Wearable Surveillance II: Smart Fashion and the Quantified Self

by Lianne Toussaint

In my previous blog post on GPS-tracking,
I described wearable devices used to track the whereabouts of “fragile” others:
our pets, elderly, and children. The phenomenon of wearable surveillance,
however, is not limited to tracking and quantifying others. Wearable technologies
(e.g. activity trackers and smart watches) and ‘smart’ clothes have stimulated the
growth of a culture of self-surveillance, in which individuals scrutinize
themselves to monitor and quantify their own health, behaviour, and activities.
Such practices of self-tracking introduce a new and voluntary kind of surveillance
that, contrary to traditional types of surveillance, targets the user herself. At
first sight, this so-called self-tracking appears to be a purely voluntary and
harmless form of individual surveillance for the sake of well-being,
self-knowledge and empowerment. Yet, where does the urge to self-tracking come
from, and how voluntary is it really?

Self-tracking is done mostly in order to monitor and optimize one’s
“performance”, be it in sports, professionally, or more broadly speaking in
terms of physical/mental well-being and health. It has become synonymous with
the Quantified Self (QS) movement, a
‘lifelogging’ community that believes in self-tracking technologies as the key
to improving self-knowledge and overall quality of life. Smart fashion is
particularly fit for this purpose, as it is relatively unobtrusive and mobile
enough to be worn in everyday life. This implies that the integrated sensors
can constantly stay in touch with the user’s body, environment, and behaviour. The
adjective ‘smart’ refers to how these garments are able to record, and often
also respond to, specific stimuli. Smart fashion can not only ‘sense’ your
posture, activity, or stress levels during the day, it may also react to this
input with output in the form of light, vibration, sound, or colour change. So
although the activity of tracking data about ourselves is not wholly new (think
of a weighing scale or stop watch), smart garments intensify the culture of self-surveillance by, for example,
enabling the accumulation of heretofore inaccessible data (e.g. brain
activity
), and the direct display or manifestation
of these data on the wearer’s body (Van den Eede 2015: 144).

The people and companies currently marketing or using smart
fashion seem to see no harm in the practice of wearable self-surveillance, as
long as the monitoring it is done voluntarily and willingly. As Deborah Lupton
argues, however, it is important to realize that the choice for self-tracking
is not made in a social vacuum, but “in a context in which certain kinds of
subjects and bodies are privileged over others” and where socio-cultural norms
and ideas about the responsible, self-disciplined body/self are involved (Lupton 2012). The tendency to
check, control, and monitor ourselves through wearables or smart garments should
be understood in light of our Western, (post)modern ideals about disciplined,
healthy, active, and profitable subjects (Van
den Eede 2015
; Lupton
2016
). The problem with a lot
of wearable self-surveillance technology, then, is that it presents itself as a
tool for voluntary self-management, while hiding its technocratic premise of
what a perfect human body and human life should be (Verbeek, interviewed in: Heijne 2015).

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