WEARABLES AS body-sensing networks
What is the source of unfreedom today? It is ‘freedom.’ What is the source of dystopia? It is ‘utopia.’ This seeming and perhaps bland contradiction is nowhere more evident than in the realm of the human-machine relationship, as we are promised a brave new world of accelerating technological advancement.This fundamentally changes the way we experience reality itself, leaving a thin line between freedom and unfreedom, utopia and dystopia — a tussle between what Forbes calls “dystopian critics” and “utopian proponents.”
We must, however, immediately dismiss those who see technology only as enslaving humans or undermining some ‘true essence’ of what it is to be a human. Nor do we intend to limit our critical understanding of technology at the level of problems, or fears of surveillance and issues of privacy and the security state. Such an approach often keeps things at the outer surface level and might not delve into the real issues at stake.
It is not about technological surveillance or digital tracking working on us from without, but something far more intrusive. It is about technology approaching the human, where the human- machine gap is getting redrawn. This is particularly clear with regard to artificial intelligence (AI), as Eurasia Review makes clear: “Technology is now going inside of us and we are going inside of technology, that’s really what AI means – a piece of humanity going inside a machine.”
So let us first admit that far from being one-sidedly enslaving of humans (technology enslaving humans from the ‘outside’), we are looking at a holistic, internally connected, interactive world of humans and machine. Technology is not about stand-alone gadgets prompting us to their schemes, but fusing and musing with us.
Take wearable technology gadgets today. They sense the body and then respond: rather than stand-alone gadgets, they are more like “body-sensing networks” and “learning systems,” as we hear about Synapse, a digitally-designed and 3D-printed interactive dress. Or the Muse, a brain-sensing headband which reads a person‘s mind and accordingly plays the appropriate music to make you feel better. Or the Fortis exoskeleton which “naturally moves” with the body and enhances your ability to do just what you want done.
Or take a ‘gestural device’: SixthSense is a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information. You do not command it to do the task; it just does it, as if it instantaneously senses your intention or your ‘needs’, as though it were your own arm or limb!
technological utopia or “cybernetic communism”In another instance, an entire city is planned where everything is connected with each other, where everything is smart, with sensors and radio signals. This is Songdo, outside Seoul. As the New York Times tells us, according to John Kim of Songdo project, it is not just humans but “the city itself will exemplify a digital way of life, what he calls ‘U-life.’” So it is not just connecting with neighbors through video-conferencing but connecting with things, with your property: “wireless access to their digital content and property from anywhere in Songdo.”
Now let us make no mistake; often lots of ‘technological innovation’ is typical TED-talk hyperbole, full of hubris and ultimately vacuous. And yet we do have technology today which contains a compulsive positive feedback loop. So it is possible that it is not technology which determines your needs, but your needs that produce the right kind of technology.
Take this guy on Reddit who outlines his ‘need’: “I have three cats, one of which is overweight. To help her obtain a more healthy weight, I’ve calculated how much food each cat should have per day. Now I need a way to ensure each cat only eats from its own bowl. I thought it might be a cool project to try making RFID food bowls for my cats.” So he got Arduino Uno and was able to design a technology for his needs! Similarly a question, “Want to have a coffee pot tweet when the coffee is ready?” The answer is Arduino. Arduino by all accounts is designed by artists for use by other artists and designers, and seems to do well without any TED bombast and corporate hijackers.
Of course, even corporates now tend to be ‘creative.’ A quote in Forbes tells us, “Successful wearable technology companies will start with the design first, then build the technology around it.” In essence, they are literally growing clothes from microorganisms like cellulose, fungi and algae! It is like science as an extension of nature, technology as an extension of the body. Indeed, sometimes it might appear that we have reached the other end, where perhaps technology is enslaved by humans, as with the Japanese-designed smart-bin which slavishly picks up a thrown piece of paper, ball and beer can — in real time!
What we have in effect is an ubiquitous interactive environment, augmented reality, also called the Internet of Things. It is clearly not about having an environment cluttered with blinking gadgets that are out of sync with the environment. It is about a material/ object world which responds and cooperates with humans, anticipates actions and makes them happen — an augmented reality bringing more freedom. The door opens ‘seeing’ you, so you do not have to open the lock with a key. You save time and energy, increasing overall efficiency: more freedom.
That is why it is seductive to believe in some technological utopia or “cybernetic communism” or such like. It is not just affecting our ‘real lives’ but also redefining our sense of freedom, the good life and indeed of utopia. It is thus deeper than surveillance of your activities and loss of privacy, it is also about defining the horizon of human imagination. In particular, it might end up presenting dystopia as the desirable utopia.
unwaged laborSo while the easy account of humans increasingly becoming slaves of technology must be dismissed, we must however deal with a paradox which will show us that unfreedom is being produced out of this ‘freedom’ — a problem which involves surveillance and loss of privacy but goes deeper.
Let us note the paradox: the highly interactive, reflexive designer environment could retain the seamlessness, open-endedness and freedom, and yet it can be easily captured and enclosed for private profit and the power of a minority.
Take Facebook. Facebook is where users most freely interact and keep in touch with their friends and family, a highly personal and private space for many. A user builds his profile apparently for his own good, according to his personal tastes and preferences. Big Brother or Big Data might be surveilling all of this, but it is also true that in that moment and to the best (or is it worst?) of your knowledge you express yourself freely. There is freedom to express yourself, even though you are potentially under watch, and a dictatorial or democratic regime can possibly take offence and throw you behind bars.
But even before you get to the reality of surveillance, or apart from it, Facebook is routinely making profits on this highly personalized content and ‘expression of freedom.’ User-generated content produces huge profits for Facebook. Some 1.35 billion active monthly users of Facebook qualify in many ways as ‘unwaged labor.’ No wonder Facebook employs far less workers than, say, General Motors but earns a disproportionately high profit.
The paradox then comes down to this: the most horizontalist social interaction (among users) offers itself so elegantly to a centralized, verticalist appropriation and profit-making! How is that possible? Social interaction, dialogue and general social relations become moments of production of value. The realms of freedom, of interaction and a dialogical process between humans and between humans and machine, now become ‘unwaged labor’, filling the pockets of rich corporations and ad agencies. Freedom here, through an uncanny twist, leads to unfreedom.
Hence the freedom-enhancing, interactive, non-imposing human-machine environment we discussed above must itself be problematized. The first thing we need to recognize is this: the more the machine is ‘almost human,’ interactive or intelligent or catering to your ‘real needs’ and freedom, and not imposing itself, the more closely does it (get to) interact with humans at the micro level of your day-to-day activity. This opens up the most private sites and moments of your daily activity, integrating them into the grid. These sites could also be brain waves or micro-organisms out of which they are literally growing clothes (as we noted above), or your ‘true needs’ that you will now seek a solution to. Your ‘true self’ will be out there.
work without worker
So you have this smart-bin, connected to Facebook, turning the activity of managing garbage into a value-generating process. “People can review and share communications about the bin-related behavior of themselves and others.” Just the human curiosity about each other‘s binning activities can mean more eyeballs converging — which can then be sold to ad agencies. Interaction between human and machine (between the bin and humans) here is definitely dialogical, and yet it is also part of a centralized process of value-generation and profit-maximization — and not just digital tracking and surveillance. This process would be multiplied tenfold in Songdo, where the entire city is supposed to be connected. So much for the Internet of Things!
This of course means that you could be ‘in public’ even while being in private, quietly carrying out your daily household chores. You would be contributing to value and profit-generation even when ‘doing your own thing’. Leisure activity or your most creative moments of ‘freedom’ would derive their final rationale from being value- or profit-generating. Hence, work here goes out of the factory as all of society, basic human interaction and private moments, now become what is called the “social factory”.
It is about distilling the value-producing public moments without disturbing your creative, private flow. The contingency of your true, spontaneous real life is now somehow amenable to the necessity of value production and profit-making. Capitalism is mediated through the determinations of ‘freedom’ and the apparent celebration of the heterogeneous and the diverse — as Slavoj Zizek often points out, critiquing those like Judith Butler or Gilles Deleuze, who tend to celebrate heterogeneity and multiplicity as anti-capitalist.
It is like capturing or distilling work out of the worker, production driven by “work without worker,” as Jason Read puts it. The Amazon Mechanical Turk is a good example of this bifurcation of work from worker. Read points out that capitalism was always marked by the split between the ‘labor power’ (the capacity for work) and the worker, with the labor power being all that capital is interested in. However, now this logic is taken to another level, as capital is able to distill only the value-generating aspect from the ‘freely lived’ or ‘spontaneous’ life of the worker.
No wonder Steve Jobs could advise that you should do what you feel like: pursue your wild dreams. Do not work to fatten big corporations, pursue your own dreams — and they will fatten anyway! And here we can see how even ‘offbeat’ ideas like following your own dreams seem driven by the question of capital-labor relations or the class struggle.
Work without the encumbrance of the worker is paralleled by “food without food.” You can directly consume proteins and carbohydrates and other necessary ingredients for the body, no need for food. Soylent is one such powdered ‘food replacement’ developed by Robert Rhinehart. Writes Forbes, “The thought of replacing meals with a powder evokes futuristic images, and naturally has led to its share of dystopian critics and utopian proponents.”
The same logic is at work with the ‘sharing economy’ of Uber or Airbnb. The ‘sharing economy’ (another TED-type ‘innovation’) comes down to ‘capital without capital.’ All the (necessary) functions of capital, but no capital! Thus the ‘sharing economy’ or ‘the common’ is created in a way which is only really about value-generation and profit-making — one which excludes any collective based on a sense of the collective. Just recall how difficult it is for Uber taxi drivers to organize, as they are pushed away from appearing as workers but only as ‘work’ — almost fictional.
Interactive design, gestural interface (SixthSense), wherein you can open the door with the wave of your hand, really feels like doing away with the unnecessary encumbrance of say, lock and key (or of food and worker), which then allows you to focus on “what is essential” (say, that the door should open). That way, humans are freed of unnecessary drudgery or work, increasing free time. But then we have a situation where this free time and leisure (now mostly made simultaneously ‘public’, or value/profit generating) itself is being enclosed and drives towards value generation and profits for a minority.
There is a sleekness about it all: it is efficient as it distills out only what is necessary! Or take Foxconn’s robots that can anticipate the kind of work to be done. These robots would be highly interactive and dialogical. This only means that the worker will, given the ‘co-operation’ of the robot, literally exist only as work. At best, humans would be shepherded into working at the pace dictated by the value/robot logic.
The interactive or dialogical part, then, is really about touching and connecting the points of value generation — be it work or Soylent food — and the rest, the workers or real food, are immaterial. It feels like an abstract, self-referential world of interactive technology and ‘sharing economy,’ one which is not aware of its own conditions of existence. Hence we have the problem of capitalist over-accumulation without any consideration for the environment or the condition of humans.
freedom and capture at the same time
This self-referentiality or blind acceleration approaches what Frederic Jameson calls the “semi-autonomization of reality.” This also means little sense of temporality, where we have come from and where we are going, as space, spatiality becomes everything, totalizing — the interactivity and positive feedback loop actually reinforces this ghettoization and semi-autonomization. This is what Henri Lefebvre meant when he stated that “with the advent of modernity, time has vanished from social space.” Now it is only space, timelessness.
This self-referentiality is further accentuated when it forgets that the ‘freedom’ of the interactive environment is conditional upon pure unfreedom existing elsewhere in the global economy. The ‘social factory’ dominated by immaterial labor, knowledge economy and interactive technology can exist only since there is super-surplus extracted elsewhere through good old top- down factory production elsewhere in the global chain. Think of sweatshops in the Third World or ghettos in the First World. Hence the user-friendly, interactive designer Apple products are made in slave-like, ‘non-interactive’ conditions of Foxconn.
The social factory of creative human-machine relationship is funded through super-exploitation and ‘primitive accumulation’ of surplus elsewhere. This super-exploitation of millions of workers in sweatshops or click-farms or in mines and factories is invisibilized. It is like the last compartment in the train in Snowpiercer or the districts of The Hunger Games. Who can forget the little boy in the last scene of Snowpiercer who is now another lever in the engine, and who has to be that small to literally become a cog — another lever in the machine!
So you have freedom and capture at the same time, the dialogical and the hierarchical at the same time. Freedom and colonization at the same time. But this pairing of freedom and unfreedom, mostly in the advanced Western countries, turns out to be itself underwritten by total unfreedom elsewhere, mostly in Third World countries, but also in many sectors, those using immigrant labor, in the West.
As we know, the all-powerful engine in Snowpiercer with all its interactivity and smart dialogical features is nothing without the last compartment of poor workers who are the fuel and the energy, the “living form-giving fire” of Marx. It is another irony that even those in this compartment cannot survive if the engine stops! The engine must keep running, as the hero of the workers, Curtis (Chris Evans), discovers at the point of victory over the oppressors. If the engine stops, everyone dies. But the engine has something oppressive built in it — so what does one do?
Opinion by Saroj Giri
Illustrations by Anna Niedhart