Global judgements and ideas.

March keynote talk, University of Pavia: The Quantified Self at Work

The ‘future normal’ involves more and more self-tracking devices (Ramirez, 2013). I was invited to deliver a keynote talk about this at the University of Pavia on the 23rd March at the COST Dynamics of Virtual Work event ‘The passions of capitalism: Subjectivity in production and the production of subjectivity in contemporary capitalism’. Hosted by Andrea Fumagalli in the School of Economics, Eran Fisher and Juliet Webster organised an incredible two day event with a series of powerful women speakers including Melissa Gregg, Ros Gill, Martha Michailidou and Kylie Jarrett.

The workshops set out to answer the questions:

  • How are passionate subjects formed?
  • How, if it all, does this mark a departure from previous modes of labour commodification and exploitation?
  • How are class, gender, ethnic, and other subjectivities mobilised in particular empirical settings?
  • How are collective and social identities affected?  What does this imply for labour organisation, trade unionism and capital-labour relations?

I was asked to speak about my forthcoming book The Quantified Self in Precarity (Routledge 2016). In my talk, I spoke about the implications for wearable and self-tracking technologies and their social and cultural implications in particular as they start to enter the workplace.

I asked, how new is self-tracking/how new is workplace monitoring? What is the difference if there is any? And what does it mean for subjectivity?

Many of us can remember keeping diaries when we were young or ticking our growth spurts by carving out a measure against a door. But long ago, it seems even royalty was involved, indeed King Charles II had a penchant for weighing himself at specific times in the day. A report from the Royal Society’s archives from 09/03/1664 written by Sir Robert Moray  indicates that Charles II, aged 34 at the time of this report,

….had the Curiosity of weighing himself, very frequently, to observe the severall    Emanations of his Body, before and after sleep, Tennis, Riding abroad, Dinners and Suppers: and that he had found he weighed lesse after Tennis, by two pounds three ounces (but the King drinking two draughts of Liquor after play, made up his weight;) after Dinner, by four pounds and an halfe. (Corden 2013)

But the label the Quantified Self really became popularised with the first Quantified Self Conference in San Francisco in 2007 and the term ‘quantified self’ became part of more common lexicon by 2008 (Lupton 2013, 26). In publicity for the 2007 event, Kevin Kelly linked quantifying one’s self to

…real change [which] will happen in individuals as they work through self-knowledge… of one’s body, mind and spirit… a rational [path]: unless something can be measured, it cannot be improved.

The language of self-realisation is powerful, and there is a growing interest in sensory devices to track second-by-second life at a molecular level. With sensory devices, people gather data about inputs to their bodies, states of mind or arousal and performance, both mental and physical. Methods include first-person digital ethnographies, lifelogging, diarising, allowing people to make a note of patterns of mental and physical activities as well as recording surroundings. Technologies are then used to measure the relationship between room temperature and work-rate, to identify the level of pollutants in the air, count steps taken, measure heart rate, track calories, track babies’ health and sleep and generally monitor personal habits. Quantifying and tracking physical movement started in health circles with devices ranging from lapel cameras for Alzheimer’s patients to devices used to measure blood glucose for diabetes patients.

Health and fitness advocates further developed such products to help athletes track and enhance performance.  With the use of radio frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth, triangulation algorithms and infrared sensors, a variety of fitness related wearable devices entered the market in the early 2000s including Nike Fuelband, Jawbone Up, Fitbit One, and Bodymedia Armband.

From the first quarter of 2012 and second quarter 2013, the Nike Plus Community grew from 4 to 10 million with the use of Nike FuelBands. In January 2013 the Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life Project Tracking for Health (2013) project showed that 69 per cent of adults track health indicators for themselves or others. 2014 was set to be the ‘year of wearable technology’ (Spence 2013) with the launch of Google Glass and with the flooding of products offering a range of personal enhancement devices.

The battle for space on your body is fully underway.

As a range of new technologies became available, people in the arts and fashion world were quickly interested. Designers looked at how bio-sensing apparel might improve wearers’ experiences with textile fibres that can track pulse, skin humidity and temperature, steps taken and other movement.

But of particular interest for my research, ABI Research predicts 13 million wearable fitness devices in workplaces by 2019 (Nield 2014) and a range of companies are now trialing wearables in workplaces such as BP, Autodesk, Hewlett Packard, Colliers, Amazon and Tesco. From arthouse to warehoues, professional workplaces to warehouses/retail self-tracking devices are becoming all the rage.

In warehouses, explicit ‘competition with robots’ may be seen as many tasks have been automated. In professional workplaces, wearables at work are usually linked to health initiatives. One employee can create more than 30GB of data per-week based on three wearable devices, ‘clearly a huge amount of information that needs to be captured, stored and analysed’ in order to ‘learn how human behaviours [measured by tracking devices] impact productivity, performance, well-being, and job satisfaction’ (Goldsmiths 2014).

I’ll talk more about the quantified self at work shortly, but first I want to think about what the intensification of measuring techniques for human passions can mean for subjectivities.

Quantified subjectivities

Quantified self at work brings up several questions for me that have implications for subjectivity. My last monograph looked at employability as a form of subjectivity. Adapting concepts around subjectification and subjectivation I looked at symptoms of neoliberalism in ‘forced’ subjectivity where the ‘ability’ in employability is transformed, appropriated, form of Gramscian trasformismo, to eliminate resistance. I wrote about this in the context of advancing knowledge based economies, seeing globalizing strategies as having the overall impact of a global passive revolution.

In my current book, which will be published before the date indicated by Amazon, I am looking at implications in three areas of quantified self at work:

  • Corporeal, temporality
  • Machines and technology
  • Labour

I have been reading philosophers and social theorists to see what quantifying ourselves at work means for the possibilities or reduction of possibilities for forms of emancipation that have implications for our subjectivity and shared subjectivities.

I start by saying that the Quantified Self movement signals a recognition of the impossibilities in separating the body and the mind in production. It is a biometric form of self monitoring of physical and emotional states that are increasingly promoted as emancipating through health initiatives. This is of course interesting in the context of the removal of hierarchical management structures in many cognitive labour workplaces, networked labour, peer to peer production (which I have also written about for FibreCulture in the special issue edited by Michael Goddard and Jussi Parikka). A case of appropriation of the radical implications for immanence in the workplace may be identified.

So I have looked at the transversality or cutting across a range of disciplinary boundaries that new materialist arguments are making headway in doing and the way that a new body of literature engages with Spinoza as well as with Marx’s work.  Manuel De Landa and Rosi Braidotti independently of one another and coming from different disciplines coined the term new materialism in the late 1990s. It is ‘not a unified theory or unified stance’ but is an intellectual movement and approach, a field of enquiry to explore a monist way of being, with influences from Deleuze, Neitzsche, Berson, Proust, Kafka and others The radical sense of materialism engenders immanent non-linear thought, seen to break from transcendental humanist thought  that was haunting cultural theory and I have argued elsewhere, International Political Economy. New materialism advances the concept of the ‘abstract machine’, or ‘processes without form or substance that can be found in concrete assemblages of biology, sociology, geology, enables cultural theory to move away from linguistic representationalism’ (van der Tuin and Dolphin 2010). New materialism indicates that there is too much representation and reliance on language and communication overlooking a great range of other factors linked to human experience. Matter matters and has an affect on how things happen. Braidotti writes about embodied memories and embodied subjectivities attempting to override monist dichotomies and is interested in dynamic and virtual generativity that is not causally linear, reductive or representationalist. New materialist research aims to look at de-territorialisations as opposed to counter-identities’ that should break through naturalising tendencies of both sexist humanism and postmodern feminisms. Feminist new materialists are in particular interested in becoming-animal, becoming-world.

I ask, did the rise of the knowledge based economy lead us to forget about the body? Did we take ‘immaterial labour’ too seriously? The affective and corporeal turns are part of new materialism and begin to rectify these oversights.

Bodily capacities to affect and be affected, augmentation or diminution of the body’s capacity to act, to engage, and to connect, show the way that autoaffection is linked to vitality. Affect is not only about bodies but is theorised in relation to the techno-logics that allow us both to ‘see’ affect and to ‘produce affective bodily capacities beyond body’s organic physiological constraints’ (Clough 2007, 2). Post-autonomist, neo-Marxists and new materialist writes have led a radical shift in thinking about revolutionary possibilities with affect as part of this drive. If we take affect as a feature of contemporary workplaces then it makes sense from the point of management that affect must be controlled,

So what this research is about, really, is the employment relationship whereby the potentials are real for for in fact, restrictive thinking about the corporeal while simultaneously seeing the body as inimitably linked with the cognitive through new softwares that are portrayed as liberating self-management tools of passionate labour.

In Du mode d’existence des objets techniques Gilbert Simondon calls for a transformation of our relationships to technics (see Read 2016, Combes 2012). Simondon looks at the regulation of the machine as alienating, whereby only some are given the ability to regulate the machine. This philosopher is critical of the Fordist ‘capitalist enterprise for egalitarian aspriations of technical becoming: the alienation of the worker results in a rupture between technical knowledge and its conditions of use. The rupture is intimately pronounced. Regulating the machine is often separated from using the machine, similar to the separation of manual from mental work in the Taylorist model where workers are not permitted to regulate the machine: a rupture that inspired the entire free software movement.

Humans are used to being ‘tool bearers’. So what happens when machines become tool bearers and we find we cannot regulate them? Further, what happens when those machines ‘regulate us’? Perhaps we pursue this regulation when we set out to self track. When management asks us to self-track this relationship is even more ambivalent.

The ‘most quantified man on earth’, Chris Dancy, was connected to over five sensors per day and was just as interested to know about the quality of the air around him as he was in knowing how much liquid he could drink before sleeping without having to get up to use the facilities. Over time he has used up to 700 sensors, devices, applications, and services to track, analyze, and optimize his life–from his calorie intake to his spiritual well-being. These sensors measure his REM sleep, pulse, skin temperature. He has sensors all across his house including his bedroom and bathroom to find correlations between bathroom habits and sleep patterns. He  documents every activity at work in his Google Calendar, recording tweets, taking screenshots of all online activity so that he has a timeline of his entire work life. I am interested in to what extent people are inspired to self-track to regain some amount of control over increasingly precarious lives.

So the real interest in quantifing the self is the ‘big data’ acquired. People are attracted to the longitudinal dimensions of quantified self data because it allows us to see patterns and trends in behavior that can be linked to other life factors or circumstances. What happens to the data? This is one of the most important questions in this movement. Users can interpret the data in a number of ways, identifying specific periods with stress or joy. Devices can also discern how many calories are probably burned given activity taken. Though there is no exact measure yet for emotions or calories, this is a rapidly growing research and development area.  Big data is a lucrative business and the aggregation of information about a large number of users’ experiences could be very valuable.

Now I am going to look at the history of how work design models address corporeal capabilities, to bring us to the present, looking at the lineage of workplace monitoring and tracking and asking what the differences are now, if any, in the quantified self at work?

Developing ‘first class men’

At the beginning of the 1900s two separate industrialists were devising schemes to understand workplace productivity as linked to human behaviour. Frank Gilbreth, upon entering the construction industry, was intrigued to discover that every bricklayer went about laying bricks with a different set of motions. Gilbreth asked his superiors so many questions about this whilst serving as an apprentice that he was often taken off site for other work. Based on what the inefficiencies and diverse methods each bricklayer used, Gilbreth set out upon what he and his wife Lillian called ‘The Quest of the One Best Way’. Looking at micromotions, using a series of technological devices including a spring driven camera, an electric motor-driven camera and a michrochronometer, the Gilbreths looked for the best way to lay bricks that would lead the least fatigue, research that soon became known as motion and fatigue studies.

Gilbreth also measured workers’ heart rates using a stethoscope and stopwatch, a foreshadowing of the heartrate measures we are still seeing in the construction industry as a risk aversion strategy where an employer can spot when a worker’s heart rate ‘rises abnormally high’ and can warn an ‘employee to take it easy’ (Hughes, 2015). Simultaneously, but unknown to Gilbreth in the early days, Frederick W. Taylor started working at Midvale Steel Company. As general foreman, Taylor quickly became convinced that the greatest obstacle to cooperation between workmen and management is the ‘ignorance of management as to what really constitutes a proper day’s work for a workman’ (Taylor 1929).  He asked the plant to invest in research to identify the ‘fraction of horse-power, or foot-pounds of work that one first-class man could reasonable perform in one day’ (ibid). He selected two strong, able-bodied, so-called ‘first-class’ men and carried out experiments for several years to identify exactly how much work was needed to carry out specific tasks.

While Taylor’s work was similar to Gilbreth’s, Taylor focussed on time and measure and prioritised efficiency and productivity and did not emphasise the physiological to the extent seen in Gilbreth’s work. Taylor quickly became an internationally respected specialist on such matters and his talks and consultancy were in high demand. Gilbreth was invited to one of the several-hour lectures Taylor held in his home in the 1920s and introduced the concept of motion to Taylor, leading to collaborations between these men that were soon known as time and motion studies.

The Principles of Motion Economy seen as ‘helpful in work design’ (Barnes 1937/1980, 174) were generally split into three areas: those related to the use of the human body; the arrangement of the place and area; and as related to the design of tools and equipment. The experiments informing these techniques were also informed by ‘human factors engineering’ research in the early part of the 20C and are most obviously applicable to factory production environments.

Taylor and Gilbreth’s studies combined concepts and methods for workplace behaviour change. Interestingly, Taylor’s consultancy often directly led to rationalisation of workplaces, meaning workers were fired or redeployed. Taylor saw this as very positive because many of the jobs he removed were seen as dirty, dark and dangerous jobs and meant people should have possibilities to take up better positions, though this of course was not what always happened in practice.

Whereas, the Gilbreths emphasised the necessity for rest and fatigue avoidance and developed a ‘motion study for the handicapped’ (Gilbreth and Gilbreth 1929), implying that people may indeed want to continue to work in the same job rather than risk job loss. The differences perhaps lie in the fact that Gilbreth worked in a unionised industry but Taylor did not.

The dominant characteristics researched in work design research over time have been those that are seen to be motivational, the principle being that jobs are enriched or made more motivational if specific characteristics can be observed. There are two other types of characteristics increasingly researched in work design literature: interpersonal and social aspects, and contextual characteristics. Reminiscent of the third feature in the Principles of Motion Economy ‘design of tools and equipment’, ‘contextual characteristics’ involve ergonomics, work conditions and equipment use (Morgeson and Humphrey, 2006: 1324) Later research indicated that the tools and equipment and work conditions are still the least researched and understood (ibid).

So there is little background understanding for the introduction of new technology and management practices in workplaces that document and monitor both the arena of the social (the use of social media and lifestyle initiatives) and the physiological (sensory devices designed to promote good health and happiness). So my interest is in looking at how wearables and self tracking technologies have been used today in workplaces.

My book, which will capture many of the above points, will be published by Routledge in 2016. It is entitled The Quantified Self in Precarity. Here is the abstract:

Experimentation with new forms of mechanization dominates the agenda around work and productivity, and wearable and self-tracking technologies (WSTT) are increasingly introduced into workplaces. What are the consequences of this trend? Is surveillance and monitoring of productivity and work an increasingly corporeal technique? Does WSTT transform the very nature of work, productivity, and employability? This book explores the ethical implications around management surveillance, the potential usage of big data produced by self-quantified technologies and the possibilities for worker organization mediated by these technologies in a radical sense.


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This entry was posted on March 31, 2016 by .
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