(Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Fitbit)

How being human got reduced to management

Wellness culture and Silicon Valley tell us to apply scientific management to our lives. Is this any way to live?


Keith A. Spencer
July 21, 2019 11:30PM (UTC)

When I was 27, just as I was settling into my first full-time office job, I began to notice that much of my life outside of work had begun to resemble my life at work. At the time I worked in the communications department of a local theatre company, and my day-to-day tasks resembled most office jobs: I would look at spreadsheets, observe institutional problems, then purchase something to (hopefully) fix them. White-collar office jobs are, in some ways, similar to factory jobs: just as a machine operator might study their readouts to ensure that the needles stay in a normal range, we were doing the same with our employer. As workers,  we merely made sure that the company's metaphorical needles hewed to a normal range, never veering or stalling, like a horizontal line on a graph.

Oddly, the way that I thought about my body, and its needs, was similar to the office job. I was a meter with a normal range, like a tachometer, and I had to avoid straying too far into the red. But did analogizing my body to a car make sense? A car collects quantitative data — the engine temperature or the number of revolutions of the cylinders — then displays it in its dashboard readouts. Recently, human bodies, too, became capable of comparable feats of data collection, even if much of this data is collected without our opt-in consent.

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While I was working at the theater company, I bought my first iPhone, an iPhone 5s. This iPhone model counted my steps throughout the day, whether I wanted it to or not; this data supposedly revealed if I were getting enough exercise. As I was regularly saving money for the first time, my bank account number, viewable with a quick tap on my phone, felt like a gauge for another quantitative aspect of existence.

And just as at work, it seemed that for every bodily problem there was a consumable solution: if I was feeling too tired, I would assign myself a latte. If I was not tired enough, a cup of chamomile, or an ice water. If I were stressed, I could invite a friend out for a beer, or plan a weekend trip to get away. If I were restless, I would assign myself a jog around the neighborhood. Just as my work life — where I was fixing problems and hiring out solutions — I was doing the same for my body, in a way that alarmed me.

This makes it sound as though I didn’t have an interior life beyond the bodily, which isn’t quite true. I did — it was just that I was so mentally exhausted at the end of every day that I was incapable of addressing my interior life. I had written a book I was desperate to publish and re-edit, but every day that I worked, I would feel so mentally taxed that editing it felt impossible. Meanwhile, I had once loved writing and performing music, but with a full-time job, it felt like a chore on par with work.

Yet at the end of the work day, even if I had no energy to pursue my actual passions, I had money — which was, after all, the point of working — and I could use that money as a salve, to buy goods and services that promised to temporarily lessen misery.

In short, it began to seem as though I was the manager of a body, just as I was a manager at work. Like the company for whom I worked, I could assign tasks to my body, or tell it to consume goods — much as a machine operator might oil and maintain a lathe. The goal was always optimization.

I was reminded of a brief period as a child when my family had a pet fish. We were instructed by the pet shop clerk to observe the way the fish looked — its size, color, demeanor, and so on — in order to diagnose how and when to feed it, clean its tank, or prescribe it medicine. It lived in a barren glass bowl with a single piece of fake kelp, which looked depressing to me; but I was assured that it needed nothing more than that, as it was an animal, and lacked the same depth of soul and mind that we had. It would be fine, I was told, as long as we tended to its needs by making observations and adjusting our management of it.

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Despite our attempts, the fish died after a month.

* * *

The omnipresence of this kind of rationalist dehumanization made me feel gloomy about my own lot. Was this all that I could hope for or expect from life — a series of inhuman managerial decisions, both at work and home, in service of attaining some optimal mood state? The more I thought about it, the more that I realized there was some ideology, unbidden, that had crept into my life. The tendency to think of one’s body as a managed machine, whose function is to operate at peak efficiency, is not innate; this is a concept that has trickled over from capitalist work culture and into the West.

Silicon Valley offers perhaps the most brutal realization of this kind of managerial-business approach to being alive. The simultaneous rise of “wearables” and “Big Data” has merged into this Excel spreadsheet–approach to existence. The Apple Watch I find most horrifying: a miniature monitoring devices that includes mini-apps that turn your exercise routine into a visualized graph, along with your heartbeat and the number of steps you take. As with the iPhone, these functions operate by default, which suggests that becoming a human spreadsheet is now an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, state of affairs.

We see the same in social media. Counting likes and hearts is a means of quantifying friendship and status, something that the social media companies revel in; if you have a Facebook account, you might have gotten one of their annual messages celebrating how many likes you’ve gained, which, as AdWeek documented, read:

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(User), your friends have liked your posts (total) times!

We’re glad you’re sharing your life with the people you care about on Facebook. Here’s a look at some photos your friends have recently liked.

The message here seems to be there is verisimilitude between Facebook “likes” and your friends’ real-world feelings towards you. Which, of course, there isn't.

Last year, I interviewed Professor David Golumbia of Virginia Commonwealth University, who is an expert in what is sometimes called computationalism — the ideology that that everything is a computer, or can be reduced to it. Golumbia told me that this ideology was once confined to a small group of programmers and techies. But since that same group of individuals now have dominance over our social lives, their beliefs have spread to all of us.

“There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told me at the time. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”

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The computationalist worldview trickles into society and politics in other ways, too: the preponderance of people, many of whom work in tech, who believe that our minds are so analogous to computers that we could upload our consciousness; or, alternatively, who believe that the universe is a simulation; or those who believe that AI is some form of god we should worship.

Those who hold these beliefs may be unaware that historically, every generation has adopted quasi-religions of some form based on the technological epoch in which they live. Imagine how momentous electrification seemed to those who lived during the beginning of it: the ability of invisible electrons traveling through thin wires to make things move was so astounding that the physical potential to produce electricity was deemed the “electromotive force.” In the late nineteenth century, many people actually believed that electricity would make us immortal; after all, it could make seemingly lifeless things move. Could it not be applied to the human body? The idea sounds absurd today; though I suspect in one hundred years, humans will look back at those who thought computers would make us immortal and think the same thing.

* * *

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This mindset, the computationalist way of thinking, is a side-effect of an overall cultural trend towards what I call STEM Supremacy — a condition in which those who have STEM skills are upheld as socially and politically superior to the rest of us, and their way of thinking exalted compared to other forms of analysis.

Yet the managerial state of being, I think, goes beyond mere STEM Supremacism. For it is not merely that we are counting our steps, calories, dates and friendships, putting them into metaphorical or literal spreadsheets. We are also treating our lives like management problems, reducing our selves to robots. And this is an ideology that predates both STEM Supremacy and computationalism.

If you were to trace the history of the redefining of our bodies as machines, you might start with the Restoration period in England in the late 17th century. Peter Stallybrass and the late Allon White, both professors and literary critics, published perhaps the foremost account of how the rise of capitalism in the 17th and early 18th century was correlated with a new conception of the body. The rigidities of the daily grind, of burgeoning factory and service labor, required new rules of etiquette for workers.

As with any cultural shift, these new rules were propagandized, often by writers like John Dryden, the first Poet Laureate of England. Stallybrass and White call Dryden “a crucial figure in the ‘cleansing’ process, polemically engaging in attempting to do for the theatre pit and boxes what the coffee-house was doing for the tavern.” They note how his 1692 drama, “Cleomenes”, achieves this by “coax[ing] and sham[ing] the unruly audience of aristocratic Beaux and vulgar groundlings into keeping still and keeping quiet.”

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And speaking of the coffee-house, it will surprise few that the emergence of coffee in Europe and the birth of capitalism are correlated. Beer was previously the drink of choice for serfs and peasants, even during the "work" day — though as work and life were synonymous under feudalism (for the underclasses at least), there was little difference, and the idea of a "work" day less meaningful than it is now.

Yet one’s movements under the influence of alcohol are unsteady, and one’s thoughts and feelings unregulated. It is not a drink to operate machinery while consuming. Whereas, under the influence of coffee, one’s control over body and mind are honed. And the kinds of places where coffee was consumed were thus quite different than where ale was consumed. “It is no exaggeration,” wrote Stallybrass and White, “to say that the development of the bourgeois public sphere was consonant with the growth of the coffee-house…. The importance of the coffee-house was that it provided a radically new kind of social space, [free] from the grotesque bodies of the alehouse.”

The entire idea of “manners,” the two authors note, are connected to one’s internal conception of self. The “psychical and the social” are intrinsically linked; our external behavior and internal monologue are connected, inseparable.

Though it seems innate to us, the evolution towards a bodily state of self-regulation — of exhibiting such self-control over oneself in public and at work — only happened over the past four hundred years or so. The rigid, drone-like treadmill runners who stare at you from the other side of the window at the gym are a new phenomenon, historically speaking. We control ourselves in a radically different way than humans did in other points in history.

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As the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries whiled away, more and more human labor became wrapped up in factories, where repetitive, mechanistic tasks would be repeated again and again, hour after hour. As if this kind of labor weren’t dehumanizing enough, experts began to emerge who would study how to reduce humans to their maximally efficient parts. The founder of scientific management theory was Frederick Winslow Taylor, and thus scientific management is sometimes also known as “Taylorism.” Taylor studied optimization of the factory floor, and took great pride in measuring the precise amount of time that a worker should take to pick up a widget or hammer a widget in order to maximize profit, and then encouraged them to do so.

Salon readers, who are astute when it comes to labor and political history, may be familiar with the idea of Taylorism already. As Robyn Metcalfe, a food historian and researcher at University of Texas at Austin, wrote in Salon earlier this year:

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the newly developed idea of scientific management led to practices that optimized workflow by carefully measuring and maximizing the use of time, labor, and standardized parts and practices while eliminating waste. Frederick Winslow Taylor, an early twentieth-century mechanical engineer, led the movement, and “Taylorism,” as his theory was called, led to further improvements in the production and transportation of products from factory to consumer. . . . The idea of optimization became quantifiable[.]

* * *

So much of what we observe as innate aspects of modern Western civilization — wellness culture, social media, fitness culture, and health apps — can be explicated by Metcalfe’s last sentence, the idea of optimization becoming quantifiable. Being able to quantify (and thus optimize) ideas that weren’t previously quantifiable has proven to be our folly, and greatly diminished our interior lives. The incredible thing about consciousness, and about being human, is how unquantifiable and unknowable the subjective experience of being alive really is; the day-to-day, minute-to-minute joy of living, eating, breathing, laughing or finding success, are not numbers in a spreadsheet, nor binary ticks in the solid state drive of an Apple Watch.

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So why do so many wish to make life into that — an endless series of optimized moments? The answer, darkly, is that by applying scientific management to our livelihoods — by making scientific management into a culture — we are more readily controllable, atomized. It speaks to an obsession with self that capitalists love because it prevents systemic thinking or systemic change. It masks the fact that your misery might not be because you took the wrong supplement, missed your step count, or lack enough friends on Twitter; your misery might be because you’re being exploited or oppressed, often by the same vast, systemic forces that compel you to spend your days counting steps instead. Perhaps it’s time to stop counting.


Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is the cover editor for Salon, and manages Salon's science, tech and health coverage. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018 from Eyewear Publishing. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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