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Exercise as Labour: Quantified Self and the Transformation of Exercise into Labour


DOI: 10.3390/soc4030446

Till, Chris. “Exercise as Labour: Quantified Self and the Transformation of Exercise into Labour.” Societies 4.3 (2014): 446–462.

p.446: The recent increase in the use of digital self-tracking devices has given rise to a range of relations to the self often discussed as quantified self (QS). In popular and academic discourse, this development has been discussed variously as a form of narcissistic self-involvement, an advanced expression of panoptical self-surveillance and a potential new dawn for e-health. This article proposes a previously un-theorised consequence of this large-scale observation and analysis of human behaviour; that exercise activity is in the process of being reconfigured as labour. QS will be briefly introduced, and reflected on, subsequently considering some of its key aspects in relation to how these have so far been interpreted and analysed in academic literature. Secondly, the analysis of scholars of “digital labour” and “immaterial labour” will be considered, which will be discussed in relation to what its analysis of the transformations of work in contemporary advanced capitalism can offer to an interpretation of the promotion and management of the self-tracking of exercise activities. Building on this analysis, it will be proposed that a thermodynamic model of the exploitation of potential energy underlies the interest that corporations have shown in self-tracking and that “gamification” and the promotion of an entrepreneurial selfhood is the ideological frame that informs the strategy through which labour value is extracted without payment. Finally, the potential theoretical and political consequences of these insights will be considered. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.447: Rather, it is proposed that in our present context, exercise and labour are in a process of merging in such a fashion that in a short space of time, the two may seem inseparable. This position was arrived at by thinking through the similarities between the activities undertaken by self-trackers and those discussed as “digital labour” [1]. A significant amount of the novelty of this position is derived from focusing the analysis on the strategies of the corporations who develop and control self-tracking devices rather than the users themselves. The main reason why it is proposed that digital tracking devices are having a considerable impact upon how exercise is understood is because of their ability to objectify and standardise the activities and capacities of heterogeneous bodies in such a fashion that value can be extracted. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.447: In exchange for these services, the corporations collate data on their users, which can be used for various marketing and other purposes. A number of groups have developed around the use of such devices, most prominently a loose global network of quantified self “meetups” or “show and tells”, during which users of devices or techniques present the novel ways they have developed to track, analyse and interpret their bodies, moods and other aspects of their lives. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.448: Perhaps the most well-developed published sociological work is that of Deborah Lupton, who has suggested that self-tracking and QS can be read in terms of:

  • A “body-machine” metaphor with the body defined in terms of quantified “inputs” and “outputs” with self-trackers positioned as “experimenters” on their own bodies [23].
  • An expression of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism, enabling self-maximisation and promoting self-critique and responsibilisation through the presentation of “objective” measures of performance [23].
  • Practices of “prosumption” characteristic of the use of Web 2.0 in which users are both consumers and producers of digital media content, which is the context for the constitution of virtual and physical communities [23].
  • A means through which a particular kind of reflexive approach to the self is enabled through the analysis of data and the imperative to control these data and oneself [23]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.449: While this kind of sharing could effectively function as the de facto sale of commercial data, clearer sharing between companies has recently been unearthed. A study of twelve mobile health and fitness apps conducted by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission found that user data were disseminated to seventy-six third parties, and one app in particular sent data to eighteen other entities [28]. In addition to information, such as names, email addresses and usernames, twenty-two of those third parties received details on consumers, such as exercise information, meal and diet information, gender and geo-location [29]. A similar study by web analytics and privacy group Evidon commissioned by the Financial Times found that the twenty most popular health and fitness apps share information with almost seventy companies. In particular, MapMyRun was found to transmit data to eleven companies, some of which were advertising firms [30]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.449: A significant literature has developed trying to understand the implications of the use of this “digital labour” or what Tiziana Terranova [33] called “free labour”. Terranova has suggested that the kinds of activities conducted online are symptomatic of “an acceleration of the capitalist logic of production” [33]. The profitability of sites, such as Facebook, is dependent upon the users and “the cumulative hours of accessing the site (thus generating advertising), writing messages, participating in conversations and sometimes making the jump to collaborators” [33]. This “free labour” generates vast amounts of income, but is not paid, because the corporations have successfully convinced users that it is leisure, not labour, through an erosion of the distinction between work and play [1] and the formation of what some have called “playbour” [34]. The clicks, “likes”, purchases and posts performed by users as part of their everyday usage of the Internet provide valuable data, which can then be sold on to advertisers. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.450: Critiques of digital “free labour” have been significantly influenced by autonomist Marxist and Operaismo work on the “social factory” [35] and “immaterial labour”, which tried to deal with the consequences of the decline in traditional forms of productive labour in Western countries and the rise in knowledge economies. As described by the autonomists, the context in which “cognitive labour” has increased in prominence can be characterised by the emergence of increasingly precarious forms of intellectual and affective labour. The rise of this kind of labour has seen the dismantling of the structured, bounded, restricted, waged workday governed by rules, obligations and expectations [36]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.450: The contemporary orientation of capitalism towards the extensive appropriation of subjectivity and social relations that is captured in the notion of immaterial labour [40] finds particularly fertile ground in the digital world [41]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.452: As Phoebe Moore [46] has shown, such techniques and technologies are being used by a variety of large and diverse organisations, such as Tesco, Amazon and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to track the productivity and health behaviour of employees in order to intervene and improve both. These initiatives are, however, not simply panoptic, authoritarian surveillance by employers. Rather, they are couched in terms of a mutually beneficial situation that improves the health and wellbeing of employees, as well as increasing productivity and lowering costs for employers [47,48]. While these “corporate wellness” strategies emphasise that employers must take action, this tends to be in the form of enabling and encouraging “complete lifestyle and behaviour change” [49] in employees. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.453: This is, then, perhaps best characterised as “syndromic surveillance”, or the real-time monitoring of patterns through “automated data acquisition” [52], which has brought together health and commercial data in new ways. Public Health England conducted research [53] that drew on supermarket purchase data largely from loyalty cards to identify the supermarkets that had the highest levels of purchases of “unhealthy”. Their analysis was used to target interventions to reduce obesity. It has also been reported [54] that data brokers are selling consumer data on transactions to healthcare providers, which is being used to create profiles on current and potential patients. These data may include purchases of food and cigarettes, as well as gym memberships. The distinction between health and commercial data is becoming unclear, and the techniques of profiling and prediction used by marketers, healthcare providers and public health are converging. A potential outcome of this could be that our health, and potential future health, will increasingly become defined in relation to complex data that we generate in a variety of different contexts. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.453: As I see it, this article complements and adapts the four key aspects (outlined above) of Lupton’s analysis of self-tracking: that there is a “body-machine metaphor” at work; it is an expression of “neo-liberal entrepreneurialism”; it is characteristic of “prosumption” practices; and it is an enabler of a particular approach to self-reflexivity [23]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.455: When the activities that are being “gamified” produce commercially useful data, this can be seen as a form of division of labour, which is most widely seen through “crowdsourcing”, in which a task is divided between a vast number of people in order to gain a quick or cheap result. While this kind of labour organisation has often been traded on the goodwill and enthusiasm of the public for scientific experiments and other “worthy causes”, when harnessed for commercial purposes, it can be seen as a type of “labour arbitrage” [63], a “neoliberal system of exception” [64] or simply work that does not need to be paid. To highlight that these data are or can be valuable to corporations does not deny its usefulness to users just as the “critique of exploitation does not devalue individual pleasure any more than such pleasures nullify exploitative social relations” [65]. Furthermore, self-tracking devices have been shown to tend towards individualization and the solidification of existing economic and political divides [66]. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014

p.458: The few sociological approaches to digital self-tracking have tended to focus on surveillance or the micro-level impact on individuals and their relationship to the self. These have been valuable and look likely to inspire useful empirical work; however, a focus on the macro level tactics of the corporations who are largely in control of the data provides different insights. By considering self-tracked exercise activity in terms of its corporate value, we can see how it is digitized, quantified, accumulated and analysed in order to generate commercially valuable data on the population. -- Highlighted oct 8, 2014