This is the text of my contribution to an event which is called Self-Tracking Cultures and the Emergence of Hybrid Beings? and is part of the Being Human festival.
Response to Deborah Lupton’s ‘New Hybrid Beings’
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay
“Oh! You Pretty Things” – David Bowie
The recent British TV series Humans explored the practical, ethical and political consequences of welcoming advanced androids into all areas of our lives. As with most sci-fi this was more about the technologies which already exist than the potential ones of the future. In the TV show one character has sex with his family’s au pair “synth”. Many people already sleep with their phones not to mention caressing them at every opportunity. We have already developed highly intimate relationships with advanced technologies.
Devices and data take an ever more intimate role in our lives as people monitor and analyse their steps, sleep patterns and blood sugar. Wearable technologies are revealing our bodies to us in ways previously unfamiliar. However, they do not sit passively on our skin but force us to respond to them and perhaps reconstitute our sense of ourselves in the process. The Fit 3D body scanner produces a detailed 3D avatar of a user’s body which is constantly updated by a stream of data from self-tracking devices. Being faced with a detailed (although still partial) “digital double” of our functioning may have a disciplinary impact on some people.
Deborah Lupton has drawn on Donna Haraway’s work to suggest approaching digital data (including those derived from mobile technologies) as a “companion species”. This places technologies and data on a similar level to animals which humans live alongside such as dogs, cats, and horses. For Lupton this means having to deal with how to live with data and our affective relationships with it.
But this also poses some other questions. What kind of species are these data and technologies? Perhaps the self-tracking device, smart phone and data they produce are the stranger in our midst. They are the necessary link between the intimacy of our bodily rhythms and commercial as well as digital networks. The devices are separate from us but also part of us. They are close by as they monitor our intimate lives but also far away as they upload our data to anonymous data farms in the American desert.
Significantly, the innovation of self-tracking technologies comes almost entirely from commercial enterprises. It is easy to take this for granted but many of the revolutionary innovations of the past have come from, or been heavily influenced by involvement from, governmental agencies. Many manifestations of self-tracking for exercise are shot through with commercial and capitalist logics. The overwhelming emphasis is on “activity” and “productivity” enabling people to “do more” and avoid “burnout”. The concerns which the designers of Fitbit assume we have are the same as those of managers of large corporations. How can we keep people engaged, active and busy but also happy?
We are often willing to give over our most personal details to our devices, not just our thoughts and feelings but intimate details about our bodies we might not tell our closest friends or lovers. Things we might not even know ourselves. The Stranger, Georg Simmel tells us of “often receives the most surprising openness — confidences which sometimes have the character of a confessional and which would be carefully withheld from a more closely related person”. We allow these devices this intimacy because they are not like us. It is not like confessing to another human. In addition, these devices also seem like an extension of ourselves.
But crucially, Simmel says that the stranger always appears as the trader, as the intermediary. In their production of commercially useful data so do these devices act as traders. New applications are being developed such as Fitcoin and Bitwalking which will pay users to exercise by using their recorded steps to mine bitcoins which can then be spent in a marketplace on real goods or potentially transformed into real money.
New materialists, Deleuzians, Actor Network theorists and philosophers engaged with “The Hard Problem” of consciousness have variously proposed that consciousness resides not in human beings but somewhere within complex networks or assemblages of humans with various technologies (from hammers or paper to iPhones and Large Hadron Colliders) as well as other objects and nature. Some, such as David Chalmers, have even posed the question of whether humans need necessarily be part of this network or whether any sufficiently complex system could be considered to be conscious. If we ascribe any truthfulness to this at all we might consider whether humans have any special place at all.
Anyway, these data and technologies are likely reshaping our consciousness and for some, such as Bernard Stiegler, this reshaping is negative because we are “adapting” to them and reshaping ourselves to fit them rather than “adopting” them and managing them to a better outcome. We might also soon be allowing the devices to manage us. A new bracelet device called the Doppel is soon to be released which will give off subtle pulses which will calm down or excite the wearer in a similar way to music.
I don’t know who is shaping who but I do feel that often capitalist logics are built into the “modelling” of users which is conducted by device and app developers. Even when personalised they always approach us as particular “types” of people. As Simmel tells us “strangers are not really conceived as individuals, but as strangers of a particular type”.
Whatever kind of species we have become companions with we are certainly going through the process of learning to live with them. As with Simmel’s commercial stranger they are not “the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather […] the person who comes today and stays tomorrow”
 Here are a list of words Facebook uses to describe me to advertisers “geek”, “70mm film”, “online and offline”, “human”, “Essential oil”, “Drying (food)”, “voice acting”. See this article to discover how you can find out how you are categorised.