Field Research: Insure/Unsure

During Cursor we will be developing cultural critique and examining the social implications of current trends in the quantified-self movement, attempting to negotiate the affective implications of this data labour. In this process we also intend to undertake intense field research into the current state and functionality of both Q-Self software and hardware.

These studies will include comparing various running/fitness tracking applications, but also trialling them on the various units through which they operate, currently this will involve using primarily Samsung and Apple devices. The research into these systems will inform the design and functionality of Cursor as an application. Part of the reason for our inquiry into these technologies is due to the arrival of accesible and (soon to be presumed) ubiquitous wearable tech, its arrival will expand and extend the ways in which we relate to our devices.

Wearable fitness tech has been around for a while now with companies such as FitBit, Jawbone, and Garmin becoming market leaders, and fashion brands like Nike also joining the market and then subsequently leaving again as quickly as they arrived. This cnet article gives a handy insight into how the wearable fitness tech market is shifting in advance of the Apple watches arrival. Many current firms are moving towards the software platform domain, making themselves compliant with Apple's Health Kit so as not to be totally swept away. Only FitBit has distinctly resisted this move attempting to focus on the streamlining their products to focus purely on fitness data capture rather than other 3rd party apps.

An interesting recent development is that Apple have had to reneg on their original aims of having the Apple watch be a comprehensive health monitoring tool. They have removed sensors that were aimed to gauge among other elements of our bodily functions such as blood pressure. In an article typical of techno-fetishism/fanaticism The Spector blames this on "over zealous" state legislators, but as the inaccuracy inherent in the Apple watche's sensors is indicative of the wider issue in the market. This misnomer has been quickly illustrated by a BBC reporter undertaking her own field research comparing a range of fitness trackers simultaneously. This level of incongruity between apps and sensors readings is not uncommon, any one who has used tracking apps will have experienced these sorts of fluctuations, even today as I look at my S Health App tells me I have walked 5,142 steps and my Moves app thinks I have walked 3,432. This is most likely due to Moves not being able to keep a consistent GPS signal to map my travels. The reason I bringing this up is that the implication of such variable results has far reaching ramifications.

As this article from 2014 highlights their is a free market interest in wearable tech being tethered to existing economies. In this instance it is the American health insurance market, as noted in the article they wish to replicate the automotive insurance industry's move to offer incentives to individuals willing to have their behaviour monitored. This incentivisation of self-disciplining is a worrying trend, although it is currently opt-in with enough of a societal swing this form of profiling will exaggerate the stratification between those able to submit themselves to such an toxic form of regulation, with those who don't even have rudimentary access to the technology, technology that is prohibitively expensive, further excluding the disadvantaged from participating in gaining monetary relief in areas they sorely need it. Although British citizens may read this thinking that it is an irrelevant development for them, it would be foolhardy to ignore the accelerating privatisation of our healthcare system which could quickly lead to this form of self-regulation being implemented through corporate deals between service providers and pushed upon us as a requirement of treatment. Ultimately this shift cannot occur until the sensors and software being used are judged to be accurate enough, and although they might not be currently at this level they are not far off!

In propogating this capital-driven ideology, Apple and alike are attempting to extract use-value out of the surplus-value of bodies that are willing and pliant. Although it is seemingly innocuous, these actions have possibly pervasive implications for society at large.

Weird Solidarities and Data Tenancy

DIS Magazine's 'Data Issue' is a very timely set of short essays and provocations that are filtering into our research for Cursor. In this post I will focus on the article 'Weird Solidarities' by Karen Gregory.

"As value grows increasingly speculative, being drawn from the dual promise of data aggregation and its parsing—for data are only as valuable as the novel emergent patterns it can produce—such value is already predicated on a social body and the generative connections that can be forged among its constituent elements. These elements do not necessarily have to reduce to “the human.” Additionally, this is a laboring and productive body whether it “works” or not. In this way, this economy does not need “you,” but it is fully composed of “us.”

When thinking about Cursor, and its focus on the production of data labour through fitness applications, Gregory's deconstruction of data's value is an intriguing and troubling proposition. The focus of such apps is often to harness the individual's actions through sensory quantification of their activities, although this data is emblematic of their movement it cannot be understood as human essence but rather an isolated and cold reading of capture. By participating in this system we are opting to have our data parsed and positioned alongside those within the same community, this community is not a generative 'us' that is focused on inclusion, sharing in a generative manner or development, but rather it is an ambivalent community of competition, one that only notes your data's presence and absence.

"We are slowly coming to realize that the “sharing economy” is less about sharing than it is about creating new terrains of rent. Such terrains are innovative and disruptive not because they are necessarily creative, unique, generous, or helpful to the overall project of human life but because they attempt at all costs to circumvent production costs (including labor) and therefore reconfigure the relationship between production and value."

As Gregory notes the inclusion policy of sharing economies is now predicated on othering those not imbricated within its grip, excluding the participation of those who do not wish to forgo the right to their labour. A way of understanding this is in relation to fitness tracking is how many apps are free to use (often with optional in-app add on purchases) where your activity i.e. labour becomes your payment, the apps require penetrative access to your identity and personal data, layering your production of data ontop of this identity. As the Cursor project develops I will look to examine this process more intensely by interrogating apps terms of service and comparing what greater access or relief is given when you pay-for-access. What is maybe currently unknown is when these data layerings will be considered comprehensive enough to constitute effective legal, economic or health renderings of the individual. Worrying precedents for how this resolution could become a act of punishment can be seen emerging as the state begins punitative measures against its citizens with regard to their own health, how long before optional fitness tracking edges towards becoming a tool of discipline?

"The key figure here is the enterprising, entrepreneurial individual—a savvy prosumer or, in Toffler’s words, a “proactive consumer”—who privileges access to goods and services over ownership. Bear in mind, this is an individual who already does own something—that is, has something to “share.” That something can be their home, their car, their pets, their time, their talents, or their attention, and that individual is often invited to share through the most practical of all invitations—the creation of passive income, or rent."

Gregory develops this deconstruction of the sharing economy to include the asymetrical hierarchy that is emerging as more users contribute their labour in the form of renting their assets. With regard to fitness tracking it is the body itself that is being rented, as sensors develop at an accelerated rate more and more quantification is contrived to extract data from the person, every element of their movement becomes payment for being able to read and compare these seeminly innocuous processes. Gregory goes on to note that "while “you” may not ontologically “be” a gadget such as a camera or a pedometer, as long as those elements are attached to you and producing trails of data, you are a generative source of data aggregation who becomes, often unknowingly, a constituent of data-based populations.". Here Gregory touches again upon my earlier assertions where we act as prosumer, in a commodity-driven culture this behaviour is not difficult inculcate. If these systems continue to read from the same dystopic script, appropriating Sci-Fi technological contrivances, these forms of normalisation are laying the foundation for more invasive processes such as wetware and biotech innovation.

"unlike the workers who meet on the factory floor, the sharing-app users meet only as commercial adversaries, and build not solidarity but merely a mercantile ‘trust’ that facilitates wary exchange.” While Horning’s statement may be true, I want to suggest that, despite its rhetoric of rampant individualism, the sharing economy and, even more broadly, the data economy has already ushered in a form of “weird solidarity.” - Rob Horning

When considering 'weird solidarity' in relation to mercantile 'trust' it is worth considering that mercantilism was originally a governmental economic policy implemented by nations to allow new forms of domination. I mention this in relation an article mentioned in a previous post, William Davies 'The Data Sublime' which examines data states (such as Google and Facebook) which are now effectively blindly dabbling in statecraft beyond a post-nation system of economy. I suggest that the tentative trust and wariness within our new forms of solidarity are based in individuals being able to navigate or even see the formulating systems to which they are making their labour legible.

"Much in the same way that rentierism opens the commodity to new spatial and temporal extensions so that it can generate a stream of inhabitants, the data economy extends and opens the human body to the pre-personal, to what we do not necessarily have conscious access to. The data economy already understands us as the porous subjects of an uncanny and expressive genetics."

In a brief summation Gregory puts forward a very succinct expression of how these economines are transitioning and fusing. The very nature of Q-Self technology is to attempt to know us in 'better', and more expansive ways, than we have ever been exposed to previously. The trouble lies in how these "expressive genetics" will be processed and exploited, and who will monopolise and extract top-down value from those afraid of not being part of these economies.

Subservient to 'The Data Sublime'

As my inaugral contribution to this research blog for Cursor I wanted to briefly reflect on an article that does a great job of examining the conditioning that has brought us as phone users to a point of, at best, ambivalence, and at worst subservience when considering the data we produce and its wider dissemination and utilisation by other agents.

The Article Data Sublime by William Davies was published by the New Inquiry in January of this year. The article uses an autobiographical account from the author as an opening and closing metaphor. This metaphor (of the author's comfort in being driven on journeys by his parents with no knowledge of the intended destination) highlights a worrying yet understandable trait of our relation to data production, it is one of relinquishing control and autonomy of our bodies, thoughts and cities to apps and likewise software interfaces that are a "data grid that is incomprehensible".

Davies writes from an economics perspective (which can be further explored on his excellent personal website, he traces the emergence of this data subservience to the trade-off between 'freedom' for 'security' and how the early quantified-self movement helped normalise digital surveillance, heralding its playbouring autonomy and experimentation through an aesthetisation of interfaces.

Perhaps for Cursor our interest lies in how even after this normalisation has been disrupted (post-Snowden) that the capital-driven innevitability of wearable tech rumbles ever closer, examining how this shift is predicated on continuing to foster self-surveillance as a positive and fruitful endeavour. The sheer invasive breadth of data that can be gathered and used to quantify the individual has worrying implications, it is with this sentiment that Davies ends his article, he questions who this data production is for? When we are the child receeding into the safety of parental stewardship we enjoy that they are responisble for our safety and development, but when you rescind your data autonomy to the janus-faced benevolence of corporations, you cannot assure that they have a plan for your wellbeing, there is no guarantee anyone is driving this metaphorical vehicle of capital.

Cursor is positioned to examine how these processes are consistently being normalised and individuals exploited as the data produced is made legible to neoliberal rationalised economies of value. Questioning who, why and what for, are an intrinsic part of our enquiry, although there may be no firm answers to these questions - we can at least begin to interrogate the schisms within Q-self technology and bring forward these normalised processes for closer inspection.