Friday, August 19, 2011

Feedback Loops and Self-Consciousness (7 July 2011)

I tend to view reflexivity as a burden, the cost one pays for the broader freedom to shape one's own destiny that modern life has brought to people in wealthy countries. Modernity has brought mediation and mobility and a certain amount of anonymity that lets us become what we want to be, but determining what that is requires a paradoxical sort of self-knowledge -- taking active steps to become what one is supposed to inherently be. This condition is what sociologists like Giddens call ontological insecurity. I'm ceaselessly arguing that technological developments exacerbate this condition while pretending to ameliorate it, mainly because capitalism works better with insecure subjects.

So I'm pretty skeptical of the "quantified self" movement and other efforts to increase the amount of self-knowledge we are burdened with at any given moment. These seem to fundamentally split us, imposing mind/body problems onto us technologically. And they also seem to become self-surveillance, with the data collected on oneself being made available to outside parties for purposes of social control.

I am not persuaded to think otherwise by this Wired article by Thomas Goetz praising the magic power of feedback loops, a banal commonplace idea that is treated here like its some disruptive innovation. Yes, when people are given information about themselves in real time, they will generally change their behavior. In other words self-monitoring changes the self. The observer effect holds for self-awareness. But I'm not sure the resulting changes can be regarded as automatically beneficial; that seems like naive positivism to me. And I couldn't get past my sense that the article existed ultimately to hype a bunch of tech companies and their great gifts to the world, smart meters for the self: "The feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades." At points, Goetz's rhetoric is breathless, as when he discusses David Rose, founder of a company that makes devices that get users to take medicine.

Borrowing a concept from cognitive psychology called pre-attentive processing, Rose aims for a sweet spot between these extremes, where the information is delivered unobtrusively but noticeably. The best sort of delivery device “isn’t cognitively loading at all,” he says. “It uses colors, patterns, angles, speed—visual cues that don’t distract us but remind us.” This creates what Rose calls “enchantment.” Enchanted objects, he says, don’t register as gadgets or even as technology at all, but rather as friendly tools that beguile us into action. In short, they’re magical.

Yes, very magical when technology can program us unobtrusively. Take away the benevolent aim of these particular devices and what's left is design as propaganda. How enchanting.

Goetz buys the argument that feedback loops cater to humans' innate striving and are an expression of evolution at work rather than the extension of a regime of quantification and data generation.

Evolution itself, after all, is a feedback loop, albeit one so elongated as to be imperceptible by an individual. Feedback loops are how we learn, whether we call it trial and error or course correction. In so many areas of life, we succeed when we have some sense of where we stand and some evaluation of our progress. Indeed, we tend to crave this sort of information; it’s something we viscerally want to know, good or bad. As Stanford’s Bandura put it, “People are proactive, aspiring organisms.” Feedback taps into those aspirations.

All these propositions seem ideological to me: that learning is a matter of self-monitoring, that success must be measured to be valid, that humans inherently crave confirmation of individual status, that feedback taps pre-existing aspirations rather than inculcating them. These propositions support the overriding idea that self-regulation must be put in service of facilitating competition -- the capitalist way, and the essence of the form of subjectivity assumed by neoliberalism. The meaning of our existence is to be calculated on life's great balance sheet, with feedback loops allowing us to perform the requisite accounting duties. At the same time, feedback implicitly makes us personally responsible in real time for the performance being measured. The gadgets that give us real-time feedback are part of the neoliberal imperative to shift risk on to the individual, making concrete the idea that you alone are responsible for how society is failing you. It's right there in the numbers that you need to try harder.

All of this is to say that feedback loops are mechanisms of social control that are all the more effective as they masquerade as self-regulation; they are not liberating forces bequeathed by magic technology firms to help us improve ourselves according to some transcendent goal for ourselves that we devise.

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