Culture

Quantification, self-exploitation, prostitution

I've written before about my suspicions regarding the quantified-self movement and the data-driven life. To want to turn one's life experience into data is obviously an expression of a deep-seated urge to become an object. It reflects a yearning to make one's life knowable in an "objective" way -- or rather, to be known in the way that our highly rationalized society regards as authentic. You know, numbers don't lie.

Some of that urge is pragmatic: since bureaucracies are already turning us into data, why not manage the process more directly? But the process of making fresh data by experimenting on oneself seems an especially sinister kind of alienation, reifying a mind-body split that threatens to rob one of ability to experience life as flow, installing instead a Taylorist manager in one's mind, a superego run amok. With all these "objective" numbers, the potential for self-flagellation becomes limitless, as the numbers vividly render the illusion of life as the ceaseless quest for measurable progress. But there is always another measurement to take. One never arrives. The data we generate becomes a miasma into which our soul eventually disappears; we become a set of numbers pre-formatted for the institutional data-processing and the recommendation engines that increasingly structure contemporary life. We become ghosts in the machine at best.

I called the obsession with measuring oneself and mimicking the way technology already translates us into data "robot envy," an idea that apparently finds some support in SherryTurkle's new book Alone Together, which I need to read ASAP. This Chronicle Review piece about Turkle's recent work lays out her thesis about "sociable robots" and the possibility that we will prefer relationships of convenience with selfless machines to fraught and necessarily ambivalent relationships to other humans.

"What if we get used to relationships that are made to measure?" Turkle asks. "Is that teaching us that relationships can be just the way we want them?" After all, if a robotic partner were to become annoying, we could just switch it off.

The article doesn't mention it, but one obvious use for the sociable robots of the future would be as prostitutes. The prostitute-client relationship is already about supplanting awkward intimacy with convenience and efficiency and providing a "made to measure" relationship. It's also a realm in which social behavior has already been rigorously quantified: time is strictly metered and billed at a negotiated rate, which serves as a putative measure of the value of the prostitute's company. This essay in Salon by a prostitute writing under the name Charlotte Shane explains how prostitution can be regarded as the logical end point of the urge to quantify one's social impact. She argues that we "are living in a world where a woman's worth is constantly equated with her sex appeal. Is it any wonder that many women might find it compelling to take that equation to its logical end?" That a woman's "worth" is often regarded as entirely a matter of her sexual usefulness is depressing enough, and one could certainly blame patriarchy, but one shouldn't neglect the way patriarchy is served by the capitalist drive toward ever greater rationalization, efficiency, and quantification. These are all vectors for self-criticism and for insecurity in relation to numerical standard that has been abstracted from any particular context that can make it meaningful. The strictures of femininity in capitalist culture manifest themselves in lots of numbers: dress sizes, weight, caloric intake, breast measurement, etc. Shane writes, tellingly, "I was so highly self-critical as a young adult that by the time I was 12 I vowed I'd have breast surgery."

Prostitution supplies another of those numbers, one which seems to synthesize all the others into a master index. What unifies the numbers is the underlying notion that genuine, inarguable objectification is sexual objectification, rooted in nature and vested by the inescapable imperative to procreate, which makes the choice of sexual partner seem like the archetypal consumer choice. This logic fuels the crypto-evolutionary suspicion -- epitomized in, say, Michel Houellebecq novels -- that all consumerism is a matter of status competition, but status is merely a genteel way of expressing the competition for suitable mates. Sex sells everything. Once a market for a woman's sexual attention has been created (it is, after all, the "oldest profession"), the ideology that locates a woman's essential value in sexuality seems concrete, material, an inescapable truth -- after all, a specific figure can be quoted. Shane writes:

There's something almost merciful about finally having the clarity of a number, and once you're an escort, you've quite literally put a price on your sexual powers. That's an intimidating assignment for any young woman with a less than robust sense of self-esteem, but it can also be perversely satisfying: You've finally quantified your appeal.

This seems like an especially pernicious example of the alienation inherent in wages generally, but it captures the temptation of self-quantification. It's a weird, entirely temporary form of mercy, though, because that price we obtain is just one quote. Being priced only reminds you that your value is always being negotiated by others, and you are mostly at the mercy of that often arbitrary conversation. Once you get priced once, you have to keep being priced to procure a moment's respite of security in one's worth.

The eagerness to be quantified is one of those cures that worsen the disease. It promises to resolve insecurity and afford us more control over our lives and how we are perceived, but instead it radically destabilizes the self and gives over the arbitration of our self-worth to an impersonal market. It impels us to keep generating occasions to be measured -- the yardstick dictates our behavior, supplies the form that shapes our identity. We feel obliged to create information in order to know ourselves, but it doesn't constitute capital for us; it becomes a mode of autoexploitation -- we work hard to turn ourselves in a product for someone else ultimately to sell. The self-exploitation process culminates in the development of the personal brand, which codifies the illusion that we are building equity through compulsive sharing and self-measuring: The qualities of the self aren't seen as ineffable and transcendent; as processes rather than possessions; as indivisible clusters of skill, experience and intuition rather than market-assessed commodities. Instead we find social validation in being on the market and being sold -- an understandable conclusion, given the hegemonic idea that value is somehow conferred by markets. How can you know something is worth anything if you don't try to sell it? How can you know your full potential as a human unless you have leveraged your brand and maximized its value?

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