Has neoliberalism been oversold?

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have been the two global institutions most associated with pushing neoliberal policies onto developing countries since the 1980s, but a recent (2016) article posted to the IMF’s Financial Development newsletter points out that neoliberal policies have caused problems in several countries, suggesting that neoliberalism hasn’t been universally successful.

In this post I summarise the article, which should be a useful criticism of neoliberalism for students studying the Global Development option as part of A-level sociology.

Increasing neoliberalisation

The article starts off by defining neoliberalism as having two main aspects: increasing competition and an increased role of the state and then reminds us that policies designed to achieve these two things have been introduced in many countries since the 1980s:

Criticisms of Neoliberal policies

The report notes three problems:

  1. There is a ‘broad group’ of countries where increased growth doesn’t seem to have brought about any other improvements!
  2. Neoliberal policies increase inequality and the costs of this are prominent
  3. Increasing inequality hurts sustained economic growth

Benefits depend on the type of investment

Opening up developing countries to capital flows (liberalising!) seems to have had mixed benefits, depending on how liberalisation has taken place.

Where more investment is tangible, such as money being spent on infrastructure and people skills, there are broader benefits.

However, when it’s just speculative capital coming in (hot ‘debt’ money) this just seems to lead to pump but then a financial crises, and then no more growth.

Austerity policies don’t necessarily work

The report notes that governments with good track records of debt are better off maintaining a welfare state during periods of financial crisis – cutting welfare has adverse affects on spending, which harms a countries economic prospects – it’s better for states in some cases to ‘suck up the debt’.

The combination of huge capital inflows and austerity = more inequality

The report notes that the two together create a vicious loop which creates more inequality which in turn harms longer term growth of a country.

Conclusions

The report doesn’t dismiss liberalisation, but does note that some degree of state regulation could work in many countries – as was the case in Chile – often hailed as a great victory for neoliberalisation, but in fact that State did play something of a regulatory role!

Beyond Neoliberalism

In this TED talk, Dr Johannes Meier argues that Neoliberalism has become and orthodoxy, but now it has reached its expiration date…

This material should be of interest as a balanced critique of neoliberalism, which should be especially relevant to students studying the Global Development option for A-level sociology.

The current economic orthodoxy is one neoliberalism, the belief in free markets and unregulated trade, but this orthodoxy is reaching its expiration date.

Keynesianism used to be the dominant orthodoxy, but it started to switch in the late 1940s with Hayek’s neoliberal ideas, and by the 1980s neoliberalism was the norm, such that most people today have grown up with it.

However, today (2019 is the date of the talk) there are more and more signs that this orthodoxy is under threat – as neoliberalism is no longer productive, and Meier asks the question ‘what should business leaders do about this’?

What are the core philosophical beliefs of neoliberalism?

  1. Homo-economics – individual people are economically rational and they strive to maximise their own utility
  2. The right to compete is the backbone of liberty
  3. The success of a nation is the sum of utlitiels, measured in GDP
  4. The role of govenrment is to make sure that free-markets are protected, but not over regulated

Neoliberalism has been successful over the last 50 years

We have seen huge increases in GDP growth rates, increasing incomes, more employment, billions of people being lifted out of extreme policies and millions of millionnaires created.

Neoliberal ideas have extended beyond markets to labour, education and health policies for example – all of these areas are influenced by market based thinking (especially education, if you’re studying A-level sociology!)

Neoliberal ideas are also entrenched in the world of business and most governments in Western countries.

Three Criticisms of Neoliberalism

Meier draws on the tale of Hans Christian Anderson to suggest there are three flaws to neoliberalism that advocates of it dare not mention, but are obvious to a child!

Neoliberalism is an ‘Emperor with No Clothes’

The Rising Tide isn’t leading to Economic Justice

According to neoliberalism, freeing markets leads to enormous wealth creation and rising wealth overall will lift all boats – so that everyone gets richer, with more and more people being lifted out of poverty.

However, income inequality has also increased such that the top 8% of income earners now earn more than half of all income.

Wealth is worse – 1% own more than half of the world’s weath.

Where consumption is concerned – the richest billion consume 75%, and the poorest billion only consume 1% of our resources.

We thus have wealth and income divides which lead to economic and political tensions. Those who feel left behind no longer trust the narratives of the elites who have established neoliberal policies (and been the main beneficiaries of those policies).

Those who have not benefited from neoliberalism – the ones with no wealth, low incomes, no education or health care, are criticising neoliberalism with increasing vigour.

The tragedy of our commons and our Horizons

We are facing an existential crisis of tipping points where the climate is concerned.

It clearly isn’t true that if the developing nations embrace neoliberalism that they are going to develop as effectively as developing nations – because the planet cannot cope with the levels of resource extraction and consumption that would require to incorporate 8 billion people!

Human relationships are about more than transactional efficiency

Neoliberalism tends to turn relationships into transactions – and the imperative is then to make those relations more efficient.

We see this in the spread of automoation and AI – replacing humans with more efficient machines.

However, human relations are about more than efficiency. And if people think they have found the equation for friendship on Facebook or love on Tinder, thy are missing the essence of humanity.

More and more people are demanding that work be meaningful and that there is space for humanity, rather than it just being all about efficiency.

How do we survive beyond neoliberalism?

Meier proposes three basic rules business leaders should follow if they wish to survive the transition to beyond neoliberalism, which basically involved focusing on the ‘basics of good business’.

Listen to diverse voices

This may sound obvious but business leaders tend to exist in a bubble. This involves thinking beyond traditional metrics such as revenue growth as these don’t provide purpose or deeper meanings.

We need new narratives of belonging beyond homo economics

Reduce the fragility of the system

We have the warning signs – such as climate change. We need to focus on making businesses resilient and genuinly sustainable.

Here he seems to be criticising the fossil fuel industry and suggests a move to renewables is what we need.

Avoid polarisation

Neoliberalism is too focused on the individual.

The system has emphasised individuals getting to a kind of certain wealth or income level, then they are safe to have a nice job and life, leaving too many behind in poverty

Personal individual development is seen as the opposite of community – the idea that we progress our careers at the expense of our families is toxic. Humans thrive better in community and solidarity.

Ee need to take a much broader view of public goods – he suggests we need much more state and business co-operation in providing public goods

In conclusion…

Part of the difficulty with moving beyond neoliberalism is that we don’t know what will take over – there will probably be many different alternatives – hence why general principles for surviving change are required.

It will take courage to let go of our existing business models, but it is futile to cling to the old ones.

Neoliberalism: A Short Introduction

Neoliberalism has been one of the most influential political ideas of the last century, and it has been especially influential in shaping global policies of international development since the 1980s.

Below is a useful four minute video on 10 things you should know about Neoliberalism, as summarised by Ravi K. Roy, co-author of Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction.

This material should be especially relevant to A-level sociology students studying the Global Development option as part of A-level Sociology.

Neoliberalism and globalisation are contested terms

There couldn’t be two more conflated and confused ideas in both academia and public discourse.

Generally people see neoliberalism as the set of ideas behind globalisation, which is seen as the process.

An assault on big government

Neoliberalism is often seen as a ‘return to the market’ paradigm, a reaction against big welfare state government.

Where does the term come from?

We can trace the term back to post World War 1, maybe the 1930s, when there was an idea to straddle socialism and market liberalism.

Post World War 2 the term is used to refer to more of a pure market approach.

There are a variety of neoliberalisms!

It’s a very varied term, inspired by lots of intellectual traditions and with many different applications under different leaders.

No one calls themselves a neoliberal!

No one who has ever been identified with neoliberal policies has ever called themselves a neoliberal.

But it’s very clear that in the late 1980s and into the 1990s that politicians in power in the UK, America, Canada and Australia were all ‘neoliberals’

Neoliberalism and Internationalism

Neoliberals tend to look to international institutions such as the United Nations to extend their project.

NB – he doesn’t mention the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, but personally I would think these have been more central to pushing a neoliberal agenda globally than the United Nations?!?

Neoliberalism and Nationalism

There are some neoliberals who believe in the idea of a single Europe. There are other neoliberals, like Margaret Thatcher who did not believe in the idea of a single Europe.

We are all neoliberals now

Both Thatcher and Reagan wanted to reduce the welfare state, but Bill Clinton reduced the welfare state far more than either of them would ever have imagined!

Neoliberalism as a practical policy package

The authors of the book have framed the practical polices of neoliberalism as a DLP package:

  • Deregulation
  • Liberalisation
  • Privatisation

Neoliberalism and Postmodernism

Neoliberalism has blurred the boundaries between the economy and the state, so that we now live in a more global form of capitalism where financialisation is at the heart of everything.

Postmodernism (or the new postmodern phase of neoliberalism?) is more about the blurring of the boundary between private and public life.

Find out more…

You might like to read the entire book: Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction!

Relevance to A-level Sociology

Neoliberalism is a core theory of development within the global development module.

Neoliberalism also comes up in the education topic: as outlined in this post: neoliberal education policy.

Explaining the Rapid Social Development in Ghana

Ghana, in West Africa, has seen positive economic growth for several decades now, on a par with many of its peers (similar countries by virtue of their development stats):

However, it has been more successful that other countries in translating that economic growth into social development, as measured by the decline in stunting and the increase in primary education enrolment:

This is all according to a recent (June 2020) Report by the World Bank: Building Human Capital: Lessons from Country Experiences – Ghana.

The report takes an in-depth look at the government policies of Ghana and concludes that the positive social development has been the result of a multi-pronged policy initiatives all working together in the longer term, including:

  1. Setting up a National Health Insurance Scheme – ensuring everyone has access to basic healthcare. This was funded by primarily by increasing tax on selected goods and services and on formal sector workers.
  2. FCUBE – Free Compulsory Universal Education
  3. School feeding programmes
  4. WASH programmes – to address poor access to water and sanitation – this was largely funded by aid from the International Community.
  5. Adult education programmes – particularly useful in educating adults about health care issues and preventing stunting.

Of particular note here is that the Ghanian government put a special tax (I think it was 2.5%) on oil extraction, specifically to fund health and education.

Also noted is the good governance in Ghana – government is stable so they’ve had continuous investment in health and education for decades now.

Analysis – what does this tell us about theories of development?

Really it tells us that governments are important – if you think about the UK – we have a (relatively) high tax and high-cost free health and education system, which help us develop ‘human capital’ – and that is what Ghana seems to have focused on at the national level.

This case study suggests that MORE government works best for social development, not less – development in Ghana has happened through taxing the oil industry and paying for state social services – taxation, public services and more regulation resulting, in this case, in MORE positive development – a great case study against the neoliberal theory of development.

Analysis – how generalisable is this case study to other countries?

This kind of development may only apply to countries who are free of conflict and have a stable, minimally corrupt government – that way, if resources such as oil are discovered, they can be taxed and the income used for health and education.

There are plenty of low to middle income countries (Ghana’s ‘peer’ countries as outlined in the World Bank report) which could learn from Ghana – so this is maybe a good low-middle income development case study.

However, as Paul Collier and the authors of ‘Failed States’ have demonstrated, many countries stuck at the bottom of the development ladder are not in a position to put in place such policies, so this case study is no help to them.

The US-UK Trade Deal: More Neoliberalism?

Brexit hasn’t been in the news much since Covid-19, but we’re still leaving the European Union in January 2020, which means we haven’t got long to get some trade-deals in place with several different countries.

The United States is one of the UK’s largest trade partners, with around $250 of trade between the countries every year.

We’ve actually been in trade negotiations with the United States since we knew there would be a Brexit in 2017, and we’ve just started up another round of talks, although a deal is apparently unlikely before the US elections in November 2020.

If we look back at the documents from the trade-talks since 2017, it seems that the US is pushing for the following:

  • The privatisation of the NHS and other public sector companies
  • Higher prices for US drugs companies
  • Protections for digital companies such as Facebook and Google
  • The UK has to accept ‘chlorinated chicken’
  • Oh, and they banned climate change from the talks too.

The above is according to some analysis from Global Justice Now and can be found here.

A trade deal with the US: A shift towards neoliberalism?

For an outline of what neoliberalism is see this post.

The trade talks so far have consisted of the US arguing for a pro free-market pro-Corporation agenda – a trade deal that allows large drug and digital companies more freedom to profit from our public services.

The fact that we haven’t caved into their demands yet suggests there is some resistance to the idea of too much neoliberalism, however, now that Brexit and a recession are looming, it will be interesting to see what kind of deal will be struck.

Especially since the NHS are now our heroes, this kind of deal might get some very negative publicity and mass resistance!

Global politics could get very interesting in the next few years!

If you’re and A-level sociology teacher, it might be a good time to switch to teaching the Global Development option!

More Neoliberalism – Brazil’s shift to the right

The extreme right wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro was recently declared as Brazil’s president – he’s anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-environment, and yet the public voted him in to take office from January 2019.

neoliberal brazil.jpg

He’s also strong on law and order: he’s praised former Brazilian dictatorships which used torture, among other tactics as a means of social control, and he’s promised to outlaw protest and op positional social movements.

Given that Brazil is the fourth largest democracy in the world, and one of the BRIC nations, this is quite significant in terms of global politics – it probably means that Brazil will be opened up for even more deregulated trade, while the poor who suffer the consequences of this will be disciplined more harshly by the state’s security forces.

In short, this is the most significant global shift towards more repressive neoliberal politics since Trump’s election. It’s something worth keeping an eye on!

This comment piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian is worth a read (it’s short) – it  blames this shift to the right on the failure of a corrupt left-wing government in Brazil to effectively maintain social order, and he also blames social media – which becomes an echo chamber for far right scapegoating and polarises public opinion.

With this shift to the right, it seems that global consensus politics has become even less likely!

Religion and Conflict: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Crusade Against Neoliberalism….

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, seems to be firmly against corporate greed and Tory neoliberal policies which allow Corporations the freedom to exploit workers.

religion social change archbishop.png

His explicitly political stance against mainstream political and economic institutions seems to be a good example of a religious leader getting involved in political conflict.

At the Trade’s Union conference Just last week Welby described zero hours contracts as ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’ and accused Amazon of avoiding tax and ‘leaching’ off the public.

The Archbishop seems to be firmly in the ‘Jeremy Corbyn camp’: he has been speaking out against Tory austerity policies since he took up office in 2013. He has consistently criticized modern capitalism and tory welfare cuts; and has previously stated that he wanted to see the payday loan company Wonga put out of business (so at least he’s got something to be happy about!).

Welby probably has a lot of direct experience to draw on: all over the country Church of England churches have been setting up food banks and acting as night shelters for the homeless, effectively playing a role in filling the Tory’s welfare gap.

Relevance to A-level sociology…

This seems to be a great example of a major religious leader standing up for the poor, in the tradition of Liberation Theology.

Potentially this is religion acting as a source of conflict… here Welby is railing explicitly against mainstream political and economic institutions.

This is most definitely NOT an example of religion acting as a conservative force: this is a religious leader demanding radical change.

Final thoughts…. 

There is possibly an element of hypocrisy to Welby’s views: The Church of England itself has shares in Amazon, and even uses zero hours contracts.

This further suggests that Welby’s views might be out of step with the rest of the Church of England. Maybe the views of this one individual are genuine, but maybe he actually has any real power to really bring about any kind of far reaching, radical social change?

 

The Quantified Self by Deborah Lupton: A Brief Summary

‘This book is about contemporary self-tracking cultures, analysed from a critical sociological perspective. It explores how the practices meanings, discourse, and technologies associated with self-tracking are the product of broader social cultural and political processes.’

This summary is really just some extended notes I took on the book as self-tracking and the quantified self are concepts which interest me.

It’s an academic book, written for an academic audience, and probably way beyond most A-level sociology students, but it’s still fascinating, and relevant as the practice of self-tracking is a growing trend.

Definition of self-tracking: ‘monitoring, measuring and recording elements of one’s body and life as a form of self-improvement and self-reflection’. Commonly using digital technologies.

Chapter 1 – Know Thyself: Self-Tracking Technologies and Practices

The emergence of self-tracking

Covers the pre-digital origins of the practice, a few examples of some self-tracking obsessives, outlines the self-tracking movement and charts the recent growth and ‘mainstreaming’ of the practice.

Contemporary self-tracking technologies

Provides an overview of the most common areas of social life to which self-tracking is applied – everything from education to emotions and from individual health to the home.

Research on self-tracking

  • A brief overview of research on self-tracking (going up to 2013-15): most of the studies are conducted by market research companies, there are few academic studies and focus on health.
  • From this research we find that in 2014, fitness bands were the most popular, and white middle class men with high levels of education and technological know how seem to be the most involved.
  • Academic research has revealed strong positive views about self-tracking among most self-trackers, with a measure of scepticism about how their personal data might be used. There is also evidence of strong ethos of self-responsibility (the neoliberal subject).

Chapter 2 – New Hybrid Beings: Theoretical Perspectives

Because self-tracking is a complex process, we should seek to understand it from multiple perspectives. This chapter outlines theoretical perspectives (in bold below) on self-tracking

Sociomaterial perspectives:

  • Datafication via digital devices is a fundamental aspect of selfhood today.
  • People invest digital technologies with meaning, and we need to understand these meanings to understand people’s identities.
  • Individual human actors should be understood as part of an assemblage that consists of (besides humans), digital devices, software and networks.
  • Code/ space is another concept that’s been developed to capture the hybridity of human-technological networks
  • G. our objects may govern our access to space (e-tickets)
  • Draws on actor-network theory.

‘Knowing capitalism’

  • A concept developed by Nigel Thrift to denote the way that capitalism has shifted from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from the data they generate and upload.
  • This is in the context of a big data economy, there is a lot of money to be made from data-driven insights.
  • In the age of prosumumption, people upload this information for free, why social media sites are generally free, because it is the data that has value.
  • The four big tech companies need to be taken into consideration, due to the sheer amount of data they have access to, they have power.
  • Fluidity is key to metaphors used to describe the digital data economy.
  • HOWEVER, data can become frozen, stuck if people do not know how to use it.
  • Data can have a determining influence on people’s life chances
  • When data is rendered 2D it is frozen.
  • When data is represented, it is a result of social processes, we need to ask about who has made the decision to represent data in particular ways.

Self-tracking and the neo-liberal subject

  • Foucault’s concepts of selfhood, governmentality via biopolitics and surveillance are especially relevant to understanding the social significance of self-tracking.
  • In contemporary western societies, the dominant idea is that ‘care of the self’ is an ethical project that the individual is responsible for – the ‘good citizen’ sees the self as a project to worked on, they don’t expect much from the state or other people in society.
  • Giddens, Beck and Bauman have focused on how the self has become individualised – society is full of uncertainties, and lots of choices, and it is down to the individual to do the work to make those choices (and take responsibility for making the right choices).
  • The ‘self’ in today’s society is one which must be constantly re-invented – improved in order to be a success.
  • There is a dominant discourse of morality surrounding self-improvement – people are expected to do it!
  • The psy disciplines have become increasingly popular today because they fit this era of self-responsibility.
  • Despite the focus on the individual, power is still at work through these practices and discourses of the self. They fit in well with neoliberalism, which depends on soft modes of governing rather than hard – the former basically being everyone controlling themselves because they have taken responsibility for themselves and themselves only.
  • Discourses of self-improvement and the focus on the individual ignore the role of structural factors (class, gender, ethnicity) in shaping people’s lives and the problems they may face during their lives.
  • Self-tracking fits in with this neoliberal discourse of self-responsibilization.

Cultures of Embodiment

  • The way we understand our bodies is culturally, socially and historically contingent.
  • Digital devices offer people numerous ways for people to ‘digitise’ their bodies, and thus we are changing the way we think of our bodies.
  • Digital technologies mean people are starting to think of their bodies visually (the screen body) rather than haptically (to do with touch). Rather than rely on their ‘fleshy’ feelings they rely on the more ‘real’ visually represented data.
  • Self-tracking practices may be viewed simply as another set of technologies through which individuals seek to control their bodies.
  • Foucault’s concept of biopower is a useful analytical tool to explore digitised bodies: it emphasises how the body is a site of struggle.
  • Biopower is subtler than traditional forms of power and control – it focuses on the disciplines of self-management and control.
  • In the discourse of self-tracking, those who can control their bodies are ‘moral’, those who cannot are deficient.
  • Theories of boundary maintenance and purity (a la Mary Douglas) are also relevant: and we need to keep in mind that the boundary between the body and the social in digital space is less clear than ever.
  • Data tracking technologies render what was previously hidden about our bodies much more visible, and subject to greater control (but by whom>?).
  • NB – much of the way the body is visually represented is quantitatively – biometrics are largely quantitative, and this data can be used as a basis for inclusion and exclusion.

Datafication

  • ‘Critical data studies’ have emerged to challenge the claims of big data being ‘all positive’
  • The process of datatification = rendering complex human feelings and relationships into digital data. This typically involves metricization, which involves numbers
  • This makes complex and diverse humans ‘easily comparable’ and this formed the basis of control through normalization in the 19th century, it seems to be even more central to contemporary strategies of biopower.
  • Data collected is often quite narrow (e.g. think about education) and is often used by powerful agencies to control and manipulate people. However this is not a neutral process: value judgements lie behind what data is collected and how it is used.
  • We are entering into a world in which biopower and the knowledges which underpin them are increasingly digitised. Such data are frequently presented as neutral, more reliable than individual subjective data, and thus forming a more robust basis for ‘truth claims’.
  • Datafication offers a late modern promise of rendering messy populations understandable and controllable.
  • Algorithmic authority is increasingly important in identity construction and governing inclusion to areas of social life.
  • It is also sometimes difficult to challenge, given that the algorithms are often black-boxed.
  • Dataveillance = veillance which uses digital technology.

Dataveillance and Privacy

  • The generation of more data increases the opportunities for monitoring.
  • Veillance is Lupton’s preferred term – because there are multiple types of watching in society.
  • Some obvious forms of surveillance include CCTV and Passports, but Foucault’s idea of the panopticon is probably the most relevant to understanding veilance today – where people take on responsibility for controlling their own actions because they ‘might’ be being watched.
  • Veillance is extremely pervasive and works across multiple sites simultaneously and can be purposed and repurposed in multiple ways.
  • It is increasingly used as a means of categorising – often based on risk.
  • Sousveillance is increasingly important.
  • There is no longer a clear spatial boundary between public and private…. Some commentators have even suggested that the internet = the end of privacy.
  • We need to ask lots of questions about data ownership and usage rights.

 

Chapter 3 – ‘An Optimal Human Being’:  The Body and Self in Self-Tracking Cultures

The reflexive monitoring of the self

  • analysis of interviews with two self-trackers reveals a discourse of self-awareness and self-improvement facilitated by self-tracking technology.
  • The data used is mainly quantitative and individuals seek greater understanding by finding patterns in their lives.
  • There is always a focus on ‘becoming’ – present data is interpreted in light of a desired future (very goal-oriented).
  • There is a focus on individual self-knowledge within the movement, which some have viewed as narcissistic.
  • There is a strong ethic of self-responsibility, and an implication that those who don’t seek to improve their lives through self-tracking are morally incomplete.
  • Self-tracking selves thus seem to be neoliberal subjects.
  • The concept of the self fits well with digital entrepreneurialism, especially where the tracking of productivity is concerned.

Representations of embodiment

  • Metaphors of the body as a machine and specifically as an information processing machine are often employed in self-tracking cultures.
  • Inputs/ outputs/ performance are all parts of the discourse.
  • ‘I can therefor I am’ is also part of the discourse of selfhood (Lury 1997)
  • Digital wearable devices are viewed as ‘prosthetics’ (data prosthetics) – enhancing the capacity to act in a similar way to prosthetic limbs. E.g. videos of life loggers expand the human capacity to remember.
  • The prosthetics also extend the body into a network of other bodies…. E.g. through the representation of data in social networks.
  • It becomes increasingly unclear where the body ends and environmental space (‘out there’) begins (code/space is a new concept to describe this).

The affective dimensions of self-tracking

  • Self-tracking devices and software and the data they generate are invested with a high degree of personal meaning.
  • Obviously, the devices themselves, especially phones, matter to us, and the data collected through these devices is part of our lives, part of our biography: it is ‘my data’.
  • We use these data (images, stats etc to ‘present ourselves’ and engage in ‘algorithmic self-promotion’.
  • NB Even the way we organise our apps has personal meaning.
  • A more over affective dimension is where apps actually track our emotions.
  • The data generated by self-tracking and the responses this gets when presented also generates emotions – from satisfaction to frustration.
  • Those who do not self-track may be perceived as immoral because of not taking the responsibility to control their lives. (There is a barely hidden discourse of morality in the movement)
  • Emotions also come into the fact that devices sometimes measure what they are supposed to effectively, and sometimes don’t work at all – they tie people’s emotional states into the robustness of the material devices.
  • Wearable devices also affect people’s emotional states differently – if they make them feel more self-conscious, this may not be in a good way: some may feel ‘fitter’, others may feel fatter.
  • There are also design and fashion to consider – many people won’t wear devices if they don’t look good.

Taking and losing control

  • Part of the discourse of self-tracking is one of using data to gain greater control over one’s life.
  • This fits in well with the uncertainty of late modern society – data collection and using it is a means of reducing risk: in terms of poor health or broken relationships for example.
  • This is most advanced in the sphere of medicine and health where the concept of the ‘participatory patient’ is well established – many patients are expected to engage in a routine of data collection and monitoring, along with their Doctors.
  • However, this effectively brings the body under surveillance as never before: the technologies used may be talked about as ‘inobtrusive, but the effects are to foreground the body through the data collected.
  • Some ex self-trackers report they gave up because data ‘took over’ their lives, drowning out their intuition.
  • Others reported they gave it up as they found they were only happy when their numbers were trending upwards.
  • And if you don’t have your device, you might regret it…
  • Some people also change their habits because of their devices, not necessarily in good ways – eating foods because it fits your diet regime and not actually enjoying the food!
  • Self-tracking may be a terrible idea for those with OCD or anorexia.

 

Self-Tracking and Surveillance

  • Self-tracking and the data generated by it blur the boundary between the public and the private.
  • Especially when we publish our data on networking sites, our private data becomes public.
  • The practice of self-tracking is typically done as part of an assemblage – tracking of ‘intimate’ information, displayed in public.
  • There is a positive side to all of this – gamifying one’s data can be motivational, as can messages of support from others.
  • We need to consider that some forms of tracking may be imposed from above, and users have little choice over engaging in the practice
  • Finally, there are the political implications of how our data is stored and used!

 

Chapter 4 – You Are Your Data: Personal Data, Meanings, Practices and Materialisations

Covers the ways in which self-trackers seek to make sense of, materialise and use their personal information.

The meaning and value of personal digital data

  • Self-tracking is not only about controlling one’s body and one’s self, but controlling the data generated by self-tracking.
  • Data assemblages are constantly shifting, and the data drawn upon is context dependent. They are also reflexive and recursive – people may act on the data, and those changes in action change the data.
  • Even though certain data assemblages may provide a snap shot, frozen, the data are liquid entities, constantly shifting, and this requires self-trackers to engage in constant meaning negotiation to make sense of the data and the selves those data represent.
  • The Quantified Self Movement says this is one of its primary purposes – to help people make better sense of the data – as they see it, collecting it is easy, making sense of it a life skill which needs practice/ training.
  • There is a sense in which the data is more reliable than gut feeling or memory.
  • Personal Analytics (according to QS) will help us develop optimal selves often defined as us becoming more efficient/ productive.
  • There is a ‘big data mind set’ – we can get new insights from this data that was not previously available – e.g. I can look at my phone and see how stressed I am.
  • Self-trackers often present themselves as scientists, collecting their own data, the digitized an information processing system
  • The data is often presented as trustworthy, and the body’s perceptions as untrustworthy.
  • This fits in with a long held medicalized view of the body, the only difference now is that we are visual not haptic and data is available to the layman, not just the expert.
  • The data is seen as emblematic of their ‘true selves’.

Metricization and the Lure of Numbers…

  • Quantification is central to the quantified self discourse.
  • More and more areas of social life have become quantified in recent years (obviously?)
  • Although data is presented as neutral, there is a ‘politics’ to quantification.
  • The rationales of both commerce and government are supported by datafication – publics are rendered manageable by data: BIG DATA allows for people to be managed algorithmically.
  • ‘Comensuration’ is a result of metricization…. This is the process whereby a broader range of previously different social phenomena are brought together under one metric – thus the process favours homogeneity over heterogeneity – – e.g. the Klout score.
  • Such metrics create ‘climates of futurity’.
  • These metrics invariably favour some qualities over others.
  • Viewing the self through such data/ metrics encourages one to take a scientific/ comparable, and reductionist view of life…
  • This cuts out the experience of (real?) life as messy/ complex/ contradictory.

Data Spectacles: Materializations of Personal Data

  • Visualising data is an integral part of the Quantified self-movement. A lot of these data visualizations are very ‘neat’.
  • Most self-trackers derive pleasure and motivation from seeing their data visualised
  • They also see the data as ‘more real’ than their own subjective feelings.

Artistic and Design Interventions

  • Artists/ designers have tried to enhance/ challenge the way self-trackers visualize their data.
  • FRICKBITS – invited self-trackers to turn their data into art
  • The ‘Dear Data’ projected invited women to physically draw an aspect of their ‘data lives’ once a week.
  • Lucy Kimbell’s LIX index took data from various aspects of her life, and turned them into one index to criticise self-tracking
  • Critical making and design fiction aim to combine critical theory and art/ fiction. Their purpose is to envisage alternative futures (that are not necessarily either utopian or dystopian) – to challenge dominant power/ knowledge regimes/ discourses.
  • These may be messier/ more ambiguous than many of the representations of current data and imagined futures made by self-tracking communities.
  • Outlines a few projects which have sort to get us thinking about the boundaries between self/machine, and how these are shifting in assemblages.
  • 3D Printers are also being used to visualise data.
  • Data is also being used to produce things, based on data.

The Importance of Context

  • There is growing cynicism about the use of numbers in self-tracking, because it is often not clear what numbers mean (e.g. a high heart rate can mean different thing) – we thus need to know the context in which the data is collected.
  • ‘Morris’ (blog) is a good example of how context and quality may be more useful – he took thousands of photos of his daily routine, on reviewing them he said he started to recognise more people on his daily commute, feeling more connected to them.
  • Presenting self-data is an important aspect, this is context, emotional.
  • Data collected and then presented back might conjure up uncomfortable emotions… e.g Eric Myer’s Facebook Year in Review experience.
  • Self-trackers are also self-qualifiers… they use the data to tell stories about themselves.

Chapter 5 – Data’s Capacity for Betrayal: Personal Data Politics

Covers the political dimension of self-tracking data (who stores the data, what they do with that data and how they benefit).

Exploited self-tracking

  • Self-tracking practices generate digital biocapital (value derived from a combination of bodies and data)
  • The generation and storage of this data is now beyond the consensual and the personal and this raises all sorts of questions pertaining to who should have access to this data and its use…. Much of which has been highlighted by the recent Facebook scandal.
  • Digital biocapital also raises the spectre of governments and corporations being able to algorithmically manipulate people.
  • Prosumption is a form of work… the value people derive from generating the data not monetary, but the data is commodified and then has a monetary value… this is exploitation.
  • Employers data trawl prospective employers
  • Insurance companies are already using predictive algorithms to set premiums
  • Data is being used in some legal cases.

Pushed and imposed self-tracking

  • Although self-tracking is usually presented as something voluntary, there are some fields where the practice is used ‘coercively’ – where institutions use self-tracking to ‘nudge’ (often unwilling) participants’ behaviour in a ‘desirable’ direction.
  • It is mostly in the sphere of health that we find this.
  • This fits in well with soft power in neoliberal regimes.
  • One example is insurance companies getting people to upload their health data (also driving).
  • Another is Corporations offering reduced health insurance packages for employees who enrol in their wellness programmes.
  • There is a fine line between consensual, pushed and imposed self-tracking.

Personal data security and privacy

  • Written before GDPR – ‘many companies fail to tell customers how their data will be used’.
  • Personal information is very sort after by criminal gangs who can gain access to it at two main points – data transfer, and when data is stored on online databases.
  • Survey data show that people are generally OK with their data being used for beneficial purposes but are suspicious of and worried about the use of data by governments and corporations to manipulate people, and of the fact that their data may be used to exclude them.

Communal self-tracking and taking control of personal data

  • Some in the quantified self movement talk of ‘pooling’ their small data so as to gain big data insights.
  • (Small data is personal and identifiable, big data as impersonal and anonymous).
  • Nafus and Sherman (2014) have theorised that this can be a form of resistance against control of big data by large companies.
  • A very small pool of experts can create their own means of dealing with their data, most people are dependent on commercial products.
  • Some self-tracking initiatives encourage collective positive projects – e.g. environmental, collective steps, hours meditated. This could be a new form of digital citizenship moving forwards.

Responses and resistances to dataveillance

Outlines three counter responses…

  • Selectively recording information (the power of forgetting)
  • Obfuscation – deliberately generating false data or digital noise.
  • Making people aware of the sheer amount of data being collected.

Final Reflections

More detailed summary: chapter 1 (NB – find points of interest and think of the questions I can ask, to then find further research on (reorganising this!)

Self-tracking cultures have emerged in a sociocultural and political context in which various rationales, discourses, practices and technologies are converging… these include the following:

  • A self-concept that values self-knowledge and entrepreneurialism
  • The privileging of quantitative scientific knowledges seen as neutral
  • A moral imperative to take responsibility for the regulation and tight control of one’s body
  • Digital technologies which allow the recording of more aspects of life in ever greater detail
  • A digital data economy which commodifies personal data
  • Governments and commercial agencies seeking to use data to manipulate behaviours.

The notion of autonomous individualism is central to many self-tracking cultures – the individual is seen as being morally responsible for rationally improving their own well-being. Little account is taken of the role of structural factors (poverty, discrimination) in affecting life chances.

Technologies tend to have been designed by white middle class men in the global North, and the decisions about what to measure through tech reflects their bias – for example the Apple Watch does not track menstrual cycles.

At the same time as being reductive, the process of generating self-knowledge is also productive – it is an active process which gives rise to new knowledges, and people use them to ‘improve the self’.

How self-tracking knowledge changes power relations is not clear – presumption means lay people can track and present data, which challenges the role of the big tech companies. However, producers of data have little control over it once it has been generated and uploaded to social media sites.

Self-tracking practices are now mainstream, and way beyond just in the realms of health and fitness.

Lupton has identified five ‘modes’ of self-tracking:

  • Private
  • Pushed
  • Imposed
  • Exploited

The differences are to do with the extent of consent and the purposes for which data is used.

Data devices are learning more about humans. Some of them already tell us what to do. This makes future assemblages more complex – once the world of the Internet of Things really kicks into gear!

Data Literacy is a common thing today, but we need to focus more on getting people to think about the power relations between the users of tech and the designers who make them, and commercial and governmental agencies involved.

There are many new positive uses to which self-tracking might be put, and the penultimate few paragraphs outline some of these – such as ‘empathy’ projects and creative projects.

On the hypocritical parenting of tech billionnaires

Given the trend towards toxic childhood, it should come as no surprise that young children are being increasingly exposed to technologies such as iPads as part of very early socialisation, and it should be no more surprising that such exposure is having an effect on children’s behaviour.

Some small children have been spotted by teachers trying to turn book pages by ‘swiping left’, according to teachers from the National Education Union, while paediatric occupational therapist Sally Payne blames technology for the fact that some small children are starting school never having learnt to hold a pencil.

Whether such technology led socialisation practices end up being detrimental to those children who are exposed to them remains to be seen, but what’s interesting is that so many of the techno-elite are taking steps to limit their own children’s exposure to such technologies. Below are just a few examples:

Tech Billionnaires children.png

So what’s going on here?

It seems that our technological elites have an intuitive feeling that the products they have created are maybe harmful for children, in the sense that they are addictive, and so take active steps to limit their own children’s use of such products.

At the same time, however, they are more than happy to take the billions of dollars they’ve made from these products and run companies which actively seek to addict more and more people, including children, to the precise same products they want to protect their own children from.

This kind of hypocrisy really speaks volumes about neoliberal silicon valley culture: such a morality is surely only possible in a hyper-individualised culture? A culture which allows people to innovate and take absolutely no responsibility for the social cost, as long as they’ve got enough time and money to protect their own nearest and dearest from the negative consequences of their bread and butter.

Sources:

The Week Issue 1170

Pic Source – http://waldorfpeninsula.org/

Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom – ‘Distraction Politics’ of the very highest order?

The British Press have been all over Donald Trump’s four day visit to the United Kingdom… but predictably the focus has been mostly on the trivial details of the itinerary, the ‘intense’ security surrounding the event and Trump’s ‘outrageous’ off-the-cuff comments about Brexit, rather than on the substance of Trump’s pro hard-Brexit arguments or on the logic behind why thousands of people are protesting about his being here.

The BBC News coverage, for example, made a great deal out of the stringent security methods surrounding Trump’s first visit, and there was lots of coverage of Trump ‘in transit’ to various elegant places, such as Blenheim Palace, where we were reminded that while this wasn’t a state visit Trump still gets the Grenadier Guards playing the national anthem, a full-on Banquet, and he gets to meet the Queen.

Trump UK state visit.png

There was, of course, coverage of the protestors outside Blenheim palace, where a couple of them told us that they didn’t like the politics he represented, or his misogynistic and racist attitudes, but this was largely stripped of any deeper logic or substance.

There was also lots of commentary on the (non)-content of the interview Trump gave to The Sun Newspaper on Thursday 12 July during which he criticised Theresa May for not listening to his advice on Brexit and pursuing a ‘soft-brexit’, suggesting that this would now mean that a ‘trade-deal’ with the USA would be very unlikely, and even lamenting the fact that Boris Johnson had stepped down from Politics, stating that he would make a great ‘Prime Minister’.

According to Chomsky, the function of such ‘outrageous comments’ is to keep ‘all eyes on Trump’ and to distract us from the wider neoliberal republican (and Tory) agenda which seeks to dismantle government protections for the average working person, and make it easier for elites to destroy people and planet for short term profit.

Chomsky outlines his views in this video, and I suggest everyone watches it:

Chomsky makes some pretty ‘hardline claims’ in this video, mainly that in reality Trump is part of a broader republican administration who knows exactly what they are doing: they have an extremely neo-liberal agenda to dismantle every part of government which protects the poor and the planet. In America the Republic Government is currently doing this, by taking away workers rights, pollution laws, consumer protections and by basically destroying the planet for short term profit.

The function of Trump needs to be understood in this context: all the time we focus on him and his personalised politics, we are not focussing on the real issues: the fact that the Republican Party are the most dangerous organised institution in human history, worse than the Nazis: because the Nazis never actually intended to destroy all life on earth for their short term gain, only some lives! (NB these are Chomsky’s words – in the video- not mine!)

Back to the media coverage of Trump – the subtle art of distraction away from the harsh realities of neoliberal politics?

Here I just want to focus on how the BBC coverage distracts us, both in the US and the UK…don’t forget that any 10 minute news item could focus on any aspect of the issue….

Firstly, at least 20% of the coverage is on triviality – itineraries, security, personalities, which has nothing to do with politics. Time wasted here.

Secondly, Trump’s comments in The Sun give us a distorted idea of how politics work – he personalises politics – giving us the impression that Theresa May is ‘free’ to heed his advice or not, that’s not how politics works, individuals are generally much more constrained.

Thirdly, Trump greatly simplifies the issues…. As he’s got the power to decide whether or not the USA does a trade deal with the UK… it’s the republican party more generally that decides that, remember he’s embedded in a power elite, he’s not a ‘lone operator’…. However, in the media, he appears like a lone operator, that’s why the elite love him so much, it’s just total obfuscation.

Fourthly…. Trump today (Friday, one day after) actually called his interview with The Sun ‘Fake News’ and denied criticizing Theresa May, even though the whole thing is recorded: another great distraction tactic, keeping the media focused on him, again away from the issues.

Fifthly… some protesters are protesting because they are against precisely the reality that Chomsky points out…. They are against people destroying the planet for the short term gain of an extremely wealthy ultra-minority. Yet does the media tell us this: no – most people are there protesting because they don’t like Donald Trump the man, the misogynist, again personalising and individualising the issues which are fundamentally social.

I’ll leave it there for today, just a few comments to illustrate what  Chomskian analysis of the mainstream media coverage of Trump’s visit to the UK might look like!

Picture Sources

All pictures screen captured from BBC News at 10.00, Thursday 12th July.

This post has also been published to the steem blockchain, check out steemit for more details!