Thursday, 12 September 2013

The weight of responsibility: getting slim and getting fit in a biopolitical milieu

It's been a busy summer and I've not had a chance to post. Partly, that's been because of thesis work; I've been applying for institutional ethics approval and preparing draft chapters for my next thesis advisory panel. It's also been because I've started on something of a health kick, and this certainly merits a blog post.

Over the last few years, a number of new measurement devices have become available as smart phone apps (RunKeeper, MiCoach). iPhones, HTCs and Samsungs are devices most people I know carry around in their pockets throughout the day and rest by their sides at night (I misplaced mine for a couple of days this week and felt thoroughly lost). If you don't have a smart phone, you might have a wristband that records your physical activity. 

In short, if you want to know where you've been, how far you've walked, how still you were in last night's slumber, you can. Download an app, and all this data will be collated. What has emerged within these apps are new methods of self-policing our bodies and our consumption; they are also portals into communities of people can congratulate you on your successes, who will share their own stories of progress.

It's difficult to disagree with philosopher Ian Hacking (How Should We Do the History of Statistics, 1982) on anything, let alone his suggestion that social statistics - which Foucault does argue plays a substantial role in biopolitics at the end of History of Sexuality vol. 1 - is actually the fulcrum around which biopolitics has operated through the last two centuries; it can be located as the key medium through which the state intervened in the populace. But, as has been noted by a number of people (most famously, Nikolas Rose in Politics of Life Itself, 2001), the neoliberal ethos of the individual gathers energy and new technologies - often, biomedical - have become more important. Data and the statistics drawn from them are a prime means through which we can intervene in ourselves.

You can compare one day's movement to the next. You can set goals for how quickly you want to jog 5k, and based on your past data (and, presumably, the gradual increases in speed that other service uses record over time), such devices can estimate how long it will take, based on running x times a week, for you to reach your desired time.
The website that presents data uploaded from your phone, which you run with.
Equally, with weight, you can pop in your current and desired bodily mass, and you'll be given a framework within which to eat, move, and lose or gain.

Either upload data from your phone, or enter it manually onto the sister website
There's a lot to be chewed over regarding the economic terrain from which these new media of recording and suggestion have flourished. These are all privately owned companies, some are start-ups, others injected with cash from venture capital funds. The secret to success, though, seems to lie in exportability of data from one physical device to another through a choice of interfaces. RunKeeper, for instance, runs on Android and iOS, will sync with facebook, and is swift to open its access to new hardware as it becomes available. It would be difficult, then, to understand the individual success of a weightloser or jogger who smashes their BMI or 10k speed goals, without considering the wider success of the market of tools that have come to facilitate the measurement of this singular bodily changes.

So too do we need to think about the role of our key terms of measuring physical change or progress. Calories, it seems, are units within a matrix of individual bodily governance. Knowing that one hasn't exhausted their 2,000 calories-a-day allowance is achieved by checking the information written on the front of a food packet (informed, in part, by governmental energies to police populations, which I've written about here. Also check out these articles: 1, 2) or from new devices like the MyFitnessPal app shown above that will scan your KitKat's barcode and tell you that you really can't eat that today.

It's a really rich area for sociological thought, whether we're concerned with new technologies of self- and state-surveillance, the encroachment and consumption of data in our lives, or in the role of technologies in how we live as people and populations.