Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Not Being There: The Data-Driven Body at Work and at Play

The protagonist of William Gibson’s 2014 science-fiction novel The Peripheral, Flynne Fisher, works remotely in a way that lends a new and fuller sense to that phrase. The novel features a double future: One set of characters inhabits the near future, ten to fifteen years from the present, while another lives seventy years on, after a breakdown of the climate and multiple other systems that has apocalyptically altered human and technological conditions around the world.

In that “further future,”only 20 percent of the Earth’s human population has survived. Each of these fortunate few is well off and able to live a life transformed by healing nanobots, somaticized e-mail (which delivers messages and calls to the roof of the user’s mouth), quantum computing, and clean energy. For their amusement and profit, certain “hobbyists” in this future have the Borgesian option of cultivating an alternative path in history—it’s called “opening up a stub”—and mining it for information as well as labor.

Flynne, the remote worker, lives on one of those paths. A young woman from the American Southeast, possibly Appalachia or the Ozarks, she favors cutoff jeans and resides in a trailer, eking out a living as a for-hire sub playing video games for wealthy aficionados. Recruited by a mysterious entity that is beta-testing drones that are doing “security” in a murky skyscraper in an unnamed city, she thinks at first that she has been taken on to play a kind of video game in simulated reality. As it turns out, she has been employed to work in the future as an “information flow”—low-wage work, though the pay translates to a very high level of remuneration in the place and time in which she lives.

What is of particular interest is the fate of Flynne’s body. Before she goes to work she must tend to its basic needs (nutrition and elimination), because during her shift it will effectively be “vacant.” Lying on a bed with a special data-transmitting helmet attached to her head, she will be elsewhere, inhabiting an ambulatory robot carapace—a “peripheral”—built out of bio-flesh that can receive her consciousness.

Bodies in this data-driven economic backwater of a future world economy are abandoned for long stretches of time—disposable, cheapened, eerily vacant in the temporary absence of “someone at the helm.” Meanwhile, fleets of built bodies, grown from human DNA, await habitation.

Alex Rivera explores similar territory in his Mexican sci-fi film The Sleep Dealer (2008), set in a future world after a wall erected on the US–Mexican border has successfully blocked migrants from entering the United States. Digital networks allow people to connect to strangers all over the world, fostering fantasies of physical and emotional connection. At the same time, low-income would-be migrant workers in Tijuana and elsewhere can opt to do remote work by controlling robots building a skyscraper in a faraway city, locking their bodies into devices that transmit their labor to the site. In tank-like warehouses, lined up in rows of stalls, they “jack in” by connecting data-transmitting cables to nodes implanted in their arms and backs. Their bodies are in Mexico, but their work is in New York or San Francisco, and while they are plugged in and wearing their remote-viewing spectacles, their limbs move like the appendages of ghostly underwater creatures. Their life force drained by the taxing labor, these “sleep dealers” end up as human discards.

Flickering In and Out

What is surprising about these sci-fi conceits, from “transitioning” in The Peripheral to “jacking in” in The Sleep Dealer, is how familiar they seem, or at least how closely they reflect certain aspects of contemporary reality. Almost daily, we encounter people who are there but not there, flickering in and out of what we think of as presence. A growing body of research explores the question of how users interact with their gadgets and media outlets, and how in turn these interactions transform social relationships. The defining feature of this heavily mediated reality is our presence “elsewhere,” a removal of at least part of our conscious awareness from wherever our bodies happen to be. As MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has shown in pioneering work that extends from The Second Self (1984) to Alone Together (2012), the social ramifications of these new disembodied (or semi-disembodied) arrangements are radical. They introduce a “new kind of intimacy with machines,” a “special relationship” in the space beyond the screen, and a withering away of once-central, physically mediated social bonds. Turkle’s focus, and the focus of much literature on video-game playing and online behavior, is on these engrossing relationships between humans (particularly children) and computers, the social fallout of those relationships, and the resulting effects on self-formation, as hauntingly described in an early work by Turkle on “computer holding power”:
The [thirteen-year-old] girl is hunched over the console. When the tension momentarily lets up, she looks up and says, “I hate this game.” And when the game is over she wrings her hands, complaining that her fingers hurt. For all of this, she plays every day “to keep up my strength.” She neither claims nor manifests enjoyment in any simple sense. One is inclined to say she is more “possessed” by the game than playing it.
The young teens Turkle watched playing Asteroids and Space Invaders are now in their mid-forties, and the dynamic of absorption, tension, possession, and disappearance is, of course, no longer confined to games. Much discussion of data-gathering technologies in daily domains focuses on their inescapability, as Tom McCarthy recently pointed out: “Every website that you visit, each keystroke and click-through are archived: even if you’ve hit delete or empty trash it’s still there, lodged within some data fold or enclave, some occluded-yet-retrievable avenue of circuitry.”

Self-Knowledge Through Numbers

But seemingly undaunted by the extent to which we are now routinely subjected to the data gathering of others, many people are now driven to accumulate endless quantities of data about themselves, their bodies, their activities, their moods, even their thoughts and reveries. The “most connected human on earth,” Chris Dancy, a former information technology specialist who took to gathering data about himself after being laid off from his job, bills himself as a “Data Exhaust Cartographer,” “The Versace of Silicon Valley,” and “Cyborg.”He bedecks his body with myriad wearables and promotes himself as the locus of up to 700 devices or online services that collect, crunch, save, and collate the data he generates. The metrics he tracks include pulse, REM sleep, skin temperature, and mood, among others. Perhaps not surprisingly, all of this self-tracking eventually led Dancy to a crisis of alienation. He became increasingly aware that his intense connection was also a form of disconnection: “I was coming slightly unhinged with the amount of information I had about myself. It started to make me feel slightly detached from reality.” As a result, he says, he was “almost waterboarded with awareness. It’s one thing to Google yourself. It’s another to Google…your life. I could see too much.”

Despite his discomfort, Dancy seems unable to disconnect, unhook, or go offline. He is not alone. The focus of much recent interest in the entrance of tracking technology, counting devices, and calculation strategies into the domain of self-understanding is the Quantified Self (QS) movement. Founded in 2007 through the efforts of Kevin Kelly, then of Wired magazine, and Gary Wolf, a Bay Area writer, the movement brought together self-trackers ranging from the ardent to the merely curious. Under the banner of “self-knowledge through numbers”—those numbers gathered through biometrics, sociometrics, and psychometrics—enthusiasts combine platforms and tools to find new ways of gathering data and teasing out correlations. “Once you know the facts, you can live by them” is another guiding principle of the movement, and QS-ers continue to form groups across the United States and in thirty other countries, meeting weekly to share results. During the week of March 15, 2015, for example, groups came together in London, Washington, St. Louis, Denton, Texas, and Thessaloniki, Greece. Typically, such gatherings report on their tracking of a range of phenomena from the mundane (cups of coffee drunk per day, pulse rate, sleep hours) to the more esoteric (“spiritual well-being,” scores on personality tests or a “narcissism index,” or a repository of “all the ideas I’ve had since 1984”) via devices that might be attached to the wrist (Fitbit), the lower back (UpRight), the chest (Spire), or eating utensils (HAPIfork), if not stowed away in one’s pockets (as smartphone apps).

The movement marked its arrival in the cultural mainstream with the publication in 2010 of Wolf’s manifesto, “The Data-Driven Life,” in the New York Times Magazine. His fascination with the obsessively self-regarding project came through most clearly in his example of the tracker who had kept all of his ideas for the past several decades:
Mark Carranza—[who] makes his living with computers—has been keeping a detailed, searchable archive of all the ideas he has had since he was 21. That was in 1984. I realize that this seems impossible. But I have seen his archive, with its million plus entries, and observed him using it.… Most thoughts are tagged with date, time, and location. What for other people is an inchoate flow of mental life is broken up into elements and cross-referenced.
Wolf went on to describe how numbers inexorably enter the domain of the personal, insisting that no place should be considered sacrosanct or beyond the probing sensors of quantification.

by Rebecca Lemov, Hedgehog Review | Read more: