Distorted Visions: The End(s) of Being Human

Here are some preliminary thoughts for our Being Human Panel on ‘self-tracking and the emergence of hybrid beings’ at the University of Liverpool.

In The Quantified Self, Deborah Lupton outlines not only the participatory culture surrounding tracking and monitoring technologies but also the instrumental role technology manufacturers and designers increasingly play in driving prosumer cultures. Lupton provides a good overview of the socio-technical imaginaries of quantified self (“QS”) culture. For Lupton, QS culture represents something more complex than individuals collating personal information for analytical or evaluative purposes (p.6). Lupton is right when she says that QS:

can be interpreted more broadly as an ethos and apparatus of practices that has gathered momentum in this era of mobile and wearable digital devices and increasingly sensor-saturated physical environments.

It is probably true that self-tracking within QS is not simply one of embodiment or measurement but has a bio-political or even Foucauldian disciplinary undercurrents as:

self-tracking is becoming incorporated into a range of social domains and commercial and managerial strategies. People are now frequently encouraged, ‘nudged’, obliged or coerced into using digital devices for monitoring aspects of their lives to produce personal data which can then also be used for the purposes of others. (p.7)

Apps and technologies equipped with sensors and functionalities have contributed greatly to the ubiquity of self-tracking practices. Individuals engaged in such practices invest considerable time and emotional resources collating information, sharing information and providing status updates (pp. 19-20). What are we to make of the concept of “hybrid beings”, which forms the basis of Lupton’s chapter? According to Lupton, the human body has become the focal point of power tussles – empowerment versus discipline. It is also apparent from the discussion that the “hybrid being” is also subject to the cultural and technological influences of information networks. The “data” turn is illustrated in the observation that (p. 65):

[w]e are entering an era in which biopolitics and the expert knowledges that underpin biopower have become increasingly digitised. In a world in which regimes of truth are now frequently configured using algorithmic processing of digital data (Harsin, 2015; Lash, 2007; Thrift, 2005), such data are frequently represented as neutral and highly accurate forms of information that promise to provide insights into social, economic and environmental phenomena.

Lupton comes close to making the breakthrough about the identity of the “hybrid being” when she makes the linkage between algorithms and the nature of being human. She remarks that (p.65):

The algorithms constructed by software coders bring digital data together in certain ways that result in ‘algorithmic identities’ that are configured on the behalf of users (Cheney-Lippold, 2011). These algorithmic identities can have material effects. Algorithms play an increasingly integral role in defining access to information and generating predictions about how people will behave, with accompanying implications for the opportunities or constraints with which they may be presented.

One could query Lupton’s methodology and her approach towards critical sociology. I want to highlight two questions that would provided a more interesting line of inquiry: (i) what representations of social meaning and reality are being constituted by machines?; and (ii) what is the endgame?

Here are some provocations, which I would like to introduce by reference to a work of the late Renaissance Italian painter Parmigianino, titled Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Rettburg, 2014 p. 3).

In 1524, Parmigianino painted a self-portrait of himself, imagining as it were, his reflection on a convex mirror (Rettburg, p. 87). We need not dwell too long on the artistic motivations underlying Parmigianino’s self-portrait. Rather, we should, when thinking about the blurring of human-technology interactions recall the process and effect of the distortions that are captured so vividly by the convex mirror – the hand in the foreground being magnified, the surrounding items around the room being twisted while the painter’s face appears to present a calm demeanour oblivious of the distortion.

This painting chimes well with the increasing Appification of society, the blurring of our online-offline lives, and more crucially the erosion of the polarity between humans and the technological infrastructures. As individuals become embedded in social media and mobile networks, technology assumes an important role in constructing meaning and social reality. ‘Wearables’ and the culture of embodiment no doubt provide some benefits – we can now discover our sleeping patterns, we can better understand our body rhythms, improve our fitness and so forth.

The digital analog to Parmigianino’s convex mirror would be machines that eavesdrop, see, hear and in a number of instances create new knowledge, shape our emotions and choices. Today’s convex mirrors are embedded in sensors, which sustain information networks and provide the impetus for the Internet of Things.

Sophisticated algorithms also encourage a form of observable empiricism – the presentation of the self through the lens of machines. There is another aspect to the paradigm shift that is already in operation – algorithms are increasingly creating data doubles of ourselves. How do we know, unlike Parmigianino, that what we are seeing is not a distorted vision? It is a question that lawyers are considering within the spheres of privacy and surveillance. It is also a question that is proving difficult to answer owing to two converging influences – technological convergence and informational capitalism. Why do we rush to get iPhones, faithfully purchase Macs, take Selfies and record every intimate and personal moment of our lives and share these events publicly?

The intuition that underpins this critique of Lupton’s concept of “hybrid being” is worth repeating – as the distinction between technology and humans blurs, answering the question of what it means to Being Human becomes elusive not simply for law but society generally. It would be interesting to find out what a philosopher, who came after Parmigianino a century later, would have made of the confident assertions by self-trackers of being - cogito, ergo sum!

Select Bibliography

Galloway, Alexander R. Laruelle: Against the Digital (University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

Clough, Patricia T. ‘The Affective Turn: Political Economy, Biomedia and Bodies,’ Theory Culture & Society 25.1 (2008): 1—22

Clough, Patricia, Karen Gregory, Benjamin Haber, and R. Joshua Scannell. ‘The Datalogical Turn’, in Phillip Vannini (ed.) Nonrepresentational Methodologies: Re-Envisioning Research (Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2014): 182—206.

Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self (UK: Polity Press, 2015)

Rotman, Brian. Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2008).

Andrew Herman, Jan Hadlaw, Thom Swiss (Eds). Theories of the Mobile Internet: Materialities and Imaginaries (New York: NY, Routledge, 2015)

Paul D. Miller and Svitlana Matviyenko, The Imaginary App (Mass: MIT Press, 2014)

Rettberg, Walker J. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (London: Palgrave, 2014)