Self-Tracking Technology as an Extension of Man

Lekhaa A Nair

Abstract


“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times” (Freud 37-39).

Introduction and Background 

Self-tracking is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, people have used self-examination and monitoring as a means to attain knowledge and understanding about themselves. People would often record their daily activities (like food consumption, sleep and physical exercise) and write down accompanying thoughts and reflections. However, the advent of digital technology in the past decades has drastically changed the self-tracking sphere. In fact, the popularisation of self-tracking technology (STT) in mobile applications and wearable devices has allowed users to track daily activities on a closer and more accurate scale than previously affordable. Gary Wolf, the founder of a niche movement called the ‘Quantified Self’, suggested that “if you want to replace the vagaries of intuition with something more reliable, you first need to gather data. Once you know the facts, you can live by them” (Wolf). This reveals that STT has the capacity to guide users by virtue of the data collected and insights provided by the technology. Thus, instead of using intuition, which is potentially unreliable and subjective, data – finite and objective by nature – can be used to guide the process by providing definitive facts, figures and patterns. Arguably, this technologises users, allowing them to enhance their performance and capabilities by using STTs to regulate and monitor their behaviour. Hence, in this article, I position self-tracking technology (STT) as an interactive media technology, a tool for surveillance and regulation, and an “extension of man”. However, the use of and reliance on STT can compromise personal autonomy, and this journal article will investigate how users’ personal autonomy has been affected due to STT’s function as an extension of man, or a “prosthetic”. I use case study vignettes to investigate impacts on personal autonomy in three spheres: the workspace, relationships and the physical environment. 

Extending Man

STTs reconfigure our bodies in data form and implicate our personhood and autonomy. Human physicality has changed now that technology and data have become so integral to how we experience and view our bodies. STTs technologise human bodies, transforming them into data bodies, augmented and reliant on digital media. As Marshall McLuhan (63) put it: “In this electric age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness”. 

With the integration of STT into our daily lives, consumers increasingly rely on cues from their devices and applications to inform them about their bodies. This potentially affects the autonomy of an individual – since STT becomes an extension of the human body. In the 1960s, when the mass media was burgeoning, Marshal McLuhan proposed the idea that the media acted as an extension of man. STTs similarly act as an extension of users’ embodied capabilities and senses, since the data collected by these technologies is shared with users, allowing them to alter their bodies and minds, aiming to be as productive and effective as possible. 

In Understanding Media, McLuhan’s interpretation of electronic media was prescient. He anticipated the development of so-called “smart” devices, noting that, in the information age man “wears [his] brain outside [his] skull and [his] nerves outside [his] hide” (63). This is reflective of STT’s heavy reliance on sensor technology and smart technology. Simply examining how a Fitbit – a popular wearable self-tracking device – operates is illustrative. For instance, some Fitbits have an altimeter sensor that detects when the wearer is elevated, and hence counts floors. Fitbits also count steps using a three-axis accelerometer, which turns the wearer’s movements into data. Furthermore, Fitbit devices are capable of analysing and interpreting this acceleration data to provide insights about “frequency, duration, intensity, and patterns of movement to determine [users’] steps taken, distance travelled, calories burned, and sleep quality” (“Fitbit”). Fitbit relies on sensor technologies (“nerves”) to detect and interpret activities, and such insights are then transmitted to users’ smart devices (“brains”) for storage, to be analysed at a time of convenience. This modus operandi is not exclusive to Fitbit, and in fact, is the framework for many STTs. Hence, STTs have the potential to extend the natural capabilities of the human body to regulate behaviour.

The Workplace

This notion of STT as a regulatory prosthetic is seen in its ability to enforce standardised norms on individuals by using surveillance as a disciplinary measure. STTs can enforce norms on users by transforming the workplace into a panopticon, which is an institutional structure that allows a watchman to observe individuals without them knowing whether they are being watched or not. STTs are used to gather data about performance and behaviour, and users are monitored constantly. As a result, they adjust their behaviouraccordingly. US retail titan Amazon has repeatedly raised concerns over the past years because of its use of wearables to survey workers during shifts. Adam Littler, an Amazon employee, came forward in 2013 accusing his employers of forcing him to walk 11 miles during a single work shift. His distance travelled was measured and tracked using a pedometer, while a handheld scanner guided him around the warehouse and notified him if he was meeting his targets (Aspinall). Amazon also recently designed and patented a wristband that is capable of tracking wearers’ (employees’) movements, including hand placement (Kelly). The reliance on such tracking technology to guide actions and supplement users with information to increase productivity reveals how STT can serve as a prosthetic that is used to enhance man’s abilities and performance      

However, the flipside of such enhancement is exploitation – employers augment users with technology and force them to adhere to standards of performance that are difficult to achieve. For instance, documents have recently surfaced that suggest Amazon terminates employees based on productivity statistics. It was reported that around 300 full-time employees were fired for “failing to meet productivity quotas”. According to the documents, “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors” (Lecher). This is reflective of how actors that are in power, like employers, can impose self-tracking practises onto employees that compromise their personal autonomy. Foucault finds that the panopticon’s utility and potency as a discipline mechanism lies in its efficiency as enforcers do not have to constantly survey people to ensure they conform. Thus, it manoeuvres existing power structures to achieve a particular goal – for instance, higher productivity or economic growth. Foucault also notes: 

The discipline of the workshop, while remaining a way of enforcing respect for the regulations and authorities, of preventing thefts and losses, tends to increase aptitudes, speeds, output and therefore profits; it still exerts a moral influence over behaviour, but more and more it treats actions in terms of their results, introduces bodies into a machinery, forces into an economy. (210) 

STTs in the workspace (or workshop) can act as prostheses, allowing employers to enhance their employee’s capabilities. Such technology creates an environment in which workers feel pressured to perform in adherence to certain set standards. Thus, employees are disciplined by STTs, and by the surveillance of their employers that follows. Arguably, such surveillance is detrimental to personal autonomy, as the surveyed feel that they have to behave in compliance to standards enforced by those in power (ie. their employers). 

Physical Environment 

With the aim of productivity and efficiency in mind, users grow dependant on devices to augment their realities with helpful technology. As mentioned earlier, McLuhan (90) ideates that “technologies are extensions of our physical and nervous systems to increase power and speed” is particularly significant. The iPhone is an example that illustrates this point very clearly as they are inbuilt with complex technology that includes a variety of sensors. The iPhone 7, for example, has a range of sensors including an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, a GPS, a barometer, and an ambient light sensor (Nield). These gather information about users’ surroundings and feed it back to them, and they are then able to make informed decisions. Hence, if a user wants to travel to a certain place, the phone has the ability to point out the quickest route possible, or which route to take if they would like to stop by a certain location along the way. This cultivates a reliance on navigational technologies that use automated self-tracking to direct users’ daily lives, functioning as an extension and enhancement of their geographical memory and sense of direction. However, using these technologies may in fact be dulling our body’s abilities. For instance, anthropologist Tim Ingold posits that relying on navigation technology has reduced humans’ inborn wayfaring capabilities (Ingold). These satellite navigation technologies are one of the most popular ways in which people track their movements and move through space; for instance, a whole market of rideshare applications like Uber and OlaCabs rely on this technology. Using this technology has allowed people to navigate and travel with ease. However, this can be seen to lead to a lack of “spatial awareness and cartographic literacy”. Essentially, traditional maps skills are viewed as redundant and it can encourage an over-reliance on technology (Speake and Axon). 

According to McKinlay navigation is a “use-it-or-lose-it skill” and “automatic wayfinding” was reducing natural navigation abilities. A UCL neuroscience study found that licensed London taxi drivers have a larger than average hippocampus in their brains, as they are capable of storing a mental map of the city in their minds, by learning street layouts and locations of places of interest. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is linked to spatial memory and navigation skills (Maguire, Woollett and Spiers 1093). Dr Eleanor Maguire, the neuroscientist who led the study, noted that if the taxi drivers started “using GPS, that knowledge base will be less and possibly affect the brain changes we are seeing” (Dobson). In turn, an increasing reliance on GPS and navigation technologies in self-tracking devices may result in a diminishing hippocampus, according to neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot of McGill University. The atrophy of the hippocampus has also been linked to the risk of dementia (Weeks), which reveals how the technologies that augment space may atrophy the “natural abilities” (McKinlay) and thus, the autonomy of users. 

Relationships

As with areas like the workspace and spatial environments, sociality and intimacy are increasingly being mediated by technology – the digital capabilities of new media have expanded users’ options and provided a variety of technological tools that allow us to streamline and reflect on social interactions and behaviour, serving as a social prosthetic. This is especially significant in the sphere of self-tracking. However, relying on STT to gain insight into sociality may alter the ways in which we think of intimacy and communication, and may also have an impact on users’ independence and trust. Hasinoff (497-98) notes that using tracking technologies within families and intimate relationships can have potentially harmful effects, such as a loss of trust. In particular, children who are pushed into self-tracking by their families may suffer from a loss of independence as well as an inability to perceive and react to risk. In such a situation, STT serves as a prosthetic that aims to ensure safety, however, surveillance through STTs enforces power disparities and simultaneously creates a dependency between the watched and watchers, and this would affect users’ personal autonomy as they are viewed under a panoptic lens. In fact, Hasinoff finds that “[family tracking and monitoring apps] exaggerate risks, offer illusory promises of safety, and normalize surveillance and excessive control in familial relationships”. I argue that this is the consequence of pushed self-tracking in the sphere of sociality and intimacy. Users may feel pressure from their families or partners to participate in self-tracking and allow their data to be accessed by them. However, the process of participating in such a mediated and monitored relationship could create “asymmetrical relations of visibility” (Trottier 320), as this sharing of information may not always be two sided. For instance, on the app Life360, parents can enforce that their children share their locations at all times, while they are able to conceal their own locations. This intensifies the watcher’s control and diminishes the watched’s privacy and autonomy. Quite ironically, Life360’s tagline is “feel free, together”. 

As an app geared at family safety, Life360 assumes that the family is a safe space – however, families too may pose a significant risk to vulnerable users’ (such as young children and women) autonomy and privacy. User complaints about inaccurate location information reveal “controlling, asymmetrical, and potentially abusive uses of the app” that can aggravate dysfunctional power dynamics in intimate and familial relationships. For instance, jealous partners or overprotective parents could grow increasingly suspicious or even aggressive (Hasinoff 504). Critical users who reviewed the app claimed that the app “ruined [their] social life” and enabled their “family to stalk [them] 24/7”. In another case, a user claimed the app was “toxic”, noting it would “destroy their [children’s] trust” (App Store; Life360). While the app asserts that each user does have control over the extent of location sharing, they may feel the need to remain visible because of familial pressure and expectations, since their family relies visibility on the app as an indicator of safety. This too, is problematic – self-tracking one’s locations provides just that – a geolocation pin, which is not a clear measure or indicator of the well-being or safety of the user. Simpson argues that constructing location information as safety information is not reliable because it could “promote a false sense of security based on the sense that if you know where your child is then that means they are safe” (277). Additionally, this also sets an imperative that users need to be monitored or monitor themselves at all times to ensure safety, and such a use of surveillance technology could result in users being hyperalert and anxious (Hasinoff 497). Extending man’s awareness to this degree and engaging in such surveillance may create a false sense of security and dependency, that ultimately puts everyone’s autonomy at risk.

Conclusion

STT performs as an informational prosthetic for man. We conventionally tend to think of prostheses as extensions of our physical and sensory abilities, used to enhance or replace missing functions. In the case of STT, they have inbuilt decision-making and guidance capabilities, enhancing humans’ ability to process and understand information. This is a new type of digital prosthetic that has not existed before. It thus seems that the new generation of prostheses are no longer just physical and material – they operate as intellectual and cognitive extensions of our bodies. However, when users’ decision-making processes are increasingly displaced by informational prostheses, it is important to determine the extent to which they are impairing our organic capacity for orienting, sense-making and intimacy.  

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Keywords


self-tracking; surveillance; extension of man; mcluhan; freud



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