Measuring the Self: the hinge between body and network

the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.” Adam Greenfield

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Adam Greenfield called, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. It’s a book that digs deep into life in the Network Age and explores the complex relations we have with everyday technologies. The smartphone, as you would imagine, figures heavily in the book, Greenfield writes about the subtle ways in which we are immersed in a whole new sense of subjectivity—as Marshal Mcluhan said many decades ago, technology changes who we are, or rather who we perceive our selves to be in relation to self, others and the world around us.

Now I’m sure I am coming late to this, but when Greenfield turns his attention to biometric sensors, he mentioned an organization called Quantified Self. It was established in 2007 by Kevin Kelley of Wired magazine and Gary Wolf. The OS practices life-logging or self-tracking, capitalizing on the emerging world of measuring data that is available to us-everything from counting steps to monitoring ovulation. The mission of the organization seems fairly innocuous,

Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.

Far be it from me to pass any judgment on this, it is a purely personal decision to utilize available technologies in this manner, but I admit that something about this measuring has always made me uneasy. The Fitbit/AppleWatch craze of measuring steps, heart-rate etc. is something that leaves me cold to be honest.

I think it is the notion of measuring performance that irks me. Counting steps turns a walk into exercise and then into a goal and a performance and I feel as though something is being taken away by this constant measuring that goes on now-whether it is counting calories, or steps and so on. I think the larger issue that I’m concerned about is the normalizing of this way of living. According to Greenfield, what is not asked is what this information about the self is being mobilized for and how it came to be that measuring our lives in this manner came about in the first place. As I have already said, I think it’s fine for a group of people to be into this, but it feels as though we are being steered in this direction as more and more technologies emerge that offer more complex measuring techniques.

Against the backdrop of late capitalism, the rise of wearable biometric monitoring can only be understood as a disciplinary power traversing the body itself and all its flows.”

It’s the capitalist component in all of this that concerns me. Our technologies are offered to us within the stream of consumer-capitalism and what seems to be seldom considered in all of this talk of technology is the implications of economic systems driving this. Data is collected from us, this is the exchange we make in return for access. This data is also leveraged and sold on to other economic interests and most of the time we are unaware of that. This new subjectivity, the mediated self, the digital self, the quantified self, whatever we might call it, exists within a labyrinth of relations, with vested economic interests and agendas.

I do not wish to rail against technology as much as ask us to take a minute to ‘listen between the clouds,’ to take a moment to think about what is happening to us and with us as life becomes more and more enmeshed in networks.

I’d be really interested in any of your thoughts on this, so feel free to comment back.