Recently I published an article in a special issue of Societies which was called Beyond Techno-Utopia: Critical Approaches to Digital Health Technologies and was guest edited by Deborah Lupton.

In this article I made a suggestion of what I believe to be a previously untheorised consequence of the large scale tracking of exercise activity by self-tracking devices such as Fitbit and Nike+ and related apps on smart phones.

My suggestion was that this kind of tracking is potentially transforming exercise activity into labour. By synthesising existing analyses of self-tracking and quantified self activities with theories of digital labour I proposed that by converting the physical movement of bodies during exercise into standardised measures which can be analysed, compared and accumulated on a large scale they are made amenable to the extraction of value.

We know from Marx’s analysis of labour that in order for the value of labour to be harnessed and for a use-value to be transformed into an exchange-value (and therefore made amenable to the extraction of profit) the heterogeneous activities of individual workers must be standardised. The simplest way to do this is through objectifying human labour in standardised products or dividing labour time into discrete units (eg. hourly, weekly or monthly pay).

What does this have to do with exercise? By creating methods of standardising the measurement of exercise activity, which are then collated in large quantities, the heterogeneous exercise activities of individuals are made comparable and start to look more like labour.

Previously the sale of self-tracking devices themselves was the way in which corporations extracted value from the desire of users to monitor and store the exercise statistics. More recently however it has been reported that some of the biggest players in this market are making commercial use of these data which are being collated.

The potential value of these data is obvious and most of the companies involved claim not to be selling them but Nike and Fitbit have conceded that while they do not sell personally identifiable data they may share aggregate data with others within their “corporate umbrella”. We could see this as the de facto sale of commercial data but clearer cases of sharing and perhaps sale have been uncovered. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission conducted a study which showed that user data were disseminated to seventy-six third parties, and one app in particular sent data to eighteen other entities. Some of these data were personal information such as names and email addresses and at least twenty-two of the third parties received exercise information, meal and diet information, gender and geo-location.

Another study conducted by web analytics and privacy group Evidon commissioned by the Financial Times found that data was shared with nearly seventy companies by the twenty most popular health and fitness apps and some of these companies were advertising firms (see graphic below). Although the headline rhetoric often presents a concern for the privacy of users an analysis of the privacy policies of many of the most popular health and fitness tracking apps and devices most allowing “non-personally identifiable information” to be shared and many were ambiguous on whether they permitted sharing of user data.


Evidon 2

This visualisation, and many others can be found on the Evidon website along with their analysis of the sharing data of a variety of health and fitness tracking companies.

Since writing this article Google’s interest in health and fitness tracking has become increasingly evident (see here and here) and more significantly that they are likely to be considering these data to be a source of income in themselves (see here, here and here). This is not surprising as it is thought that more than 90% of Google’s business is advertising.

If the exercise activity of individuals is proving to be lucrative to companies then conceptually we might consider this as labour, in which case we must consider whether this should be paid. When this tracked exercise is considered as a form of digital labour we can see how similar techniques are being used to extract value as are currently employed by Facebook, Google and many others to monetise our online interactions. Perhaps we see this as a fair trade – our privacy for their tracking, analytical and communication tools. Maybe we would rather take more control over our data. Either way this requires closer consideration.

You can read more about this in my open access article. I will also be presenting elements of this paper at three forthcoming events: the BISA International Political Economy Group conference (5th-6th September, 2014), the BSA Medical Sociology Annual Conference (10th-12th September, 2014) and the Wellcome Trust symposium Theorising Personal Medical Devices: New Perspectives (18th-19th September, 2014).