I have previously written about what I consider to be a strange (side) effect of the self-tracking craze. My theoretical proposition is that because self-tracking transforms the diverse physical activity of individuals into a standardized form which is economically valuable (and traded between companies) exercise is being transformed into labour and exercise becomes a form of “digital labour“.
In the early capitalist period the productive activities of individuals and groups were standardized and accumulated (through mass production methods in factories). The exchange value of products (at least according to the Marxist analysis) is derived from the “socially necessary labour time” required to produce it. Methods of standardisation, measurement and accumulation of labour are necessary in order to determine this.
I argue that amateur exercise activities are made directly valuable only because they are able to be measured in a standardized form which can then be accumulated into meaningful statistical packages and sold on to advertisers or other interested parties. My morning run can only generate valuable data because of this standardized tracking and the ways it is accumulated with the data of thousands or millions of others.
Since I first suggested this theory a couple of years ago I have noticed that there seems to be some support for this proposition as it is now becoming possible for individuals to realize the value themselves from the generation of this valuable data. This has previously been seen through the apps Fitcoin and Bitwalking which enable people to “mine” bitcoins using the accelerometers in their phones. Essentially people generate money from their exercise.
Now I have seen another and perhaps more complex example. The health and life insurance company Vitality have introduced a promotion which pays people for their exercise activity. When signing up to one of their insurance policies it is possible to buy an Apple Watch for £69. Over the course of the next two years the customer then pays between £0 and £12 per month towards the rest of the cost of the watch depending on how active they are. So, if the customer earns 160 “activity points” in a month they will pay nothing but any less than this and some charges will be applied (Vitality perhaps felt this was a bit too easy as the maximum points which can be earned in a day is about to reduce from 10 to 8).
The exercise activity is here directly productive for the insurer who is (at least in theory) less likely to have to pay out for treatments (or deaths!) if their customers are more active. Simultaneously the customer is generating data which is valuable for the insurer as well as the producers of the devices or apps being used to track them. Exercise activity only generates points to pay off the Apple Watch if it is tracked through the Moves app on the Apple Watch, Fitbit and a few of other kinds of bracelets and if the data is synced to Apple Health also gym activity must take place in Virgin Active gym.
In this case the economic value of exercise activity can be seen in a fairly basic way through the fact that is used to pay off the cost of an Apple Watch. But the exercise is also used to generate value for the insurer by reducing their liability and for the app and device makers through producing commercially valuable user data (whether this is used themselves or sold onto others). For all of those involved in this process (the user/customer, insurer and app/device maker) the value of the exercise activity can only be realised because it has been measured, standardised and accumulated.