Big Data, Big Development?
New technologies open up new solutions to long lingering problems. Yet, this promise comes with risks of exclusion. How can big data be used responsibly?
Gadgets and apps that monitor the user's everyday life, diet choices and body functions are gaining traction all over the world. What at first glance might seem to be an unambiguous innovation towards a more healthy lifestyle might in the end prove itself to be a gateway for population policy and the exertion of "biopower".
A tiny sensor, smaller than a pin, is swallowed. It burrows into the lining of the stomach where it continually monitors heart rate, haemoglobin and blood glucose levels, calorie and fat intake, metabolic and hormone levels, identifies viruses, and registers changes. A paired wristband measures every movement, number of calories burned, and every, single step taken, and automatically transmits all the data generated by Mae Holland’s body to the company medical officer’s office. She contacts Mae when the data reveal any changes and recommends changes to diet and behaviour, prescribes activity, or orders additional testing.
All the sensors are so very practical. This enthusiasm for automatic data collection is not just an attribute of the dark, tech-dominated dystopia of the near future...
Mae Holland works for “The Circle” – a company that represents the global tech-dominance of Apple, Google, and Facebook all rolled into one. She is the naïve protagonist in Dave Eggers’ 2013 bestselling novel. It is a clear denunciation of our so-called internet age that decries the data-collecting and sharing frenzy of tech companies and with little irony sets the neoliberal self-optimisation ideology of the present as the starting point for a dystopian vision of the future. Mae, by the way, is thrilled with all the data that her employer demands to improve her heath. All the sensors are so very practical. This enthusiasm for automatic data collection is not just an attribute of the dark, tech-dominated dystopia of the near future; it is already part of our present world, which likely contributed to the popularity of “The Circle”. While today’s data collection may not be as technically sophisticated as in the book – sensors are still much too large, blood test results cannot be monitored wirelessly – apparent pleasure from the idea that the body and all its vital signs can be immediately and comprehensively measured and rendered quantifiable has been growing for years – as the quantifiable self.
In principle everything is trackable: mood, sleep patterns, sex life, productivity and water intake. There seems to be no end to what can be measured.
For a few years now, the quantifiable self has haunted the feature pages, technophile blogosphere and a few initial popular science studies. In 2007 Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly founded the “Quantified Self” network, a space for people interested in methods for monitoring the self. The network serves as an interface between the makers of applications and technical devices and the users of same. It quickly spread from California’s Bay Area, expanding into a global community that went on to found local chapters in cities like Berlin, Melbourne, Moscow, Mumbai and Bogotá. Members of these “QS meetup groups” exchange information about their own personal experience with self-monitoring techniques and the almost all-encompassing applications. Start-ups showcase their company and wares, and network members can present any kind of monitoring data imaginable. The majority of self-tracking applications focus on aspects of health. With the assistance of small technical gadgets like the “Nike Fuelband”, the “Jawbone” or the “Apple Watch”, every movement, every step, every stair climbed, every meter travelled by bike and every walk around the block can be automatically measured and monitored. Naturally a supplemental app simultaneously counts every calorie burned as well. In principle everything is trackable: mood, sleep patterns, sex life, productivity and water intake. There seems to be no end to what can be measured. Whatever can be tracked is, and new applications and products come on the market everyday while blogs tout new areas of application.
Anything a person might once only have subjectively guessed, felt or perhaps even been entirely unaware of can now be subjected to informatisation.
In his article “The Data-Driven Life” published in the New York Times in 2010, journalist Gary Wolf opens with the contention that humans make errors because of a lack of information and awareness, which the author assesses as a striking disadvantage. We sense if we need to be more active, we guess if we should eat more or differently, we notice when we have slept poorly. Wolf asserts that this guessing, sensing and subconscious noticing can be objectified and filled with reliable information – through data. The article can be viewed as a manifesto for self-tracking. In his “Out of Control” monograph published in 1994, Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired Magazine, also recognized the fallibility of human beings, their lack of precision, reliability and objectivity. In the mid-nineties, Kelly outlined cyborgian human-technical co-control as a possible solution to this problem. Today the technical expansion of the fallible creature that is man is exactly what is being mirrored in the “quantified self”. The self-tracker’s mantra is “self-knowledge through numbers”. Knowledge of the self achieved through learning about and from the self, from the invisible and unknowable functions of one’s own body, is being made possible through technically supported quantification. Anything a person might once only have subjectively guessed, felt or perhaps even been entirely unaware of can now be subjected to informatisation. This access to what is hidden or distorted by physical-subjective perception is possible, enabling the collection of data and findings drawn from the data, ultimately allows for control – or co-control via technology. The “quantified self” network is truly the brain child of its creators.
The quantified self sits at this fulcrum between self and external control, the objectification of the self, and regulation in accordance with social norms of “health”.
In his later works, French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault described a type of power that began pervading social orders as far back as the 18th century: biopolitics, a power that both incites the individual body to perfect and increase its ability and productivity while simultaneously furthering the regulation of the vital force of the body social. Foucault included all characteristics that affect the overall health of a population, such as the birth and death rates. Biopolitics is always about forms of optimization, of rendering possible and productive. Regulation begins with the subject, the self. Increasing one’s own abilities, productivity, the optimization of the physical body and the self is an essential element of the power relationships Foucault describes so precisely. Yet the control of the self must start with an understanding of this self, with the production of knowledge about the self, with the retrieval, codification and assessment of its vital characteristics. The quantified self sits at this fulcrum between self and external control, the objectification of the self, and regulation in accordance with social norms of “health”.
Deborah Lupton, one of the few social scientists critically exploring the “quantified self”, contests that the quantified self and the associated monitoring practices are not only efficiently integrated into the biopolitical power structure, but also follow current neoliberal imperatives for increasing individual production. The imperative to live a healthy life is closely linked to the imperative live a long, very productive life. This link is particularly obvious in the seemingly never-ending range of health applications available for self-tracking: If you don’t sleep well, you won’t be alert in the morning. If you live a sedentary life, you’ll get sick more frequently. Eat more fatty foods, and you will contract cardiovascular disease more quickly.
The moment of self recognition is inseparable from the objectification of the body and its vital functions. It is embedded in a calculable rationality dressed up to look like freedom.
These are all characteristics of the undisciplined, uninformed and imperfect creature that is the human being. It is important to understand the fine nuances here that distinguish self-tracking from other forms of discipline: Self-tracking is not directly about self-optimisation, but about recognizing when we are sleeping badly, how sedentary we actually are, how often we eat excessively fatty foods. Self-tracking applications only offer incentive for changing behaviour – the findings generated by analysing data. Supposedly objective data is the medium that provides incentive for optimization via behavioural changes, which quite precisely describes the crux of biopolitical power. The neoliberal health and productivity imperative of our present time consciously rejects terms of coercion – the logics of prevention and risk calculation have replaced the sovereign “you must” with “you should” and “you could” and the nagging sense of “what if...?“. Social theorists Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller describe this link between neoliberal power constructs and the self addressed as a free individual as the production of a “managerial imperative”. Modes of analysis based on the phantasm of objective facts and figures have reduced decision-making to a numbers game located in the rational-calculating self. The moment of self recognition is inseparable from the objectification of the body and its vital functions. It is embedded in a calculable rationality dressed up to look like freedom. As such, “self-knowledge through numbers” does not represent a compulsion for optimization, though it is fundamentally incorporated into a power structure that demands optimisation and prevention – through and with the support of data. Users can freely select the area for intervention: Daily exercise, calorie consumption, weight, food intake, alcohol or tobacco consumption, a personal sense of well-being, or productivity. The user chooses whether to open an area to intervention, whether to start tracking and incorporating the ostensibly objective information that can be extracted from the data into adjusting behaviours.
This voluntary monitoring by the individual is not just seen as the way forward for scientific debate in the public health arena. Insurance agencies are also increasingly exploring possible applications for this phenomenon. Initial test programmes are underway that offer reduced rates or special conditions for users (patients) who share graphs, data and monitoring results as proof of responsible, healthy behaviour. The World Health Organisation, for example, recommends 10,000 steps a day to promote a healthy and mindful lifestyle. Activity trackers have adopted this WHO-defined norm, and any user who chooses to employ one of the many activity trackers available is immediately confronted by this ideal. Available applications offer visual support by displaying progress made, or offer words of encouragement when a user fails. An app can point out that a short turn around the block in the evening could be useful in achieving that day’s target. This can be combined with a display of calories burned, diet recipes, and an assessment of nightly movement to identify restless sleep.
In 2009 Apple devised a slogan that perfectly reflects this mind-set: “There’s an app for that!” A quick glance at both the Apple and the Google app stores show the increasingly applicability of this slogan with each passing day. Whether you want to assess your level of narcissism based on simple questions from behavioural psychology, rate your mood on a scale from 0-10, or calculate the time you spend on social media platforms instead of working on a paper – there is an app for every imaginable area that can be measured. These areas expand daily as the applications grow increasingly accurate. Yet while the “Quantified Self” network critically explores the storage and transmission of the data unconsciously produced by the body and automatically monitored by programs, it does not critically explore the integration of this data into a power construct that enables and promotes the neoliberal logic of the health and productivity imperative. No one “has to” live a long and healthy life, no one is demanding that an individual maintain healthy habits so as to serve as productive labour for the longest possible time, no one is forcing anyone to use these applications. Whether in Berlin, Beirut or Bogotá, the neoliberal calculation and monitoring methods of the quantified self work via the “you could” imperative. You could live a healthier life, and there’s an app for that.