Tracking culture: a workshop on intimate surveillance
I’m traveling home from a wonderful two day workshop in Aarhus, organized by surveillance scholar and philosopher Anders Albrechtslund. It was wonderful: a smallish group of scholars all researching what self-tracking means spending hours each day just talking about it. We had three hour sessions allotted to just two presentations, so a very heavy focus on discussion and sharing ideas. Add to that wonderful food, a beautiful setting at the brand new Moesgaard Museum and a tour of the stunning AROS art museum after dinner and you have a very happy group of academics. Self-tracking is the focus of chapter five in my book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology and this quantified self-representation is one of the things I really want to continue working on, so I was thrilled to be invited to this workshop. This somewhat long blog post includes some notes and examples from the workshop about activity trackers, family tracking and more.
Anders Albrechtslund convened the workshop and has written several key papers in surveillance studies, as well as co-editing the anthology Internet and Surveillance, for which they received over a hundred proposals!! This is certainly a growing field. In his presentation, he made a convincing argument for the need to see intimate self-tracking as surveillance, because this will allow us to better understand the power relationships involved. Anders is also interested in ethics and privacy and in the enactment of selfhood through self-tracking. He proposed the concept of the oligopticon, which rather the god-like view of the panopticon gives us very specific, grounded views of that which we track. Someone (probably Chris Till, who was the first discussant) brought up Deleuze’s idea of the dividual at this point (as someone usually does these days at discussions like this). The dividual or the divided individual is the basic unit of society in this view. Corporations don’t really care who you really are as an individual, they just want to know about certain aspects, certain data sets: they want to know you as a dividual.
Anders talked about the transition from a surveillance society to a surveillance culture, which is not so much about something that is forced upon us from above (although that also happens) but just as much about our everyday practices. We actively participate in this surveillance culture, for instance by willingly sharing our data in social media or by using GPS tracking on our kids. Intimate surveillance is about control but also about care. We want to look after our kids and keep our families safe. How then does this inform our ways of thinking about norms?
One blog I’ll be following is Chris Till’s This is not a sociology blog. In addition to his many insightful comments throughout the workshop, Chris gave a really interesting presentation laying out an in-progress marxist analysis of corporations’ use of fitness trackers for their employees. Chris argued that employers aren’t simply wanting their employees to get fitter, and thereby able to create more value in a traditional sense (work harder and be more productive), employees self-tracking creates direct value for employers – and the corporations providing the activity trackers to the employers through the data that is produced. Because trackers standardize the activity done by runners in a way not previously possible, that activity can be compared to other activity, and thus is can be exchanged and produces value. So our workouts become labour in a marxist sense.
Tamar Sharon is another scholar to watch. She is in the STS group (STS=science, technology and society studies) at Maastricht University and has a grant to explore the quantified self movement and other self-tracking. In discussing Chris’s presentation, she pointed out that it’s not really the employers (like BP giving health insurance discounts to employees who get enough steps) that exploit the workout labour of the employees, it’s the corporations another level up that actually get and use the data. So it’s a case of Fitbit or Google exploiting the smaller corporations.
Of course, once you bring Marx into play you start discussing capitalism, and I remembered Bruce Sterling’s wonderful rant about the internet of things. He argues that it’s not capitalism, it’s feudalism.
Politically speaking, the relationship of the reader to the Internet of Things is not democratic. It’s not even capitalistic. It’s a new thing. It’s digital-feudalism. People in the Internet of Things are like the woolly livestock of a feudal demesne, grazing under the watchful eye of barons in their hilltop Cloud Castles. (location 58)
We are completely dependent on our feudal lords (the biggest in the US are Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Apple) and like serfs of old we actually respect and admire them. We feel fealty to them. And if we don’t serve them, we cannot exist (or can only exist with great difficulty) in today’s society. As Chris cited a tweet by Angela Wilson Ursery, perhaps it’s Quantified Serf, not Quantified Self.
The others didn’t agree with (my rendition of) Sterling about digital feudalism, and I’m not enough of a scholar of capitalism or feudalism to really know, but it’s an interesting comparison. I’m not sure what it does to the marxist interpretations.
Tamar Sharon is in the early phases of a study of the quantified self movement and self-tracking, and has set up a fabulous table showing what she sees as three key values in self-tracking and how each value has a positive side but also a fear attached to it.
“The problem with Marxist approaches,” she said as we were discussing Chris’s presentation, “is that it’s always about false consciousness and exploitation, which can stop you from seeing agency and from moving on to questions of ethos and ethics.” I have to admit I love the marxist approaches that are popping up all over the place in discussions of digital labour. I think we need to think about who benefits and how our leisure and online activities are converted to value for others, but I also think Tamar is right in that this is not the only way we need to think about digital activities like self-tracking. In a way this is the old cultural studies debate about television viewers not being completely controlled by television but having agency, for instance creating fan fiction.
I’ve gone from loving self-tracking to being more and more skeptical of it, but I do still see the pleasures of self-tracking. And you know, we were in a room full of surveillance scholars who are apt to be a bit suspicious of tracking, so I particularly appreciated Tamar’s work to figure out the pleasures that self-tracking can bring, and what it is that the quantified selfers she has interviewed and observed like about self-tracking. Here she is explaining some of the non-reductionist things data can do:
Although Tamar is in the early phases of her research and has only recently started her interviews and observations, she has a really solid theoretical framework worked out and I look forwards to hearing more of her results.
Stine Liv Johansen spoke about tracking children. Her research is about children’s use of media for play, and so she was thinking about possible ways of thinking about self-tracking in this respect. Tracking babies and children is something I wrote about in chapter five of my book, as well as on the blog, and I was very happy to get even more examples of kid-tracking apps. For instance Kuddle.com, an imagesharing site for kids where parents are notified and have to approve each image a child wants to share, or Tableaux, a system used in a lot of Danish preschools and after school care centers where parents have a smart phone app connected to the school’s systems so parents always know exactly where their kids are (in the gym, on an excursion, at lunch) and when they slept if they still nap at school. Stine emphasized that some of these devices actually give kids greater freedom. For instance, in a Danish city where all school kids got iPads, kids would FaceTime their mum themselves to ask whether they could go home with another kid, and wouldn’t have to ask the teachers and get permission to use the landline phone.
Following a few links I found even more devices on our horizon. I already knew about the Tinitell video, which shows how tracking children can be (presented as or actually?) a way to give kids more freedom.
I found the Paxie bands via a link from the menstrual tracker @clue after seeing a tweet to @clue from another workshop participant, Marie Louise Juul, who is about to start a PhD on intimate self-tracking of things like menstruation and sex. The Paxie bands have a similar argument, but go even further. They not only track the location of your child, but constantly measure their temperature and heart rate. My kids get fevers once or twice a year, and I suppose at those moments it’d be quite useful to have the temperature measurements, but wow, having it constant is quite extreme. Apparently the child can’t remove the band herself, as it takes two adult hands to get it off.
Anders Albrechtslund showed us the ad for the new Withings Home, which has exactly the same emphasis on parents who are away from their kids but connected through surveillance technology:
There were other excellent presentations too, for instance by Federica Lucivera, who spoke about heath tracking, and Tjerk Timan, who spoke about the internet of things and how we should study the code behind trackers and not just the people using them, and there were lots of discussions throughout I can’t possibly do justice too. I’m left with lots of ideas, scribbled notes and a pile of links, and a strong motivation to do more work in this area! Thank you to Anders, Kasper and everyone else for a wonderful few days.