One week ago, without even having to inconvenience myself by robbing a petrol station or raping someone with a broom handle, I was issued with an ankle bracelet.
Yep, my workplace was participating in a corporate ‘wellbeing challenge’. Staff were organised into teams and pedometers were handed out.
All you have to do is measure how many steps you take in a day!
Apparently, this is because our employer is dedicated to staff wellbeing;
‘For those of you lucky enough to have your zero hours contracts renewed for another six months, we really care about your personal wellbeing! Look! There’s even a video! And hell – o! It’s funky!’
In the olden days, by which I mean the period immediately preceding the age characterised by endless moaning about how millennials are too lazy and entitled to commit suicide already, working for a living defined you as a lifter, rather than a leaner. Lifters were masters of their own destiny, less scrutinised than those languishing in the nationalised cost of labour market elasticity.
Where was I? Ah yes, work makes free. It’s got a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?
Male, white collar workers could drink till it came out their ears, drive badly and eat Big Macs off the arses off as many Brazilian models as they liked (I fondly imagine this is what they were up to anyway), with little oversight. Women, of course, could work as much as they liked but were still subject to open scrutiny. Who is paying the price for your selfish obsession with paying the bills, bitch? (At least some things never change).
However, by and large, working for a living placed you under less scrutiny than being on welfare. Or at least that what’s my ankle bracelet told me to say. Because I’m not being ‘scrutinised’. I’m simply being trained in methods so I can scrutinise myself.
To be sure, the pedometer is not forcing my behaviour, it’s not making me walk around the suburb in my slippers in the dark, counting each step as I go. No, that’s not how this shit works. Social control must be subtle. It must appear sensible and self evident. It must legitimise itself. You must want to do it.
My ankle bracelet encourages me to think about my body, my self, in a particular way. For instance, it enables me to think of all the walking I do as discrete parcels of exercise. this fits in nicely with the idea of the compartmentalised self, where activities such as ‘walking’ are realised as both a noun and a verb.
Walking can be slotted into a rubric of self-care and public health. It helps me to work on my body, where my body is a commodity that I produce myself, with the help of other products of course. The pedometer strings together a strategy of the body, a way of thinking about my output as compartmentalised. It also gets me used to the idea of complete monitoring.
The pedometer is accompanied by helpful tidbits of information;
‘Did you know that you actually do exercise in your ordinary life, just by walking around?’
Here it connects the very act of moving from the bed to the bathroom, for instance, with a regime of order that is intrinsically connected to the larger structures in your life – a seamlessly integrated alliance of work and public health,
‘Woah. You mean just by walking around I’m getting exercise? Every step I take actually counts? I’m totally going to start snorting coke off the downstairs toilet cistern from now on!’ (FYI – this type of response elicits the ‘you are not a team player’ derisory sigh in the tea room, and a suggestion that perhaps I am not a Model Employee).
Right up until the moment it went into the ocean, the little plastic pedometer was educating me in the right way to think about my body, how to regulate myself. This is what Foucault would call governmentality – the conduct of conduct.
“Governmentalities are both mentalities and technologies, both ways of thinking and tools for intervening, and it is important to keep in view the irreducibility of one to the other” (Miller and Rose 2008:20)
I like this because it makes me think about Actor Network Theory. I like the conceptual slipperiness of ANT, the idea that there are connections between things, networks, ideas and what Papuans might call Kastom. I like that it’s a way of finding traces of power, but it’s not absolute. Power is in flux, constantly, and the objects things and networks all shift in relation to one another, sometimes becoming one another. Foucault is often presented as more fixed, when in fact I think his work is more like ANT. The panoptican, for instance, is presented as a metaphor – here is a building that represents a way that people can think about themselves in relation to the control of the state. Well, no, the panopticon is more than a representation or a metaphor. Foucault’s genealogies work more like fashions of thought, for me anyway.
The pedometer, for instance, makes me think of myself as a knowable, homogenised commodity. All the walking you do is rendered the same, whether it’s getting up to a baby in the middle of the night or snorting coke off the downstairs loo. Walking is an essential human activity (for most people). It’s essentiality is a wonderful thing to give you a sense of control over. The pedometer co-opts walking into a regime of order and homogeneity. It’s the McDonaldisation of your steps! Excuse me, Kate Tempest, I believe I’m being noisy now….is this thing on…?
OK, McDonaldisation might be a bit clunky.
But perhaps we can think of walking as connected to exercise. Everything is now exercise. And what is ‘exercise’? It’s moral, self-management in the pursuit of a commodity-body, where the emphasis is on the through-put of the images of self, rather than the self itself.
The idea that walking at work can be exercise is something interesting too – it joins the world of the personal and labour….Hey, you’re actually performing a first world leisure activity (exercise) while you’re working! WIN! You should be thinking of your job as a vocation, because that’s how winners think about work. Yeah, think of yourself as both producer and product, where work is something that produces you. The real you. The one that feels gipped when you have to ‘give up’ work to look after kids.
Exercise is also connected to risk. We’re all familiar with this message – if you don’t exercise you’re volunteering yourself for a cascade of neo-liberal reversals. You’ve brought this on yourself. Fatty.
Risk is an aggregation of destinies, in this way I am connected to everyone else. This gives me both more control (I must get off my arse immediately so I don’t end up with diabetes) and less control (this aggregation of information, called risk, knows more about me and my life chances than I do myself). What it does do is homogenise me, and make me more controllable. I’m a standardised metric. The only purchase I have on risk is through the chirpy, pastellised infographics on the train station walls (as long as the message is expressed in two moronic words or less).
Get Active! Just Quit! Fuck off!
So, risk does two things –
One: it encourages me to think about myself as part of a polity, as connected to everyone else. Moreover, it makes me think I have a particular responsibility to mobilise and care for my body in a morally acceptable way.
Two: There is something called ‘risk’ which knows more about my life chances than I can know, but is ‘good for me’. It also exists within the realm of professionals – biostatisticians, psychologists, public health experts. I should trust their judgement and wisdom.
I must learn to be comfortable with acquiescing my sense of personal control. The pedometer can help with that. It gives me a sense of ‘self-care’ and primes me for being controlled.
If I feel uncomfortable with this then it’s because I’m not sufficiently fluent in these techniques of the self. This is when Foucault is most visible – when everyone else in the tea room thinks the ‘steps project’ is a ‘bit of fun’ and ‘enters into the spirit of the thing’ and I feel like I’m on page 67 of 1984. Sure, there are ways of getting around this – loudly but casually referring to it as the ‘Pedo Challenge’ certainly makes for good tea room banter – but generally I think there’s no way out.
I’ve snorted way less coke off the downstairs loo since I got rid of the pedometer though.