Self-tracking, governmentality and social control

This post on Org Theory, which makes reference to a superb New Yorker article about the Fitbit, nicely captures an ambivalence about self-tracking which I share:

In fact, there is a whole Quantified Self movement, complete with conferences and meet-up groups. One obvious take on this is that we’re all becoming perfect neoliberal subjects, rational, entrepreneurial and self-disciplined.

For me, though, what is fun and appealing as a choice — and I do think it’s a choice — becomes repellent and dehumanizing when someone pushes it on me. So while I’ll happily track my work hours and tally my steps just because I like to — and yes, I realize that’s kind of weird – I hate the idea of judging tenure cases based on points for various kinds of publications, and am uneasy with UPS’s use of data to ding drivers who back up too frequently.

It’s possible that I’m being inconsistent here. But really, I think it’s authority I have the problem with, not quantification.

I’m theoretically resistant to attempts to reduce self-tracking to neoliberal governmentality. Partly this is because I’m increasingly unsure what this actually means beyond saying that the technology socialises people into forms of self-management conducive to the demands of the socio-economic system – sounds weirdly functionalist when you rephrase it like this, no? I’m also aware of the role self-monitoring plays in my own life, using apps like Goalstreaks, iDoneThis, Day One Journal and my Nike Fuel Band. Though with the exception of the latter there’s a predominately qualitative aspect to this practice, even if Goalstreaks is superficially a matter of counting.

This obviously constitutes a form of self-work. What I object to is the fundamentally crypto-functionalist interpretation of this self-work that I increasingly see the notion of governmentality as entailing. However the widespread diffusion of digital self-tracking practices – I use the qualifier ‘digital’ because self-tracking practices are obviously not new – throughout the populace clearly has political, social and cultural implications which it would be hard to make sense of adequately without considering the power relationships contributing to them and ensuing from them.

This is why I’m ambivalent about self-tracking. Like the author of the Org Theory post quoted above, it’s authority I have the problem with, not quantification (or tracking). But when you consider the trajectory of self-tracking (and gamification for that matter) it looks likely to become increasingly difficult to separate one from the other. I’m particularly interested in how self-tracking might be introduced in workplaces, in the form of socio-technical systems of (pseudo)-participatory tracking and ranking, with the intention of mobilising ‘discretionary effort’:

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required. Many organizations manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement). Typically, these organizations manage by exception, providing consequences for worker’s performance only when it falls below the standard or minimum required. This approach gets immediate results, but just enough behavior to stop the threats and the potential for other negative consequences in the near future. It suppresses discretionary effort because there’s nothing in it for people to do more than the minimum required.

In this sense, it’s easy to see the appeal of self-tracking as technologies of motivation that can be deployed in the workplace. I’m (slowly) working my way through some of the literature on digital labour and it’s proving useful to begin to think through the implications of this.

2 thoughts on “Self-tracking, governmentality and social control

  1. Hello, I’ve submitted a short paper to Sue Scott about sedentary behaviour for discover Society and it alludes to self-tracking (though not in those terms) which goes along with the control of sitting. I do think this particular example is well explained in functionalist and neoliberal terms as it is consistent with the urge to control population health and in particular the ‘burden’ of ageing, which relies largely on self-monitoring but also top-down monitoring by health care practitioners and other exercise experts. So I wonder if we need to differentiate between different population groups too.

  2. I’m not quite as hostile to the idea as that post made me sound! I was just delighted to finally get that idea into words (I’ve been trying for ages) and was a bit effusive about expressing it. I look forward to seeing your discover society article – I do have a real problem this mode of explanation though, in the sense that it gives a partial perspective (which is fine in itself) but does so in a way which obscures the the broader picture it’s abstracting from. I think it tends toward depersonalisation of the social world and this worries me somewhat.

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