In recent months, there has been increasing media coverage of the terrifying network of reeducation camps in which the Chinese government has interned hundreds of thousands of the Uighur people. This is only one part of a broader system of social control in which what Timothy Grose calls a ‘virtual custody’ has been constructed through the proliferation of “convenience police stations” at 200 metre intervals, a digital surveillance apparatus and state sanctioned home invasions in which “big brothers and big sisters” conducted 24m home visits, 33m interviews and 8m “ethnic unity” activities in less than two years. What I hadn’t realised was the role that China’s social credit system plays in this:

Yet the vast majority of detainees have not been convicted of any crime. Instead, the Communist party relies on an arbitrary social taxonomy – referred to officially as a “social credit system” – to identify targets. Metrics such as age, faith, religious practices, foreign contacts and experience abroad sort Muslims into three levels: “safe”, “normal” or “unsafe”. Those labelled “unsafe” face an imminent risk of detention.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/13/china-mass-incarceration-muslims-unchallenged-uighur

My understanding is that the social credit sanctions elsewhere in China have been predominately targeted at people in their capacity as consumers. This is not to minimise it because being locked out of credit and purchasing due to being designated ‘dishonest’ is an enormously significant penalty liable to impact upon every facet of life.

But are we seeing the next stage of this process in the oppression of the Uighurs? How will this trial of the social credit system be combined with other trials when the system is rolled out in full? Are we seeing a concrete techno-fascism being constructed before our very eyes? Not the diffuse fears and harms surrounding surveillance capitalism but a totalitarian system of datafication with reeducation camps at their core? While the potential role of private companies in the operation of the social credit system remains uncertain, firms have signed contracts for implementation with local governments. If the system operates effectively in China how long before these and other firms begin to offer related services to governments around the world?

Background to the video here. I have to admit that I’d assumed this sort of thing was at least a decade away. What’s so creepy about this (beyond “because of this your feeling of safety increased”) is how ‘joined up’ the proposed monitoring is. Rather than piecemeal monitoring that gradually gets joined up in response to instrumental concerns, this company is proposing total monitoring from the outset because of the kinds of interventions it can facilitate.

What’s it like to be a junior analyst on Wall Street making $70,000 a year in your early 20s? What sort of people are drawn towards this career path? Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits attempts to answer these questions by tracking a handful of millennial recruits to Wall Street as they navigate a post-crash environment that has changed in some ways yet stubbornly remains the same in others. This immensely readable book is something akin to longitudinal quantitative research, albeit in an obviously journalistic mode, recurrently interviewing these recent graduates as they attempt to cope with the 18 hour working days considered the norm for new analysts. It’s a fascinating read in many respects, not least of all because of its counter-intuitive insights into how graduates are drawn to Wall Street and how they come to remain there:

As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

I think this argument coheres with many of the insights that can be found within the emerging adulthoods literature. Immediate material rewards in a climate of endemic insecurity and the promise of postponing difficult decisions by a number of years would inevitably seem tempting to many who might have been profoundly unlikely to be drawn into the orbit of finance in the 1980s or 1990s (not least of all because of the radically different climate greeting new graduates in those decades). However this isn’t true of all, with the author recognising the likelihood that those young financiers willing to risk their jobs by sharing their anxieties with him are likely to be atypical. What I found particularly compelling though was his insight into what it is like day-to-day to live with the demands placed upon the young analysts:

Today, as before the financial crisis, it’s not uncommon for a first-year IBD analyst to work one hundred hours a week—the equivalent of sixteen hours a day during the week, then a mere ten hours on each weekend day. Which is not to say that these twenty-two-year-olds are actively doing one hundred hours’ worth of work every week. In fact, many sit around idly for hours a day, listening to music or reading their favorite blogs while they wait for a more senior banker to assign them work. (These drop-offs are never pleasant, but they’re worst when they happen at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. as the senior banker is leaving for the day, giving the analyst a graveyard shift’s worth of work before he or she can go home and sleep.)

In an important sense they forego personal responsibility to choose how to spend their time, with the challenges this poses for synchronising everyday routine with longer term plans and aspirations. They are cut off from the non-financial world, with social media blocked within the offices where they spend 18 hours each day and on site services designed to minimise the need for errands and their attendant human contact outside the firm. They are encouraged to socialise together, within specific venues that graduate in cost and prestige as the analysts work their way through the clearly delineated hierarchy. Rigid sartorial norms are enforced aggressively: don’t over-dress but don’t under-dress. Certainly don’t out-dress the boss. The whole thing generates something the author describes as cognitive triage, with everyday demands blotting out reflexivity about the medium and the long term:

The compartmentalization phenomenon turned out to be bigger than Jeremy and Samson, and bigger even than Goldman Sachs. As I interviewed dozens of young analysts at firms across the financial sector, I heard the same kinds of answers to my questions about morality and ethics: “I don’t know, I never really think about it.” “I’m just trying not to fuck up.” “Dude, I’m so far away from anything like that…” Entry-level analysts, it seemed, were so routinely exhausted, and so minutely focused on their day-to-day tasks—on pleasing their bosses, nailing every page of their pitch books, and avoiding getting in trouble—that they often avoided thinking about the big picture. It was a sort of cognitive triage, and daily concerns always took priority over long-term, large-scale worries. Still, there was no doubt that these worries existe

I love this phrase. I think ‘cognitive triage’ is something by no means restricted to those working in finance. However what the author skilfully demonstrates is how cognitive triage can work to render these frantic actors uniquely susceptible to professional socialisation, accumulating habits of manner and outlook because the intensity of daily precludes the time for withdrawal and consideration, making it impossible to reflect in a consistent way upon whether this is really what they want to do and who they want to be.

Now take this case study and consider the potential implications of self-tracking for these young analysts whose attentional resources are consumed by cognitive triage. Deborah Lupton has suggested five modes of self-tracking and I think three of them are particularly relevant here:

  • Private self-tracking relates to self-tracking practices that are taken up voluntarily as part of the quest for self-knowledge and self-optimisation and as an often pleasurable and playful mode of selfhood. Private self-tracking, as espoused in the Quantified Self’s goal of ‘self  knowledge through numbers’, is undertaken for purely personal reasons and the data are kept private or shared only with limited and selected others. This is perhaps the most public and well-known face of self-tracking.
  • Pushed self-tracking represents a mode that departs from the private self-tracking mode in that the initial incentive for engaging in self-tracking comes from another actor or agency. Self-monitoring may be taken up voluntarily, but in response to external encouragement or advocating rather than as a personal and wholly private initiative. Examples include the move in preventive medicine, health promotion and patient self-care to encourage people to monitor their biometrics to achieve targeted health goals. The workplace has become a key site of pushed self-tracking, particularly in relation to corporate wellness programs where workers are encourage to take up self-tracking and share their data with their employer.
  • Imposed self-tracking involves the imposition of self-tracking practices upon individuals by others primarily for these others’ benefit. These include the use of tracking devices as part of worker productivity monitoring and efficiency programs. There is a fine line between pushed self-tracking and imposed self-tracking. While some elements of self-interest may still operate, people may not always have full choice over whether or not they engage in self-tracking. In the case of self-tracking in corporate wellness programs, employees must give their consent to wearing the devices and allowing employers to view their activity data. However failure to comply may lead to higher health insurance premiums enforced by an employer, as is happening in some workplaces in the United States. At its most coercive, imposed self-tracking is used in programs involving monitoring of location and drug use for probation and parole surveillance, drug addiction programs and family law and child custody monitoring.http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/the-five-modes-of-self-tracking/

Given the concern to maximise one’s performance in an intensely competitive environment, it’s easy to see the appeal of personal self-tracking. This could relate to the conservation of finite resources that are perpetually being depleted by 18 hour days. It could take a more positive form of seeking to maximise efficiency but it largely amounts to the same thing. Are pushed self-tracking and imposed self-tracking equally congruent with this workplace? I suspect so but I’d like to do some more research before I attempt to draw a firm conclusion.

However assume for the sake of argument that all three forms of self-tracking above seem likely to proliferate on Wall Street. My question is this: what will be the implications of this for the ‘cognitive triage’ that Rouse describes amongst these junior analysts? I think there are good reasons to assume it will contribute to its intensification – increasing the number of day-to-day variables in relation to which each actor is required to calibrate their behaviour over the course of the day, further precluding the possibility of sustained deliberation that reaches beyond the temporal boundaries of the present day or the coming week. If this is the case then I think this concept, which is a lovely phrase for something that Margaret Archer has written about more expansively as ‘expressive reflexivity’, helps illuminate an important vector through which power is likely to be exercised in workplaces. Not as something that ‘creates’ new quantified subjects but as something that operates through the reflexivity of people within the workplace but that will (tend to) lead to a diminution in the scope of their reflexivity.

Earlier this week I finally bought the Jawbone Up24 after weeks of deliberation. I’d got bored with the Nike Fuel Band, losing interest in the opaque ‘fuel points’ measurement and increasingly finding it to be an unwelcome presence on my wrist. I’d also been ever more aware of how weird my sleep patterns have become in the past couple of years, cycling between rising early and staying up late, with little discernible rhyme or reason. The idea of tracking my sleep in a reasonably accurate fashion, using degree of bodily movement as a cypher for the depth of sleep, appealed to me on a reflexive level. Somewhat more practically, the Jawbone’s silent alarm sounded great: it gently wakes you by vibrating on your wrist at the period within a defined interval at which it detects you are in the lightest state of sleep. It’s only been a few days but it really seems to work. I’ve woken up refreshed in a way that feels oddly natural given the rather novel consumer technology that’s bringing it about.

So thus far I’m rather pleased with this purchase. It also looks so much better than the Fuel band. It wasn’t a major factor in my decision by any means but it’s still nice. However there is something that bothers me about it. The Jawbone Up24 has an “idle alert”. This is how the company describes the feature:

What is an Idle Alert and how does it work?The UP Idle Alert is a great way to remind you to get up and move. You can set an Idle Alert within the app, so the band will gently vibrate if you’ve been inactive for a period of time.

https://jawbone.com/up/faq

This sounds innocuous, right? I spend far too many hours sitting down each week. I’m either working on a computer and sitting in a chair or I’m sitting reading sociology books and papers on my sofa. It has really started to bother me and the idle alert initially struck me as a great way to help ameliorate this problematic trend in my lifestyle. I spent yesterday afternoon working my way through various bits of social theory at home, with the Jawbone gently vibrating every 15 minutes to remind me that I’d been sedentary for that length of time. I stood up, walking around the room while continuing to read and sat down again. It’s only one occasion so it would be a mistake to overgeneralise but I was struck by how much less lethargic I felt than I often would have after spending an afternoon reading at home on my own. Oddly I also forgot to drink coffee, though it’s entirely possible that was a coincidence.

However I spent this morning struggling to copy edit and format an upcoming book when I really wasn’t in the mood for it. I was trying to decipher the superficially helpful instructions provided by the publisher which were, in practice, anything other than helpful. A task that had seemed simple, albeit dull, suddenly acquired an unexpected complexity. I spent the morning getting increasingly stressed out and the Jawbone would not stop fucking vibrating…. oddly it didn’t occur to me to just turn the feature off until after lunch. The constant buzzing on my wrist, as the little device grappled for my attention in a manner that felt creepily agentive, only served to intensify my general state of irritation at the world and frustration with my lack of progress at the task at hand.

I set the ‘idle alert’. I did so because I found it an appealing idea. It was an expression of my own agency. But it left me with a sense of quite how intrusive and aggressive this technology could be if it were ever mandated. How hard is it to imagine a situation where Amazon factory workers are expected to wear similar bands, programmed to issue a vibrating warning after 15 minutes of idleness and to alert the supervisor if the worker is still idle a few minutes later? Is it at all challenging to imagine a comparable band with an RFID chip being used to track and sanction a call centre operator who spends too long in a toilet? The social arrangements invoked here are not a matter of dystopian science fiction. They already exist. My suggestion is that this technology very likely will be rolled out in such settings, at least in the absence of legislative intervention which seems unlikely. How far could it go? What will a debate about its implications look like? What role will voluntary self-trackers and the quantified self play in these debates?

As Emmanuel Lazega has argued, ironically in one of the chapters I was editing this morning, the conditionality of welfare is likely to be an important vector of diffusion for these techniques of control. Earlier this morning, enjoying a relaxed start to the day at the crack of dawn thanks to the silent alarm on my magical band, I listened to a radio discussion of ‘sobriety tags’:

People who repeatedly commit alcohol-related crime will be forced to wear ankle tags that monitor whether they are still drinking, under a year-long pilot scheme.

The “sobriety tags”, to be worn around the clock, will enforce abstinence by measuring a person’s perspiration every 30 minutes and testing whether it contains alcohol.

If any trace is found, an alert will be sent to the offender’s probation officer and they can then be recalled to court, where they may be resentenced or face sanctions such as a fine. The tags register alcohol consumption but do not monitor movement or where people are.

The scheme is being trialled for 12 months in four London boroughs – Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Sutton. It is anticipated that up to 150 offenders will be fitted with the tags. They will be banned from drinking alcohol for up to 120 days.

Offenders will be screened before being tagged, and the scheme will not be used on people who are alcohol-dependent and require specialist support.

The scheme, being introduced by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, builds on a similar scheme in the US and aims to reduce alcohol-related reoffending and ease pressure on the police and courts.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jul/31/sobriety-tags-offenders-alcohol-related-crime-pilot-scheme-london

Consumer self-tracking devices and schemes like this serve to normalise tracking of this sort. What comes next? How hard is it to imagine a situation where a Conservative government, eager to separate ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ demands that welfare recipients submit to monitoring of their alcohol and nicotine intake? How hard is it to imagine a situation where recipients of weight related interventions on the NHS are made to wear activity tracking bands with the threat of withdrawn rights to healthcare in the case of unhealthy eating or sedentary lifestyles? What comes next? Part of me wants to research this stuff, looking at the subjective meanings attached to self-tracking as the devices become mainstream and analysing the assumptions loading into the emerging discourse surrounding the application of this technology for social policy. Part of me wants to write a dystopian science fiction novel about the coming techno-fascism. Part of me just wants to despair about a likely future in which the iron cage becomes an iron straight jacket.