The latest issue of Health: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine includes an article from me. Here I would like to outline one of the analytical points I make which I think has broader implications than the specific focus I took in the article. This a special issue on “Citizens use of digital media to connect with healthcare” an is a great collection.
My focus in the article was on the design and rationale of self tracking (with the Apple watch as an example) and its use in corporate wellness initiatives. While the big message of the article was my suggestion that they were informed by a construction of users as “automatic subjects” (which I have previously summarised) here I will present a broader reflection on how this related to power in digital capitalism.
Central to my analysis was an engagement with a point made by Michel Foucault in his book Discipline and Punish when he claims:
the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital […] cannot be separated (Foucault, 1991: 221).
I take this to mean that in order for wealth to be generated (and captured for the use of certain privileged elites) human bodies need to be collected together in some fashion.
In the early stages of capitalism this was achieved by requiring workers to gather together in a centralised location (such as a factory) so their collective “labour power” can be combined. This is intrinsic to Foucault’s conceptualisation of what he calls “biopower” or the physical energies and capacities of population which he says is targeted through the workings of “biopolitics“. Foucault suggested that in the 18th and 19th centuries S and governments started to realise that the “biopower” of the people was central to their prosperity and power. Therefore, it became necessary to ensure that this could be used to its fullest potential by taking some care to improve the health and capacities of the people.
More than a century before Foucault presented this relationship between the accumulation of bodies on the accumulation of capital, Marx asserted that “accumulation” in general terms is central to capitalism (Fuchs, 2017: 94). This is because “capitalism” is an economic system built around “capital” and “capital” is wealth which has been built up or “accumulated” over time. Marx claimed this was achieved through the exploitation of labour.
In Marx’s day (and to a large extent when Foucault was writing) capital could only really be accumulated through collecting together the bodies of workers as it was physical labour which produced value (and therefore capital). Today a large part of the value that is generated for capitalism comes from creative, emotional and intellectual labour. This might be formal paid work or the kind of “digital labour” which contributes to the “attention economy“. This concept refers to the ways in which value is generated by attracting the attention of audiences (usually so access to this can be sold to advertisers).
Building on previous work I propose that in various ways self tracking and its use in corporate wellness initiatives is built upon converging economic and psychological models which assume that the best way to change behaviour and generate value is through attracting and moulding consciousness. For this reason I claimed that now:
“the accumulation of consciousnesses and the accumulation of capital cannot be separated”.
This is characteristic of a shift from the “biopower” and “biopolitics” as described by Foucault to “psychopower” and “psychopolitics” as conceptualised by Bernard Stiegler.
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:
Foucault M (1991) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin.
Fuchs C (2017) Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.