Tuesday 18 March 2014

Phoebe Moore: wearable politics

As devices, connectivity and data sprout up around us like Leylandii in a suburban street, it's easy to consider 2014 as the “year of wearables” without much consideration. However, both the concept of connected wearable devices and the implications of wearing them deserve due consideration and debate. Phoebe Moore is taking up precisely that opportunity.

Moore's background is in sociology, industrial relations, workers' rights, and labour struggles. As a resident of South Korea when that country's economic crisis hit in 1997, she saw the effect of macroeconomic policy on a population, and the change in industrial relations brought about by such events. Fast forward 8 years and an interest in peer-to-peer production blossomed in the latter years of her PhD; specifically, the ways in which free and open source software could build and empower radical groups. Around this grew interests in hardware, 3D printing, and permaculture, until we get to a point where this global traveller spent time in Japan, finally crystallising these topics and blending them with nascent corporate endeavours in wearables and employee tracking.

As Moore argues, none of this is essentially new. The quantified self seems less contemporary when one considers that King Charles II weighed himself several times throughout the day. Frederick Taylor, who died in 1915, is the father of scientific management – the measurement of efficiency. But, clearly, the transformative power of digital hardware and connectivity allows for an intensification of those measurements, potentially leading to the intensification of tasks – people undertaking more tasks in less time. It's the human as capital.

We are seeing quantification not just about the self, but about the self's performance to their employer. Employee data then becomes something akin to a time and motion study on crack: the ability to know, at any given point in time, where someone is, what they are doing, and how many specific tasks have been undertaken.

Whether wearables are coming from employers or brands (or both), the battle for space now resides on your body. Moore considers that further engagement and analysis with device wearers is key, particularly when it comes to employers seeking to equip their employees with wearables – how does the relationship change? Do employees feel comfortable, spied on, violated?


Work and play

According to the Centre for Creative and Social Technology at Goldsmiths, 18% of employees now wear some kind of device, and 6% of employers are providing a wearable device to workers.

Hitachi's Business Microscope is a torchbearer for some of the change happening in the workplace. Launched in 2008, it is a lanyard equipped with sensor technology, recognising face, body and “rhythm” data between employees, uploading that to a server and then presenting recontextualised organisational and network diagrams based on these interactions.

As Moore says, “.. if people are happy to do it - and you have to ask yourself why – then it's easier to accept when the device is presented as one for self-improvement... if they feel like it's for them to improve their own health. But, once you make that link between health and productivity, autonomy is taken away... that's when people consider that the devices are more for management control and surveillance.” The potential to gather data from people using the same devices is clearly huge, with a term – physiolitics – now coined for such an activity. What's different in physiolitics to earlier methods of human data capture is its accuracy; the sample size could be entirely flexible, starting from just one person.

So, the challenge is for wearable technology to be appropriated by employees in a way that is empowering for the wearer. As smartphones have facilitated a blurring of the lines between work and home, how will wearables blur that further? How does the body and mind deal with a part of the physical self that is the property of someone else? How does the permanent measurement of individual performance change the way in which employees are disciplined for poor performance?

“We have done a lot with the qualified self, looking at subjectivities. Employers are expecting you to have emotional intelligence in the workplace. We're now moving into the domain of 'quantified'. To be quantified sounds neutral. But, as Chris Dancy says, if you can measure it, someone will, and that someone should be you. What does it mean to be quantified? How are mental and physical and labour now measured? When people realise that the more quantifiable they are, the more likely they are to be replaceable, what is the impact on – for example – trade union membership? Tesco knows that it needs 18% fewer workers [in a 40,000 ft2 store] after equipping employees with data bands.”

A different way of looking at this relationship is to consider that employees might start to feel empowered, but in very different ways. A friend of Moore demonstrated his considerable overtime to his boss by putting activity tracking software on his computer, and measuring the amount of work actually done rather than the amount paid for.

Now might be the time to have this rather grand, important debate, but perhaps a more fundamental and important one to have is not the surrendering of physical rights from employee to employer, but from humans to computers. As the examination and governance of wearable data becomes increasingly taken up by algorithms rather than people, several layers of management may be wiped out as a result. That's where the real danger of displacement might be: in the middle ranks.


Challenging times

Lastly, there is a challenge to the self which employers and data cannot directly overcome. How does one feel when they are wearing such a device? Are they more narcissistic? More careful? More inward-looking? Does this view change depending on the ownership of the device, and what data is being sent back to the server?

While companies – brands and employers – are keen to equip customers and employees with wearables, now is the time for people to understand the effect and transference of power that such a change brings. If not, we might end up becoming the human-like robots seen in many sci-fi films and TV programmes over the past few decades.

How does it feel to be programmed?


Dr. Phoebe Moore is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Middlesex University.
Phoebe's personal blog features more of her work and insights.

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