Fit for Work: The commodification of self-care in fitness tracking apps

The self-proclaimed quantified self movement has ushered in the habitual act of self-tracking through a variety of devices, smartphone applications, and wearable technologies which conflate knowledge with numbers. The appeal of self-tracking is dependent on the logic of self discovery—a process of establishing or revealing something previously indiscernible or incoherent. Mobile DIY biofeedback devices and other quantified health and fitness apps have the added effect of invading the privacy of individual users under the auspices of self-care, in turn severing the concept from its radical origins. When one chooses to use these apps, exercise, food consumption, mood, and even moments of rest and recuperation like sleep are logged, monitored, and subjected to scrutiny against speculative markers of normality.

What do we have to lose from quantifying the self? Self-tracking devices reflect a top-down, one size fits all view of health that is defined by the bodily data collected by technology companies and fed back to users, rather than the wisdom of more traditional health practitioners and institutions. Apple’s ResearchKit, a software framework for apps that lets medical researchers gather health data to produce medical insights and discoveries, claims to provide a source of information that’s more objective than ever before. These programs are marketed as knowing—capable of revealing insights, discoveries, and new understandings of intimate interior bodily knowledge. Yet as the rational logic of data attempts to resolve what it deems as the mystery of the body, it simultaneously compounds and others bodily functions and biological processes as beyond one’s control and understanding.

Self-tracking devices, like all technologies, are never neutral. Design logic cannot avoid engendering a particularized and presumptive political viewpoint as prototypes are built to make life better, easier, but first have to assign what “health” or “a good life” looks like. What do the numbers produced by health tracking equipment reflect beyond a reading of the present moment? The suggestion that one’s relation to health can be revealed and determined through highly individualised interactions with biofeedback technologies, as opposed to constructed by complicated social and political factors, is to prioritise effects over causes.

In a move to better understand the quantified health movement, I’d like to discuss Cursor, a publishing platform developed to critique these problems of attempting to quantify health. Distributed through a speculative fitness tracking Android and iOS app, the interface was designed and developed to unpack what the pursuit of coherency proffered by activity tracking devices and softwares might be excluding or eliding. If coherency is a process of seeking the simplest, most elegant solutions, what are the consequences for different registers of knowing or understanding the body that are plural, obscure, implicit, or tacitly present? Cursor, developed by myself and artists Jake Watts and Dave Young, commissioned works in the form of texts, videos, and sound works by its creators and invited contributors Karen Gregory, Rumi Josephs, Simone C. Niquille, and Anna Zett to analyze how quantified self technologies collude promises of empowerment with mechanisms of control, conditioning the body’s interaction with ideas of work, leisure, wellness, and health.

Hellth FarmersSimone C. Niquille.

Excerpt of commissioned work for Cursor 2016

The cultivation of interiority through the emphasis placed by self tracking devices on the possibility of “a more complete picture of you” (as if the self was ever able to be pinned down) fails to acknowledge the ambient and contingent environmental factors that contribute to understandings of health and illness as social and cultural mechanisms. We began developing Cursor amidst the anticipation of the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015. Promised to be Apple’s “most intimate device yet” the Apple Watch was positioned as a “health and fitness companion”—“highly customisable for personal expression.” Within these applications, wellness presents a useful vaguery, one that alludes to identifying a value or quality beyond simply determining the absence of illness. As Laurie Penny states, “The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaptation, requiring an individual response.” Wellness rhetoric is further troubled by the increasing trend wherein products and aspirations marketed as practices of self care, are engineered to maintain and optimize the wellness of those who already possess wealth.

The idea of self-care has long held as a radical political act by those whose very existence is systematically destroyed and erased by structures of racial, sexual, and gender inequality. As a form of politics, self-care is a means to combat the slow violence of purposefully inadequate provision of healthcare from the state and is evident in the works of self-described black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde. As she writes in the epilogue to Burst of Light, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The radical political origins of self-care are co-opted by technologies that encourage the cultivation of an idea of selfhood that is produced outside of one’s body and is engineered, marketed, and subsequently consumed with the primary ideal of health being that of bodily productivity. The fracturing of practices of self-care from their political origins enacts violence, as doing so fails to acknowledge or understand the structural inequalities that make these practices necessary. The setting to work of self care contorts it’s original purpose and meaning as a strategy of resisting institutional control or reliance on governmental health systems to be grossly misconstrued as an act of liberal individualism.

As civic structures of support and welfare are increasingly governed by measures of austerity (if not withdrawn altogether) the adoption of self-care as a mantra for the privileged should not be alone construed as acts of individual self-indulgence, as much as the result of the structural privileging of a heroic, Ayn Randian understanding of self-sufficiency. Reflecting on Audre Lorde’s epilogue, Sara Ahmed writes in Selfcare as Warfare, “racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities” in which those most vulnerable are ultimately held responsible for their own ill-health. She continues; When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. ‘You should have tried harder’… oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.” Under this regime of self sufficiency, bolstered by the reifying practices of activity tracking, structures of support are normalised and internalised as the natural attributes and disposition of the well.

The notion of self sufficiency is reinforced in the workplace through the pervasive use of the data produced through fitness and activity tracking softwares by employers to penalise, surveil, motivate, and incentivise workers in order to increase productivity. Corporate wellness initiatives such as BP’s Million Step Challenge is exclusively administered through complementary FitBit devices issued to employees. Part of BP’s wider Wellness Programme, participation in the Million Step Challenge, enables employees to earn “wellness points,” which are required to reach and maintain certain targets including remaining eligible for corporate insurance and healthcare plans. “Wellness points” are also rewarded with gift cards and once a certain target has been reached, employees are entered into a raffle in which they could win free medical premiums. The incentivizing of self-tracking by some workplaces is one example of a litany of ways in which areas of private life formally demarcated as leisure are subsumed by waged labour. What requires further scrutiny is the manner in which this idea of productivity has mutated into a logic of fitness, and worryingly how this new rubric has come to inform and characterise the punitive administration of welfare support and benefits in the form of sanctioned unwaged work for the unemployed.

Government initiatives within the UK, such as Fit for Work and Fit for Work Scotland, aim to bolster and reify the triangulation between work, health, and well being, defining what constitutes leading a productive and meaningful life. Contemporary workfare programmes, currently in operation across the UK, predominantly operate a “Payment by Results” model, meaning that claimants are paid once they have achieved defined outcomes. In the 2015 article, “Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy” Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn consider the ethical implications of conceiving social security models from the position of an assumed psychological deficit. Friedli and Stearn highlight the ethical and moral implications of pathologizing unemployment, and the subsequent use of positive affect and motivation as panacea. Their analysis of the literature and materials distributed during compulsory workfare training workshops and courses demonstrates nauseating parallels between the language of the fitness industry and the motivational slogans associated with government programmes such as;

Go hard or go home
Nobody ever drowned in sweat

To summon a linguistic relationship to fitness training is to parse desirable qualities of work ethic: committed, determined, robust, and resilient, and to build systems to support their maintenance. Supposed indicators of a slovenly, sluggish, workshy attitude are turned inwards, responsibilities to be absorbed by the body. Under this logic it is clear that beyond its meaning used to denote good physical health, the concept of fitness, is used interchangeably in order to assess and determine whether claimants are suitable, capable, and prepared for work. As performance becomes defined by productivity and output, it simultaneously pathologizes the performance of those unable to meet demands. Self-knowledge through self-tracking becomes a process of locating difference, of extracting the cognitive from bodily self to suggest that in the face of precarity, all that is required is an adjustment in attitude or the correct frame of mind.

The role that incentivisation plays within the conflation of natural instinct and work was central to the design and development of Cursor’s interface. Borrowing from the implementation of incentivisation strategies within the design conventions of casual gaming, digital publishing, and fitness applications, Cursor’s content is subject to a paywall whereby the physical activity of the user is required in order to gain access to it. Logged via the accelerometer (the most ubiquitous sensor common to most smartphones) the steps taken by the user are eventually rewarded by unlocking a series of commissioned artworks. Each artwork in effect becomes a level to unlock. Cursor replicates these practices of incentivisation so as to reveal how political ideologies about work are built into the gamified design of fitness tracking softwares.

Paywalls are a common feature within digital publishing practices, ranging from cash transactions to more diffuse activities such as the wait times of stream ads that can’t be skipped, and other chore-like or endurance based tasks required to access online content in lieu of a financial transaction, establishing exchangeable currencies. The ambient game-like design of Cursor does not require that its audience disrupt the rhythm of their day to day activity in order to unlock content—the app claims no space for itself but instead frames how work is now produced as a byproduct of other pursuits. Fitness tracking softwares require the consumer to labour as their user data is commodified, added to the ticker of app downloads and views.

Derived from the French verb currere: to run, the term cursor first entered linguistic currency to denote a running messenger, runner, or errand-boy. In computing, cursor is now understood as a marker where information is being entered or read. How is this functionality extended to networked technologies given that the financial successes of activity tracking applications is reliant on their users living busy, active lives? Through the networks of global informational capitalism, the user is rendered as the marker where information is generated and read. Cursor could in turn be understood as the demarcation of a physical and immaterial/cognitive space where work happens. The design of Cursor mobilizes these slippages between the various definitions of work. In Cursor, the work of the body reveals the technical workings of the app, questioning the ambiguity with which individuals are asked to navigate these amorphous terrains of activity—the boundary between waged and unwaged work. If the material conditions of both hyperemployment and unemployment require that other spheres of life are offered up to structures of waged work, Cursor imagines what future demands may be asked of the body. What will be required of individuals in order to access to public services, information, and support if these resources are transformed by structures of incentivisation into rewards to be earned?

The data economy superficially offers the opportunity for the breadth of everyday activities to be captured, recorded, and reified. Mechanisms of counting and measuring however do not automatically equate to mattering, to being valued. Processes of quantification also enable discounting, and discrediting—valuable work still goes unpaid. Where technologies of quantification might offer a strategy to manifest the ambient and diffuse qualities, conditions, and labour of everyday life, instead it relegates the labour of private life to the amorphous, ambiguous realm of activity. Simultaneously encompassing both the recreational and the occupational, activity is irreverent towards the details. As waged labour increasingly formalises its reliance on reproductive labour, it does so in a manner that persistently fails to recognise these forms of labour as distinct, valuable, and productive but instead subsumes into the structures of waged work, exhausting our relationships to ourselves as well as to one another.

Kirsty Hendry is an artist who produces writing, events, and curatorial projects interested in practices of distribution and its relationships to technology, identity, and subjectivity.

You can find Kirsty here and sometimes here.

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