Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Internet of Wetware

We all know about the internet of things, and the fear that with it, that the physical world becomes public by default, and private by effort.  Recently, I have read two articles about what we can call the internet of wetware. The first is this superbly well-written article about fitbits, confession, and exorexic erotics. The second article is about the rise of four different pelvic exercise machines for women. The second article is one that reminds us of the term wetware, popularized by Rudy Rucker, who understood it to mean, "the underlying generative code for an organism, as found in the genetic material, in the biochemistry of the cells, and in the architecture of the body’s tissues. [...] The whole point of the word “wetware” is that it’s meant to make you look at the world in a new way, and to try and see biological systems from a computational standpoint." While fitbits and kegel machines have nothing to do with DNA or epigenetics (yet!), they have everything to do with seeing biological systems from a computational standpoint. As Rose Eveleth points out:

But in the years since, "wetware" has come to represent everything that is soft and squishy about humans: our brains, our health, our fleshy and fallible bodies. Of late, the notion that a human’s wetware is directly analogous to a computer’s software has gained traction in Silicon Valley. The results of this belief are unending attempts to replace, track, or supplement every aspect of our messy human lives with an app or device.

So the rise (and so far mostly financial failure) of wearables are accelerating the internet of things (particularly with the failed google glass) and the internet of wetware (with the fitbit and the apple watch). The internet of wetware seeks to give us the quantifiable body, the data-driven day, the gamification of existence. And as the fitbit article attests to, the current devices are principally about individualizing the self, it is easy enough to imagine a Wetware 2.0, where our devices measure our sociality ("My Friendometer tells me I have given more high fives than anyone else in my social network today!"). And despite that ennui inducing vision of the future, the real issue of the internet of wetware is between two Foucaults. First, there is the latter Foucault who was concerned with the techne tou biou and the care of the self.  Both kegel machines and fitbits seek to address very real health issues. In Foucault's histories of askesis, he points out how journals were used by the stoics to work upon the self. Perhaps the internet of wetware is just part of a broader technology of the self, and the quantifiable body is a resistance to all the ways we are asked to sacrifice ourselves. Of course there is the other Foucault, the one of disciplinary power. In this view, we already know some insurance companies are giving people discounts for turning in data from fitbit and similar devices. How long till insurance companies and others increasingly incentivize this data? If gamification of our bodies is the new trend, we need to be asking who the players of our bodies are in these games. Who are driving us? The right of obscurity must be respected.

None of this, so far, has even dealt with the gendered element of the internet of wetware (both of which are central to the articles that inspired this post). There is a lot in those articles, and it thicker and more interesting than anything I have put forward, so far. But I want to end with one more provocation. If we have seen a rise of a particular kind of feminization of labor (as charted by Nina Power, among others), the internet of wetware represents, perhaps, the feminization of leisure.