scale can be enabled through the close integration of networked technology to the body and other entities. Berry (2014: 14) argues that such technology is indicative of the emergence of a new industrial internet, “a computational, real-time streaming ecology that is reconfigured in terms of digital flows, fluidities and movement”. Wearable technologies fit in this vision through their constant harvesting of information on the body and the user and the sharing and representation of that data. While the user may receive information on their behaviours that can assist in behavioural changes or adaptations, the information garnered from the total users of a device can be used in aggregated form to inform decision making, planning or predictions on behaviour and movement in emergent “smart cities” where “big data” informs the everyday management of the environment (Greenfield, 2013; Townsend, 2013).

The uses of these common and popular forms of this technology are in themselves well documented but worth commenting upon with regards to what “self” is presented. Jawbone’s “Up” promises to track how a user sleeps, moves and eats and then relays the data back to the user in order to promote their health, the Nike Fuel wristband (discontinued in April 2014) or the Fitbit wristband which makes similar promises to the Jawbone “Up”, with the potential added bonus of rashes or burns when using the Force model (Cambell-Dollaghan, 2014). Forthcoming consumer devices such as Google Glass will allow for an array of self-analysis; the Apple iWatch will already integrate with the extensive HealthKit to record, represent and relay the physical minutia of everyday life to the user.

Wilson (2012: 857) argues that process of data production in cities (such as quantified self technology) are afforded legitimisation through processes of standardisation and objectification, and that these processes in turn transduct (Dodge and Kitchin, 2012) urban space. Wilson expands on this view in this presentation from the Programmable City Launch. While Wilson’s argument concerns the physical characteristics of the city, rather than the processes that underlie human physical presence in the world, the two processes identified are useful in identifying the underlying logic behind wearable technologies and the arguments purported here. Standardisation refers both to the use of standardised technological artefacts and standardised processes used in the abstraction and collection of data concerning a physical entity. Wearable technologies are in themselves a medium that has an internal logic of the production, processing and furthering of data. This resonates with this view of internet-enabled computational devices as part of a wider framework of devices that perform bespoke, discreet tasks in the world and affect subjectivity and human perception accordingly.

Such an approach to media technology as causing alterations in human behaviour is part of a long tradition in theory, from McLuhan’s (2008) famous arguments that media are an extension of man in the world and the medium is the message, when one wants to assess the effects of media on human behaviour and society to Kittler’s (1999) argument that media structures “human affairs” through the production, processing, transmission and storage of data. The standardisation of process through the concretisation of the form of the device and the standard encoding and storage of data is in itself a standardisation of the abstraction of data. Objectification is the product of this standardisation; the abstraction of data from the body (such as heart rate, metabolic data, data on sleep patterns etc.) objectifies information that was previously beyond the conscious awareness of the user and presents that data in a form which can be operationalised.

As such, the internal logic of this technology is both to harvest and share information. The goal of this logic could be argued to be the behavioural change of the user towards a desired behavioural or physical state (i.e. more active or fitter). However, this is contingent a number of factors, such as motivation, time to engage in activity or physical ability. The logic of the creation and continuation of a data stream that shapes human affairs a la Kittler (1999) is a more solid and arguable position. From this view, it is argued that the media device (the wearable technology) is responsible for an ordering of the human in the world. In this case, the ordering is threefold: the human perception of the body is reordered; the human perception of the world itself is reordered through the alteration of the perception of the body and through the role of the body in perceiving the world; and subjective notions of spatiality and mobility are altered as the body is enrolled into the role of connected consumer that comes from the use of wearable technologies. Wearable technology is both co-existing with the body but also responsible for a revealing of the internal mechanisms of the body that would be previously have been hidden or withdrawn from consciousness. The revealing of these processes and bodily functions is problematic; while the representation of particular functions is an expressed aim of the technology, the harvesting of this information is a both a privacy issue in that the knowledge of such processes has bypassed an appreciation by the person and an issue of subjective knowledge of self and world.

The data on the “self” has immediately moved from a hidden, withdrawn state to a shared, commoditised representation of the functions of the body that can be used to shape behaviour, understanding and self-appreciation. The “self” itself is problematised, and the mobility and subjective spatiality of the self in the data-infused environment becomes an issue. What kind of “self” is being presented through these technologies? Should I be wearing a shiny new iWatch with my health and fitness information continually measured and available at a flick of the wrist, what does this mean to the sense of space that I have when I move through the world? It is tempting to offer a view of the subjective experience of world as a solipsistic, self-enclosed bubble where the measuring of self goes with an angst engendered by continual surveillance of the once hidden internal states of the body. Research into the subjective, phenomenological experience of the world when using this technology is needed, and needed now to understand the existential effects of living to “know thyself”.

Bibliography and further reading

Berry, David M., 2014. Critical Theory and the Digital. London: Bloomsbury Academic

Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey, 2014. FitBit is recalling all Force Wristbands. Gizmodo http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/02/report-fitbit-is-recalling-all-force-wristbands/

Curtis, Adam, 2014. NOW THEN. http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/posts/NO-FUTURE

Dodge, Martin and Rob Kitchin, 2012. Code/Space: software and everyday life. Cambridge: MIT Press

Foucault, Michel, 1988. Technologies of the Self http://cognitiveenhancement.weebly.com/uploads/1/8/5/1/18518906/technologies_of_self_michel_foucault.pdf

Greenfield, Adam, 2013. Against the Smart City. London: Verso

Kittler, Friedrich, 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press

McLuhan, Marshall, 2008. Understanding Media. London: Routledge

Nietzsche, Friedrich, 1887. On the Genealogy of Morals http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/GeneologyofMorals.pdf

Plato. Alcibiades. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1676

Townsend, Anthony, 2013. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: WW Norton and Co.