Wearables as affective materialisations of data: Notes on Lindner’s Molecular Politics

Having recently read Peter Lindner’s (2020) article Molecular Politics, Wearables, and the Aretaic Shift in Biopolitical Governance, I was struck by the potential power of data materialisations. Wearables or wearable technologies is a category of electronic devices that can be worn as accessories, embedded in clothing, implanted in the user’s body, or even tattooed on the skin. They provide detailed information about the individual body, such as heart rate, step count, and gait. While this biometric information can be useful for individuals and a range of medical practitioners, Lindner argues that it leads to new forms of governance and optimisation of the body through biometric data. In this way, wearables and other mobile sensors should be understood as a new frontier in datafication, where the body is a site of data generation and action, and in which the self becomes a database (Schüll, 2016). 

What’s fascinating about the article is Lindner’s argument that the body is both optimised and transcended through biometric data. As with many data materialisations, the individual user is not just presented with their own data, but typically this data is compared against other users of the technology, setting standards for good and bad or right and wrong ways for bodies to be in the world. As Lindner explains these notions ‘unfold always and only in tight entanglement with the technologies at hand and the ways they are used in practice’ (p.77). This data is represented to the user through a range of visualisations and metrics, prompting them to respond and improve.  As Lindner explains, ‘Reacting to these representations means reworking one’s body parameters, and in that way performing a modified enactment that transcends the body as “life itself”’ (p.80). 

Key here is the way data is materialised and interpreted by individual users. Drawing on studies by Ruckenstein, Lindner argues that the biometric culled from wearables and other mobile sensors does not lead to data doubles, as many critical data scholars have argued, but are better thought of as extensions to the senses. In a study focusing on how users reflect on their body data, Ruckenstein showed that there was a deep emotional attachment to this data, precisely because it is not understood as an external double. Individuals relate to this body data reflexively, augmenting or even replacing their own bodily sensations with their interpretations of these graphs, maps and visualisations. For those in the wearable industry this is fantastic news. Eventually wearables mean individuals rely less on disciplinary strategies to keep fit and stay well and instead on a kind sensory melding of individuals to their biometric data. Through the micronudge discipline can be replaced:

But once wearable technologies have become part of one’s everyday life, it is assumed that the disciplinary work on bodily behaviour is replaced by new habits and ultimately by a new lifestyle. Changing habits and lifestyle might be hard, but clearly both notions carry the prospect that, with time, discipline will become unnecessary (p.87-88). 

Lindner draws on a range of striking examples of wearables and mobile sensors that shape and change everything from eating habits through to one’s gait. The Pavlok, for example, is a wristband with sensors, Bluetooth connectivity and a battery that delivers an electric zap when the wearer fails to comply with the goals set. The HAPIfork, is a fork with sensors embedded which provides users with precise information about their eating habits. The Pplkpr is an app and smart watch that monitors your physical and emotional response to the people around you and optimises your social life accordingly. As these examples highlight, wearables now straddle the domains of health, wellness, sport and lifestyle, meaning the range of normative standards for the individual body to be striving toward is rather nebulous. With such powerful marketing campaigns accompanied by micronudges and gamificiation, it is easy to see how people might come to trust the data representations of their wearables over their own bodily sensations.

As Lindner argues the sociotechnical entanglements of bodies and technologies lead to a ‘new kind of biopower’ that is based upon ‘comparison and competition with the mass of others using the same technologies’ (p.83). This is not a continuation of biopower in the Foucauldian sense, as the body is not disciplined by external forces or understood at the biological level. But rather the simultaneous internalising and transcendence of the body through biometric data. Lindner calls this Aretaic biopolitics from the ancient concept of arete, which relates to situated practices leading to social acceptance and success. Crucial here is how individuals interpret their biometric data. Lindner’s article reminds us that interpretations are deeply shaped by the way in which data is both materialised, through comparison with others, and gamified, through the micronudge. 

When considering what this means for how we make sense of data, we need to consider a much wider and multifaceted set of cues, including rewards and punishments, that change not only our interpretations of biometric data, but also our ways of seeing, knowing and being. As the sociotechnical entanglements become more tightly bound, can we maintain a critical distance on them? Will we become our data representations? And what will become of phenomenological experience?  

Lindner, P. (2020). Molecular politics, wearables, and the Aretaic shift in biopolitical governance. Theory, Culture & Society, 37(3), 71-96. 

Schüll, N. D. (2016). Wearable technology and the design of self-care. BioSocieties, 11(3), 317-333. 

Image Courtesy of Unfit Bits: http://www.unfitbits.com

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