Data and the Self


Data and the Self

Cybernetic technologies and their associated layers of avocations (see here) produces a tension or a dialectic between constraints and innovations, between control and freedoms of use. This tension can be observed in some of the reactions people have to the role of cybernetics in wearable technologies and autonomous flying devices. 

There are a number of interesting wearable devices that have become commonly available recently at everyday retail outlets. Data-driven wearable devices like the ‘Fitbit’, the ‘Jawbone’ and the Apple Watch are among a growing number of technologies that can be situated within a broader trajectory of body-mediation technologies, with the mobile phone at one end and the cyborg at the other.  Some of these devices like Google Glass have proved too contentious and been abandoned, whiles others like VR are surging ahead.

All these devices are made up of layers of invocations and produce complex assemblages of avocations, as Chris Chesher calls them. Layers of multiple cybernetic systems, like the movement sensors, accelerometers, infrared, and other visual and audio detection technologies, which collect data about the wearer or the location of the device in space and time.

All of this activity is based on the cybernetic concept of normalisation: what is the normal movement for a ‘walking’ motion; what is the ‘average’ of human sleeping hours? How do we determine an appropriate kilojoule count for an adult? Some folks fiercely object to these devices on the understanding that they somehow making us less human, making us more machine-like, and make us more susceptible to the systems of command and control.

The importance of data

There are obvious epistemological and therapeutic roles for self-tracking devices that are part of contemporary networked cultures of innovation and self-management, but there is a persistent doubt that these kinds of devices are nothing more than snake oil. They consider that modes of information management that reduce the individual to quantified data and metrics is to be inhuman.  Those fears are well-founded – wearable technologies are not miracle technologies, these devices won’t make you healthier, happier or help you avoid getting sick, which is how they are often marketed.

It is possible to understand the fears about these devices, but it is also clear that the types of information that these devices generate, through their everyday cybernetic properties, are very useful when they employ open standards and are shared equally with everyone able to access, compare and manipulate the data without restriction.

These devices enable an entirely different side of the everyday performative presentation of self. They also provide alternative routes to self-knowledge on which online persona formation is based. The very enthusiastic consumer pick up of these devices, replicates previous periods of massive technological adoption and integration into the workplace and home, such as the desktop computer and mobile phone, that appear to be quite linear but represents the exponential growth of the technologies and their uses and roles. The same protests about Fitbits, Apple watches and other wearable technologies were used to protest against introducing the PCs, portable game consoles and mobile phones.  

Initially, the desktop PC meant at the invasion of the home by the office workstation, then the mobile phone was to blame. Most of now carry around more computational power, memory, and storage than desktop PCs of 20 years ago. We imagine Fitbits and other wearable devices now, are nothing what the actual use of those devices or at least it will be league different that sophisticated pedometers.

Critics suggest that users of wearable technologies get trapped into the myth of the quantified self and caught up in the cultures of auditing, archiving and early adoption of technology. This is based on the fear that users become less than subjects, that they become objects and worse, cybernetically controlled objects that are slaves to a neo-liberal system of power – or trapped in the matrix or worse like Cypher in the Matrix they choose to stay there.

Another criticism is that we will only get trapped in these devices, and we somehow lose touch with the sublime sense of the perfect human that was are in danger of losing our natural selves to post-humanism and therefore our humanism – that we will become Cylons.

Now some of the extreme claims that these devices will make you live longer and healthier I’d not put much stock in, but like the pedometer, the bathroom scales, the blood pressure monitor, the breathalyzer, the spectacles, the telescope, the microscope, pocket watch and so on, these are a tool that extends the capacity of the human mind and body.

Katherine Hayles describes the posthuman condition as the serialisation of identity, is the condition that exists between humans and barcodes and pin numbers, birthdays and phone numbers, credit card details and serial numbers. Some might see this as inevitable steps towards fascism, while cyberlibertarians argues that user modes define what a user can do, it is the users that invoke themselves as slaves to a system owned by a corporation – whether it is Facebook or Apple. It is true that at any point in time their details can be used without their permission but it is also true, that no matter how invested in those spaces, the user does have a choice to withdraw from those services. The biggest and weakest link in any cybernetic system: the unpredictability of the human user.

As always the answer to the criticism is in the individual use – that some people don’t record their data, they don’t record it in the way that – other’s go more intense and hack their devices – see Fitbit hacks:


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