Typewriters and self-trackers

This is Carl Schmitt writing in 1918 about a fictional civilisation, the Buribunks. Every person has a personal typewriter.

Every Buribunk, regardless of sex, is obligated to keep a diary on every second of his or her life. These diaries are handed over on a daily basis and collated by district. A screening is done according to both a subject and a personal index. Then, while rigidly enforcing copyright for each individual entry, all entries of an erotic, demonic, satiric, political, and so on nature are subsumed accordingly, and writers are catalogued by district. Thanks to a precise system, the organisation of these entries in a card catalogue allows for immediate identification of relevant persons and their circumstances. …the diaries are presented in monthly reports to the chief of the Buribunk Department, who can in this manner continuously supervise the psychological evolution of his province and report to a central agency.

The Buribunks use the typewriter to reflect on themselves, the information they record is archived in a database, where it is analysed by officials. They use the information to both monitor the thoughts of individuals, the mood of particular regions, and as a kind of market research to create entertainment and culture that reflects the interests of Buribunk citizens. This story just flattens me.

Here is Schmitt in 1918, looking at the typewriter. He sees a device that standardises written script, which enables vast amounts of information to be created, stored and processed. Schmitt sees in the typewriter the beginning of a civilisation where everyday life is extensively recorded. In 1918, Schmitt sees not just the smartphone, the wearable, the social media platform but also the kind of personhood and society that would go along with it. Here’s a critical point in his story: Buribunks are very liberal, they can write whatever they like in their diary. They can even write about how they hate being made to write a diary. But, they cannot not write in the diary. So, you can say whatever you like, but you cannot say nothing. You must make your thoughts, movements, moods and feelings visible to a larger technocultural system. Schmitt here envisions a mode of social control that doesn’t depend on limiting the specific ideas people express, but rather works by making their ideas visible so that they can be worked on and modulated.

I find this aspect of Buribunkdom startling, not because Schmitt is the only one to articulate a mode of control like this. Of course other critical thinkers in the twentieth century have too: Foucault, Deleuze, and Zizek to name some. I find it interesting because here in 1918, we have someone seeing personal media devices operating to manage the processes of representation and reconnaissance. That media technology was understood here as both instruments for symbolic communication and for data collection. So, here we are one hundred years later and we are the Buribunks. We use our smartphones every day to record reams of information about our lived experience: our expressions, preferences, conversations, movements, mood, sleep patterns and so on. This information is catalogued in enormous commercial and state databases. The information is used to shape the culture that we are immersed in. And, importantly, this system works by granting us individual freedom to express ourselves, and places relatively few limits on what we can say. But, this system does demand our participation. Participation is a forced choice. Very few of us successfully navigate everyday life without leaving behind data about our movements, preferences, habits and so on.

Schmitt imagined a large government bureaucracy where information would be stored on index cards. It was a kind of vast analogue database. Of course, instead of this, we have a complex network of digital databases owned by major platforms: Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. And, these database function as enormous market research engines that capture and process information which is used to shape our cultural world. What Schmitt saw in the typewriter, has congealed in the smartphone, the critical device in a culture organised around the project of the self. The work of reflecting on and expressing the self, as a basis task in everyday life. And, super importantly, these tasks are shaped by the tools we use to accomplish them.

Here is a famous line from Nietzsche about his typewriter, which he experimented with in the late nineteenth century: ‘Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts’. What did he mean? As we use media technologies to reflect on and express ourselves, we become entangled with them. They shape the way we think, act and express ourselves. They shape the way we imagine the possibilities of expression, and we might say that in our own minds we begin to think like typewriters, or films, or smartphones. We think using their grammar, rhythms and conventions. So, with the typewriter and the smartphone, we might say that these devices ‘work on us’ in the sense that they facilitate a process through which we ‘monitor’ and record data about ourselves.

OK, so I’ve suggested here that in Schmitt’s early twentieth century we can see the pre-history of the smartphone. Well, Kate Crawford and her colleagues actually offer us a study of this history. They trace the genealogy of devices and practices we use to weigh ourselves since the 19th century through to present day self-trackers like FitBits. Think about how FitBit talks to us in its advertisements. The FitBit is presented as a radically new technology offering precise information about the ‘real’ state of our bodies. This knowledge will be useful to us, it will make us fitter, happier, more desirable and more productive.

What Crawford and co. remind us is that this set of claims are not all that new. Devices that ‘work on’ or shape our thoughts and feelings about our bodies have been around a long time.
Weight scales are one example. From the 19th century onwards both the cultural uses and technical capacities of weight scales have changed. In cultural terms, weight scales shifted from the doctor’s office, to the street, to the home. They gradually changed from a specialist medical device used only by doctors, to public entertainment, to a private everyday domestic discipline.

So, here’s a run through of Crawford’s narrative. Doctors began monitoring and recording patients’ weight toward the latter end of the 19th century, but this was not routine until the 20th century. In 1885, the public ‘penny scale’ was invented in Germany, which then appeared in the US in grocery and drug stores.  Modelled after the grandfather clock, with a large dial, the customer stepped on the weighing plate and placed a penny in the slot.

Some penny scales rang a bell when the weight was displayed, while others played popular songs like ‘The Anvil Chorus’ or ‘Oh Promise Me’. The machines would also dispense offerings to lure people into weighing themselves in public, such as pictures of movie stars, horoscopes, and gum and candy. Built in games such as Guess-Your-Weight would return your penny if you accurately placed the pointer at your weight before measurement. However, the extraction of money in exchange for data was the prime aim of the manufacturers; ‘It’s like tapping a gold mine’, claimed the Mills Novelty Company brochure in 1932.

The domestic weight scale first appeared in 1913. A smaller, more affordable device for the home, it allowed self-measurement in private to offset the embarrassment of public recording one’s weight with attendant noises and songs. The original weight scale is an analogue or technical form of media - our body weight makes an impression on a mechanism that is calibrated to record it on the scale. As a media device it collects and presents information to us but it is also important to consider how it is configured in broader social and identity-making processes. There is a gendered history of these devices.

Public weight scales were initially marketed to men but in the1920s women started to be encouraged to diet. Weight scales were presented to women as a private bathroom device to monitor their bodies, thus becoming a tool to ‘know’ and ‘manage’ ourselves. Here’s Crawford’s account of this:  

Tracking one’s weight via the bathroom scale was not only about weight management - as early as the 1890s it assumed a form of self-knowledge. This continues today where value and self-worth can be attached to the number of pounds weighed.

Crawford refers to a study, where a participant in an eating disorders group was asked how she feels if she does not weigh herself; ‘I don’t feel any way until I know the number on the scale. The numbers tell me how to feel’. That’s basically Nietzsche claim about the typewriter – the device is working on my thoughts. The numbers tell me how I feel. Similar claims are made around self-tracking devices. There are accounts of self-tracking and internalized surveillance taken to an extreme by people suffering from eating disorders.

So, the history of the weight scale reminds us that tracking devices are agents in shifting the process of knowing and controlling bodies, both individually and collectively, as they normalize and sometimes antagonize human bodies. The Fitbit turns the body’s movement into digital data: daily steps, distance travelled, calories burned, sleep quality, and so on. This is then fed into a ‘finely tuned algorithm’ that looks for ‘motion patterns’. There are two things at work here in this sequence from the personal weight scale to the FitBit. One, a moral epistemology: knowing one’s weight and body habits can lead to an improved, possibly ideal self and life. And, two: an economic imperative. Penny scales were significant money making enterprises and there was a strong profit motive in encouraging people to weigh themselves ‘often’. This exchange of money for data is clear: spend a penny, receive a datum, but the collection of data is also private, going no further unless the user willingly shared it with others. This is less clear in trackable devices. The user can reflect on their own data but that data will always be shared with the device maker and a range of unknown parties. What is then done with that data is not transparent and ultimately at the discretion of the company. Consumer data are mediated by a smartphone app or an online interface and the user never sees how their data is aggregated, analysed, sold, or repurposed, nor do they get to make active decisions about how that data is used.

As a tagline for an advertisement, for the wearable Microsoft Band, states, ‘this device can know me better than I know myself, and can help me be a better human.’ So then, Crawford argues, ‘the wearable and the weight scale offer the promise of agency through mediated self-knowledge, within rhetorics of normative control and becoming one’s best self.’ On one hand the ability to ‘know more through data’ can be experienced as pleasurable and powerful, the promise of which is evident in this advertisement for Microsoft band.

OK, and on and on it goes. Ugh, corporate brand vomit. But, also here’s the basic claim Microsoft are making: buy this device, it will work on you! It will change you. What wearables like the FitBit achieve that the personal weight scale could not, is the real-time aggregation of data about all bodies, and the feeding back of this information to each users via customised screens. Again here, Schmitt’s Buribunks had paper index cards and human-scale analysis of expressions. The FitBit is real-time biological analysis of millions of bodies. Here’s Crawford:
‘Statistical comparisons between bodies are necessarily contingent on a set of data points. Users get a personalized report, yet, the system around them is designed for mass collection and analysis, so the user becomes ‘a body amidst other tracked bodies.’ So ‘the user only gets to see their individual behaviour compared to a norm, a speck in the larger sea of data.’

Drawing on the work of Julie E Cohen, Crawford argues that this functions as a ‘bio-political public domain’… designed to ‘assimilate individual data profiles within larger patterns and nudge individual choices and preferences in directions that align with those patterns.’  So ‘while there is a strong rhetoric of participation and inclusion, there is a ‘near-complete lack of transparency regarding algorithms, outputs and uses of personal information’. And, this is the crucial point. Mark Andrejevic calls this the ‘big data divide’. The difference between individuals who record their data, and the corporations who collect and process that data.
The lesson then is to think about the evolution of media devices for collecting, storing, processing, and disseminating information over a hundred year period, as well as the individual and social facets of digital media.

The FitBit and similar tracking devices that collect data about us and present that back to us as customised and individualised media content, become part of a much larger social system of control in several ways. The data that we give and view at an individual level is logged in databases that operate at population level. These devices are implicated in a cultural process based on self-monitoring and self-improvement. They work on our thoughts. And, importantly, these devices normalise data-driven participation and computation in our everyday lives. They become a foundational model for how we do our lives, bodies and identities.