There’s the Internet of things IoT but what about the Internet of Humanity IoH?

An Internet of Humanity IoH to resist Surveillance Capitalism

There’s the Internet of things IoT but what about the Internet of Humanity IoH?

Introduction

While self-tracking with the rise of the IoT is contributing to many pro-social benefits for public health, these practices are also transforming notions of the public and private self and raising substantial ethical issues in the age surveillance capitalism. Self-tracking in the Quantified Self (QS) movement originated with Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine. As a celebration of the transparent, open data, open knowledge environment these practices are continuing to become commonplace as more devices like Fitbit are introduced and responsibility for health is shifted to individuals (Wolf, 2010).

However, to critics, the utopian vision offered in the Wired perspective is reminiscent of the democratising potential in the early days of the internet which perpetuate the transhumanist myth that we can upgrade and optimise our humanity through technology – used to justify a neoliberal agenda (Zuboff, 2018). Like the neoliberal quest for more open markets, the QS quest for a more complete data set is often presented as a moral and economic imperative (Sharon 2016).

Ruckenstein & Pantzar (2015) have explored the way Wired presented the metaphor of the Quantified Self (QS) in articles from 2008 to 2012 and found interrelated themes of transparency, optimization, feedback loops, and biohacking promoted the normalization of living life in a data-driven manner. Rushkoff, (2019) describes these as ‘techno-solutionist’ attempts to reduce diversity as a type of mechanomorphism (p. 72).

Technology and privacy, in the QS context, are increasingly conceived of as individualistic and an enemy to a perceived public good and the many assumed benefits (Sharon, 2016). However, of self-trackers themselves, there is a difference ‘to being situated in and adapting to certain discourses and uncritically reproducing them’ (Nafus and Sherman, 2014). Understanding the patterns of ‘autonomy, solidarity, and authenticity’ that offer values of resistance as articulated by Sharron (2016) becomes the focus of this study.

While data sourced from self-tracking is often highlighted for its role in the political economy and associated with data fetishism,  there are ‘a myriad ways in which data are deemed valuable and meaningful for self-trackers themselves’ and contribute to our understanding of complex meaning-making relationships with data which come to shape persona (Andrejevic 2014, Boesel 2012, Bode & Kristensen 2016, Nufas & Sherman 2014, Sharon & Zandbergen 2016).  Btihaj (2016) found that even though self-tracking often ‘echo an ethos of neo-liberalism’, aggregated data can also come to create solidarity where digital philanthropy can contribute to an emancipatory communal ecosystem of data research and shared applications with many societal benefits (p.1).

Sharon & Zandbergen (2016) explores the way Quantified Self ‘ascribe value and meaning to the data they generate in self-tracking practices’ and challenge the conventional idea that what attracts self-trackers to numerical data is its perceived power. Nufas & Sherman (2014) elaborate on the concept of soft resistance as ‘practices constitute an important modality of resistance to dominant modes of living with data’ (p.1784).  The Digital Doppelganger as a digital version of the self was explored by Bode & Kristensen (2016) in order to understand a performative process that goes ‘beyond simply internalizing predetermined frameworks’ (p.119).  These types of practices are mindful of ‘who gets to aggregate data and how’ and escape the ‘frames created by the biopolitics of the health technology industry’ and contribute to a form of political resistance and solidarity (Nufas & Sherman 2014, p.1784).  Uncovering the specific practices and the articulation of a more mindful and critically reflective Internet of Humanity (IoH) as explored by Chris Dancy (2019) help us accentuate the democratizing affordances of technology without surrendering autonomy to the indifferent flow of capital.

The concept of Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff, 2018) is central to this cause and self-tracking because it unpacks how participants become instruments of others gain in systems which ‘cannot function without intervening on human autonomy and circumventing decision rights’ (Shoshana Zuboff: A Human Future in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 2019)[1].

Methodology

This study then takes a cultural analytics approach described by Monovich (2014, p. 55) that examines ‘cultural data sets and flows using computational and visualization technics’. Through this activity, the project looks to gain a sense of the variation of the diversity of self-trackers as well as visualisations of the larger patterns. By studying how human autonomy, solidarity, and authenticity are influenced and perceived and reported by everyday self-trackers in the context of the Surveillance Capitalism society today we can look to provide normative frameworks and help us imagine the ethical foundations on which to build an IoH.  Sharon (2016) suggests future study ask: ‘what kinds of practices, and under what conditions, will help secure the values of autonomy, solidarity, and authenticity’?

The microblogging Twitter platform has a high percentage of publicly available profiles by default (unlike Facebook). Twitter is appropriate because it allows for the search, indexing and discovery and the tracking of commentary in tweets made to the public discourse and the ability of ‘ordinary trackers’ and the ability to interact in tweets outside of followers/ following groups (Murthy, 2014).   Twitters affordances as a conversational platform with abilities to retweet and content marking hashtags which geared towards ‘outgroups’ as compared to the ‘ingroup’ focus of Facebook make twitter the preferred platform for this research. Popular hashtags for self-tracking are revealed using RiteTag (https://ritetag.com) with trends visualized and explored. Using the Twitter analytics tool https://www.tweetarchivist.com/ which captures all tweets and allows users to search, save and export tweets based on a search term or hashtag, this allows for analysis of the ontology of clean data as discussed in Murphy (2014) which addresses the ‘unique challenges associated with data collection and analysis on this microblogging platform’ (p1).

The task of gathering data is to gain insight into the wider community of self-trackers (not only the QS community) and the activities associated with these behaviours signified by associated hashtags and content. By analyzing, categorizing and visualizing content search and archives of hashtags relevant to self-tracking (excluding foreign language and advertising content) this could add to the body of knowledge as to the way self-tracking may contribute to greater human autonomy and solidarity in the face of the enormous challenges to democracy and human freedom posed by surveillance capitalism.  Sharon (2015) suggests an approach, ‘which studies how values are enacted in specific practices, as this can open the way for a new set of theoretical questions’ and elaborate ‘how this can work by describing various enactments of autonomy, solidarity, and authenticity among self-trackers’.

(1078 words + footnotes)

Note: I will publish the results by November 2019.

[1] Surveillance Capitalism: This ‘unprecedented form of power’ replicates earlier forms of capitalism but also ‘claims private human experience for the market dynamics, treating it as a free source of raw data’ which is ‘shipped through pipelines to a machine learning, artificial intelligence manufacturing process to create prediction products used in the buying and selling of behavioral futures’ (ibid). This ‘behavioural modification’ logic of ‘secretly’ claiming ‘unilaterally claiming private human experience’ started at Google in the early 2000s and saw the company’s click-through revenue increase 3590 per cent but has since moved to a wide variety of industries. Self-tracking is complicit in surveillance capitalism because of its abilities to achieve data at the depth of emotions and physiology leading to a more complete data set. Thus, providing the ‘behavioural surplus’ needed to create the prediction products used for ‘tuning, herding and modifying behaviour into the commercial outcomes’ (Ibid). As this type of instrumentalism power free of democratic oversight which unknowingly circumvents user autonomy has never existed before, finding ways to an IoH outside of surveillance capitalism becomes an imperative and we can look to the many mindful resistance practices self-trackers already employ (Rheingold, 2010).

The Emerging Internet of Humanity (IoH) and the Quantified Self

The increase of “big data”, informed by self-tracking devices and the Internet of things (IoT) looks set to revolutionise and transform, health and well-being and in the process, the distinction between the private and the public self is reconfigured. Through mindful, critical reflection on their practices, some practitioners are participating and forging a corresponding Internet of Humanity (IoH) which retrieves and honours the vital quirks of human diversity in the face of isolating and atomising effects of surveillance consumer capitalism (Rushkoff 2019, Dancy 2019). The increase in self-tracking behaviours driven by improvements in technologies, mobile devices, data storage and sensors has prompted Clough to term the phrase “datalogical turn” to refer to the full analytic capabilities, ‘the data mining of social media, tracking devices, and biometric and environmental passive microsensors’ (2016, p. 437). Making oneself radically transparent in this context through self-quantifying and tracking is critiqued as an extreme form of individualistic “data fetishism” (Sharon & Zandbergen, 2016). However, through exploring practices of the quantified self (QS) movement and ‘the worlds most connected person’, Chris Dancy, this paper shows how practices of self-tracking can also offer forms of autonomy and empowered resistance by fostering a connection to oneself and the IoH (Rushkoff 2019, Sharon & Zandbergen, 2016).

Mindfulness and The Quantified Self Movement

The quantified self-movement is largely attributed to the work of Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine which seeks to enhance self-knowledge through numbers. In 2010, Wolf wrote a highly influential article in the New York Times which stated how ‘humans make errors’ and how a data could compensate for that by providing ‘a mirror’. Some in the QS community report ‘finding mindfulness’ through self-tracking and that the ‘awareness one develops through self-quantifying may be as beneficial as (if not more beneficial than) the collected data itself’ and the movement reports mindfulness as a key theme of activity at annual events (Boesel, 2012). Mindfulness is a sensory state which allows practitioners to more easily connect with other aspects of self-identity both past and present and with others (Rhinegold 2010, p. 64). The first chapter in Netsmart How to Thrive Online, Rhinegold (2010) showed how ‘the neuroscience of mindfulness’, through attention to attention and being intentional, mindfulness ‘is how the mind shapes the brain ’which makes it ‘the most important practice for anyone trying to navigate through the infostream’ (p. 65). Where interacting online is part of ‘the fabric of our lives’ measuring ‘unconscious impulses, and finding ‘new realizations about what is gained and lost’ through mindfulness becomes a key skill to health and wellbeing (Damico & Krutka 2018, p. 109).

Mindful Resistance

Ethnographic work increasingly shows how self-tracking moves beyond limiting frameworks of how self-tracking is conventionally understood. Dawn & Sherman (2014) found that while the QS movement attracts ‘the most hungrily panoptical of the data aggregation business’ and ‘institutionalised scientific production’, they also showed how these dominant modes exist alongside ‘soft resistance’ practices which ‘partially but never fully escape the categories of soft biopolitics’ (p. 1784). Similarly, Bode & Kristensen, (2016) use the metaphor of the digital doppelganger or a digital version of the self that is perceived as ‘more you than you are yourself’ which is interacted with (p.119). In this process tracking subjectivation, the doppelganger is not seen as a result but part of ‘as a relational actant in a performative process involving ‘giving form’ to the doppelganger, ‘being one’ with the digital other and ‘negotiating’ with it in an ‘entangled relationship’ (Bode & Kristensen, 2016 p. 119). Sharon, & Zandbergen also argue the term ‘quantifying self’ is a more apt term to describe the ways mindfulness, resistance against social norms, and narrative are practices used as self-communicative aids (p. 1696). These question the extent to which the powerful institutions of “big data” manage the actions of populations and highlight some of the more complex meaning-making relationships with data, which come to shape persona.

Data Fetishism

Critics, however, argue because data is inevitably value-laden, human by design, and inevitably linked to social and power relations then it is used as a tool of measurement to legitimise commerce and establish rationalised authority (Andrejevic, 2014, Sharon, & Zandbergen p. 1696). As a dystopian critique, data fetishism is a label used to portray high-use self-trackers as narcissistic because of the ‘extreme forms of datafication’ members adhere to (Ibid). Through efforts to reduce control and optimize the overwhelming complexity and uncertainty of life to the aura of authority afforded to numbers, data sets, and algorithms data fetishes become complicit in ‘elaborate tools of state control’ which centralise goods and knowledge (In Sharon, & Zandbergen p. 1696). For example, while the Apple Fitbit promotes health, it can come to represent on a definitive description of what a complex field like ‘health’ is (Morozov 2013). Further, Rushkoff (2019) shows how capitalism uses data to segment and atomise consumers, coercing them to act in predictive ways inline with their ‘statistical baskets’ in ways which threaten diversity, autonomy, and the ‘survival of the species’ .

The Worlds Most Connected Person

The actions of Chris Dancy touted as ‘world’s most connected person’ highlights the alternative perspective that numbers can empower autonomous self-development (2019, p.1). When Chris Dancy lost his tech job and he wanted to become more relevant to the future he connected 700 sensors to his body and self-initiated a program of radical transparency for self-improvement through ‘self-monitoring’ and ‘mindful reflection’ and ‘conscious’ awareness (Ibid, p.1).

In 2008, the ‘obese’, wayward, and ‘technology addicted’ Dancy looked to self-tracking to save his life and his career. If Dancy stayed out drinking too late a light would appear in his google glass, then his car would become immobile, and finally, his credit card would get cut off (Ibid, p.1). Dancy’s entire life was organised around self-monitoring and ‘mindful’ reflection. Dancy’s profile page highlights a qualitative, critically, human-centred relationship to ubiquitous data tracking he takes in helping forge an Internet of humanity:

Traditionally the interface has been the mouse and the screen but over time biology and behaviour is becoming the interface. Being connected is not only about the things you put on your body to stay fit, but it’s also about all the things in your life you connect to, whether knowingly or unknowingly and the relationship to that information. In the future, we will download habits and environments as we become apps. The technology itself will disappear as, not an Internet of Things, but an Internet of Humanity emerges. (Dancy 2019, p.1).

Conclusion

When Douglas Rushkoff of the Team Human podcast hosted the worlds most connected person to report on his personal transformation and improved public status, Dancy stated that it was in the ‘personal reflective process and interpretation’ to the data sets produced that helped him most and ‘saved his life’. While the podcast’s ‘you cannot be fully human alone’ ethos presents a challenging data fetishist critique, Dancy maintained his absolute support for its IoH principles a qualitative, subjective, reflective process that celebrates the ‘quirkiness of humanity’ over a ‘blind techno-data solutionism’ (Team Human, 2018). Persona today is shaped by a myriad of influences as people connect to the infostream, algorithms data, themselves and each other in mindful ways. Many in the QS community see themselves as interacting with algorithms not as blind, mindless dupes, but as active participants in a dialogue that moves between data as an externalization of self and internal, subjective, qualitative understandings of what the data means and its role in a IoH.

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<http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_wolf_the_quantified_self.html>
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Boesel, W 2012, ‘The woman versus the stick: Mindfulness at quantified self’, September 20 2012 Retrieved August 31 2019, <https://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/09/20/the-woman-vs-the-stick-mindfulness-at-quantified-self-2012/>
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Dawn, N & Sherman, J 2014, ‘This one does not go up to 11: the quantified self movement as an alternative big data practice’, International Journal of Communication, vol. 8, pp. 1784–1794.
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References:

Rheingold, H. 2012, Net smart: how to thrive online. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Rushkoff, D. 2019, Team Human, WW Norton & Co, New York.
Sharon, T & Zandbergen, M 2016, ‘From data fetishism to quantifying selves: Self-tracking practices and the other values of data’ in new media & society, vol 19 no. 11 pp. 1695-1709.

Sharon, T 2015, ‘Healthy citizenship beyond autonomy and discipline: tactical engagements with genetic testing’, Biosocieties, vol 10, no.3, pp. 295–316.
Team Human Ep. 98 Chris Dancy ‘I Put Myself In Airplane Mode’ 2018, podcast, Team Human, 15 August 2018, retrieved 31 July 2019, <https://teamhuman.fm/episodes/chris-dancy/>

Westworld 2016, television series, Bad Robot, Jerry Weintraub Productions, Kilter Films & Warner Bros. Television, United States of America.

Wolf, G 2010, ‘The quantified self’, video file, Retrieved 31 August,<http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_wolf_the_quantified_self.html>