In an article I recently published in Health: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine I offered an analysis of self-tracking devices in general and their use in “corporate wellness” programs in particular. The crux of my argument was that these approaches tend to construct a certain view of humans as “automatic subjects” who can be controlled (and perfected) through manipulating their unconscious mental processing.
My analysis focused on the design and rationale of the Apple Watch and different systems which use self-tracking. I found that they tended to start from the assumption that almost all of our behaviours are “automatic” and habitual. Moreover, they also suggested that the most effective way to change the behaviour of other people (e.g. employees) or ourselves is to mould us in ways that will not be noticed.
Designers draw on psychological and neuroscientific principles related to emotional responses to explain how the devices and programs work. One of the key influences on some of the systems is the notion of the “habit loop“. Proponents of this theory claim that most of our everyday actions (simple or complex) can be seen as cycles between “cue”, “routine” and “reward” which can be shifted over into different cycles through small interventions.
This presents a model of human subjectivity which disregards internal mental processes and rational reflection instead presenting human beings almost like an artificial intelligence governed by a series of algorithms.
Of course, this is not something which is new with behaviourist psychology dating back to the early 20th century which presented human consciousness as a “black box” which could not and should not be understood. However, the ways in which the designers suggest behaviours can be moulded are quite novel.
For instance, notifications from a tracking device, sounds and “haptic feedback” are used as methods of behaviour change. These are automated but responsive “nudges” which monitor our actions and physical processes (such as heartbeat) to push us into particular behaviours. Designers acknowledge that they are trying to”reshape” our mental processes on an unconscious and emotional (rather than rational) level.
I don’t doubt that in many cases this can be useful but it is potentially concerning and instructive of how structures of power and control are changing with technology.Although the focus of my analysis was on health and exercise tracking the same strategies are being used to capture our attention and mould our behaviour on social media and by many different apps and devices we use.
Advertising, propaganda and political campaigning have tried to manipulate our emotional responses and unconscious desires for a long time but I think there is something new happening here. These attempts to reshape our thinking and behaviour occur on a level of granularity which was not possible previously (unless we were clearly taking part in a training regime of some kind).
We should take seriously (and approach with caution) attempts to control us by manipulating our habitual actions and reflexive responses even if these are to ends we want to achieve (such as better health).
If you’re interested you can read my article through the journal website:
Or there is an open access pre-print version on my institutional repository: