Is an implicit function of self-tracking apps, and many other kinds, to instil management ideology into us through the guise of self-help?
After having read the recently translated (into English) The Entrepreneurial Self by Ulrich Bröckling I started to think about the ways in which self-tracking is consistent with the kind of subject (or identity) which he described.
In the book Bröckling unpicks how a new kind of subject has been constructed in post-disciplinary societies mostly through management and self-help discourse. The ideal type of person which is pushed on is us is one with an entrepreneurial approach to their whole lives. That is, they seek to mobilize everything about themselves towards self-optimization.
For the purposes of self-development, inside and outside of work (indeed this distinction becomes less meaningful), we are encouraged by self-help texts to establish “Me Inc” (Bröckling, 2016: 31). The maxim of this enterprise culture above everything else is to ‘be enterprising!’ (Bröckling, 2016: xiv). Bröckling neatly summarises the demands of the enterprise culture as the expectation of ‘self-administration of individual human capital’ (Bröckling, 2016: 32). We are expected to make the most of our own abilities, desires and potential by managing ourselves in the most effective way and we should approach ourselves as a reserve of ‘human capital’ on which we have the potential to speculate and profit if we mobilize it in the best possible way. For this reason those with an entrepreneurial approach to themselves should be a speculator, an innovator, a risk bearer and a coordinator. Fundamentally, they should be a manager of themselves. Like a good manager of a business they should help their employees (eg themselves) reach their fullest potential while aligning their goals with those of the company.
Many of the most popular smart phone apps are built around principles like those which Bröckling suggests characterise the entrepreneurial self. One of the main categories on the Apple app store is “Productivity” (itself one of the main goals of entrepreneurialism) which contains sub-categories such as “Manage Your Spending”, “Manage Your Time”, “Manage Your Documents”, “Manage Your Inbox” and “Upgrade Your Brain” and “Stay on Task”. Self-optimisation, increasing output and managing yourself for maximum efficiency lie behind all of these self-disciplinary apps.
Entrepreneurial philosophy is not, however, restricted to productivity apps but is present in many different areas, not least the “Health & Fitness” section of the app store. The focus of many of these apps is to maximize exercise performance usually by increasing activity. The apps are advertised as encouraging the same kinds of behaviours and attitudes as Bröckling claims are central to the entrepreneurial self. The Withings Health Mate app orders the reader to “Track. Improve. – Track weight, activity, heart and sleep. Improve your health.” The principles of setting goals, analysing progress and comparing yourself with others are the same as those which are considered to help us towards being more entrepreneurial.
The app is presented as “Your Activity Tracker and Life Coach” which can encourage you to improve your lifestyle. This kind of encouragement is central to contemporary management and governance discourse in the form of empowerment. Empowered individuals are those understood as having accumulated ‘personality capital’ and who are ‘[h]ealthy, resilient, reliable, flexible and active people’ (Bröckling, 2016: 134). Being empowered in this sense is also intimately connected with being disciplined both in terms of self-control and subject to discipline.
The app is not simply concerned with helping us to be healthier but to transform our lives through demonstrating strategies for living a better, more productive life. Empowerment is a central strategy of the entrepreneurial philosophy which seeks to ‘enhance the possibilities for people to control their own lives’ (Bröckling, 2016: 121). The discourse of empowerment is baked into apps such as these which present strategies for managing ourselves to a better life. But as Bröckling asserts ‘[i]n order for empowerment specialists to promote people’s potential to self-govern, they must first frame their problems as essentially caused by a lack of self-government. This certainly involves individualizing if not the causes of the problem then the solution’ (Bröckling, 2016: 130). In order for these apps to be desirable we have to believe that we are deficient in self-management and discipline and that more graphs of our performance and encouragement from virtual coaches or comparison with other users will be motivating.
I am getting increasingly interested in the ways in which exercise apps and devices have both an ideal user assumed in their design and also contribute towards the constitution of a new kind of relationship towards ourselves. In many cases this assumed (and constructed) user seems to me to be something like the “entrepreneurial self”. This is someone who is constantly monitoring themselves (and others), analysing their performance and seeking to enhance their performance. I have previously suggested that self-tracking is contributing towards a conflation of work and exercise of which the entrepreneurial disposition discussed here is a broader part. Perhaps the focus on productivity in these apps helps to connect individual behaviours and sense of self to some of the most dominant political discourses of our times. Approaching exercise like an entrepreneurial activity certainly seems to confirm David Cameron’s pronouncement a couple of years ago that “There’s a business in everyone“.