Global judgements and ideas.
I arrived in San Francisco on Tuesday the 16th June before the start of the Quantified Self Conference + Expo 2015, early intentionally, thinking I need to pace myself vis a vis jet lag and also to leave enough time to work on my presentation that I would give along with Joost Plattel. This would be my first time to a QS conference/expo and I was keen to communicate my ideas and talk to other people who are interested in quantifying working people in particular.
From the airport, I made my way downtown using the very reasonable shuttle bus system—for $17, van drivers pick many passengers up from the airport and transport them, in turn, to pretty much anywhere in San Francisco. It is a geographically small but very dense city and a city that is very much alive. I drew in the sights, sounds, smells, haloed with the hue of imminet jet lag, a kind of fatigue brewed with exhilaration and excitement for the days to come.
The shuttle driver filled me in local SF politics including the introduction of Uber and their threat to regular taxi drivers; discussions about the use of apartments for AirBnB rather than allowing space for regular inhabitants; the (apparently) much-despised mayor and the annoyance of seeing Facebook and Google open glittering offices in prime downtown real estate, raising prices for regular citizens and generally ruining things. I quickly remembered I am in one of the most progressive cities on the planet and as usual felt right at home.
Within minutes I was at Jenny Chan’s workplace. 1920-C is an open co-working area opened by three brilliant young women who noticed that there are very few pleasant working spaces available to free lance people (focusing on women). I have had issues around finding good working spaces in my own city or residence, London, so this space really was a breath of fresh air. It is bang in the centre of China Town on the second floor of a building also occupied with souvenir shops. The high ceilinged airy working space offers several attractive work stations of tables and desks as well as stools at a breakfast bar, a hammock, bean bag style rest area, a row of yoga mats, unlimited coffee and tea, and a tiny dog named Fish. I was instantly in love with this working space (and with Fish). However, 1920-C is under threat since it was accused of not meet zoning laws for China Town. In solidarity I spent time with the owners including Jenny to discuss this quandry and for the time being, it is still running strong with over 25 members!
Wednesday I worked in this incredible area, preparing slides for the breakaway session I ran on Friday at QS2015 with the lovely Joost Plattel with whom I am doing some related research. I am currently writing a contracted book called The Quantified Self at Work for Routledge, so I have been interviewing people in the quantified self ‘movement’ and speaking to companies who are looking into ways to implement a quantified self related employee initiative. ABI research indicates an upswing of the integration of wearable and self-tracking devices into workplaces. More than 13 million wearable fitness tracking devices will be incorporated into employee wellbeing and wellness programs by 2019. I want to know, how will the devices be implemented and why? What impact will the introduction of wearables in workplaces have on workers, employers and work design? I intend to identify answers to these questions in my book and have been writing other related articles and providing related consultancy.
I stayed in North Beach. I lived in SF in 1996 and have been back several times since, but I haven’t spent much time in that part of SF despite its serious coolness. On my first night I headed to City Lights Books for a poetry reading in the Poetry Room with Stephen Kessler. Kessler is known for translating Borges and Cernuda. He read beautifully from both his translations and his own work. Writers speaking to other writers is always comforting and one of the things Kessler said rang true for me. He spoke of something he calls heteroformalism, or the habit of writing in a variety of forms and styles and genres.
I thought about this and realised that in my own work, I take ‘forms and styles and genres’ one step further by not restricting myself to one area of research and writing. While I don’t stray from the academic style, I happily write about any aspect of the pressures facing the working class. People who have to work to live rather than to watch their properties’ values grow or simply manage families’ wealth are the working class and this is a category that includes an increasingly precarious category of workers, those who are perpetually free lance with no guarantees of an income, people who are on unreliable contracts and work in unprotected environments. The experience of precarity is nearly universal and can be experienced in both mental/knowledge based and manual working environments.
Indeed, the observation of rampant precarity is what got me interested in researching the quantified self at work. My presentation for QS2015 started with one slide asking: Why Quantify the Self at Work? I gave answers based on social/political reasons and then seeming economic reasons, from both workers’ and employers’ perspectives. Starting with workers’ views I indicated that there are a range of new ways of working. Open plan offices are ubiquitous (despite being proven to not improve productivity). People are increasingly expected to self-manage and to deal with responsibilities-creep as well as work-life balance and work at home. This impacts women often more acutely than men and the mismatch between skill and pay reflects the inaccuracy of the measure of cultural value in this ‘strange era’ (Susan George Director for A-N, telephone conversation 02/05/13). To remain employable becomes a task of constant re-skilling, keeping up to date with supposedly external and untouchable market demands. Mechanisation and automation are real. The question has become whether people will compete against machines for jobs or work more intimately with machines.
The cost of declining productivity is another reason perhaps to quantify workers’ activities. I have indicated that drops in productivity may be due to not-functioning work and job design. The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) has recently picked up this issue and indicates that, even within organisational environments geared for ongoing rather than intermittent adaptation, the ‘level of sophistication in designing and implementing smart and agile working practices’ (2014, 2) is not evident. So in both freelance and non-free lance conditions work design is outdated.
What is interesting about quantifying the self and the movement that it has inspired is how data extracted from the autonomic self (the self that is not otherwise knowable) is used. Data that is produced by quantified workers has to be captured to be used, but who has the rights to capture it and use it? In the era of big data we are seeing a shift to an ethos of experimentation, to an inductive raw scientific logic. An entire industry has emerged around gathering and analyzing autonomic data. It is very difficult to identify what legal protections there are for workers when data is gathered from such devices. In the UK the Data Protection Act includes ‘physical or mental health or condition’ as sensitive personal data. In the US the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a proposed rule regarding the collection of health data of employees in June 2015. Normally employers are required to respect confidentiality rights. The rule would classify heart rate as medical information, however steps taken and calories consumed are not considered as regular medical information.
On the one hand, wellbeing in creative work is encouraged through motivational initiatives that may for example introduce a FitBit alongside perhaps a series of yoga classes and health seminars. At the other extreme, in Amazon and Tesco warehouses workers use Motorola armbands with finger scanners to gain information about the boxes they shift across acres of shelving. In the case of Tesco, implementing the armbands aided in a workforce rationalization scheme. There are two extremes for what workers can expect as new products are introduced to the market and into the workplace. Devices can both aid in improvements for health and allow workers to demonstrate a more intimate interface of personal employability; and quantify productivity in a way that is also known to delivery drivers whose movements are tracked by GPS. The tensions between Taylorism and revolutionizing the way employability is measured and proven are real.
some of my work in this area and leading up to my work in this area: