One question surrounding big data – in addition to well-established worries about privacy and discrimination – that is starting to get attention is how it functions as a mode of capitalist accumulation. There is an emerging literature on capitalist value creation and big data, but a lot of that is about the creation of surplus value, and so generates debate about whether the value that individuals freely contribute to the Internet can be described in Marxian terms as surplus labor. In view of that discussion, I’ve suggested that we need to also think about the level of primitive accumulation, or what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession.” In the case of big data, I argued, one such method is by depriving individuals of their preferences, though accumulation practices are diverse. A recent paper by Deborah Lupton suggests another mechanism by which this process might occur: coercive self-tracking.
As Lupton emphasizes with a useful typology, self-tracking can take a number of forms, which she aligns more-or-less in terms of their voluntariness. The most voluntary of these are adopted by, for example, those in the “quantified self” movement, and are usually undertaken as projects of self-improvement or self-discovery. Thus:
“A major feature and attraction of self-tracking for many practitioners is using the information they collect on themselves to achieve self-awareness and optimize or improve their lives. The data and the knowledge contained therein are represented as enabling self-tracking practitioners to achieve better health, higher-quality sleep, greater control over mood swings, improved management of chronic conditions, less stress, increased work productivity, better relationships with others and so on. In many cases, this is all self-initiated and voluntary, as part of the quest for self-knowledge and self-optimization and as an often pleasurable and playful mode of selfhood” (105)
Lupton notes briefly that such practices as diary-keeping can be viewed as pre-digital methods of self tracking. She does not draw the connection here, but this description of self-tracking actually hews very closely to what Foucault says about Stoic self-examination in On the Government of the Living. There, citing Seneca, he suggests that stoic practices are “in the world of administration” (242), that is, “the scene of the functionary inspector who, as it were, looks over the shoulder of the daily functionary to see whether he has done what he had to do” (242). Indeed, even Seneca’s language – “I take the measure again of my faults and actions” suggests this sort of dispassionate outcomes assessment, where “once the mistake has been discovered, there is the formulation of a rule of conduct for the future” (243). (I am emphasizing the language of bureaucracy and administration deliberately: Lupton notes that self-tracking fits the imperatives of audit culture). What is not present is the later Christian examination of conscience or the exploration of “the secrets of the heart, the mysteries of the heart in which the roots of sin are to be found” (246). There is simply practice, and its improvement. Sometimes this can be shared with others, as Seneca’s advice letters suggest, and as Lupton notes with regard to “communal self-tracking.” However, much of the voluntary self-tracking is dependent on the personal history and interests of the one engaging in it often make sharing difficult, as “the very idiosyncrasy or uniqueness of many self-trackers’ interests and consequent self-tracking data practices means that their data may not be interesting or valuable to others as it is not easily transferrable” (106).
More disturbing is when self-tracking ceases to be voluntary. Then it becomes (again, this is my terminology) a form of confessional practice. I have argued that confessional practices as Foucault recounts them in Government of the Living are central to neoliberalism, big data in particular, and I think Lupton provides good corroborating evidence here. For example, she notes that “pushed self-tracking” (where the impetus comes from outside the subject) is especially prominent in “the patient self-care, health promotion and preventative medicine literature” (107). The goal isn’t just improvement, it’s confessional:
“In this context, the personal data generated from self-tracking are represented as pedagogical and motivational, a means of encouraging self-reflection or emotional responses such as fear, guilt or shame that will then lead to the advocated behavior changes” (107)
These nudges and pushed can be increasingly coercive and even exploitative; examples include intensive, compulsory workplace monitoring, as evidenced by the general trend toward what Ifeoma Ajunwa, Kate Crawford and Jason Schultz aptly call “Limitless Worker Surveillance.”
It is when self-tracking shades into exploitation that we face a regime of primitive accumulation. Lupton cites the experience of those in sites like PatientsLikeMe, who freely volunteer and share their health information – and who almost never see any of the returns developed from that information. What happens instead is that Pharma harvests the data and patents whatever it produces as a result. As Lupton suggests, “this is a form of exploited self-tracking, in which the ‘little analytics’ of people’s volunteered personal information turns into commodified big data” (113; internal citation omitted). At the same time, all of this sounds a lot like the production of neoliberal subjectivity:
“Indeed the concept of what I call ‘self-tracking citizenship’ involves a distribution of subjectivity that incorporates technologies and the data they gather as part of its ethos and practice. This dimension of self-tracking brings together the ideals of self-entrepreneurial citizens who are taking responsibility for managing and optimizing their lives with sharing their personal data with others both to achieve their goals and enable others to do so.” (112; internal citation omitted)
There is a tendency here, which she underscores, that “once they are digitized, the array of practices that began as personal and private tend to become inextricably imbricated within these networks and economies” (115)
I want to make three suggestions here, one about big data and two about theory:
First, with regards to big data, there are going to be a number of methods of primitive accumulation. The dispossession of preferences is one method; coerced self-tracking as outlined by Lupton is another. As Lupton’s discussion of the experience both of workers and of those who participate in sites like PatientsLikeMe, self-tracking can be used as a technique to generate value from data. To the extent that this data becomes walled-off from use by those who provide it (as for example, when it generates patented treatments that the providers have to pay for access to), they are left with less than they had before. Workplace programs show the same pattern: Marx describes primitive accumulation as fundamentally a process of depriving people of anything other than the need to be a worker (see below for some quotes); in that sense, both intensive surveillance within the workplace, but even more importantly, endless surveillance outside it in the form of employee wellness programs and other kinds of tracking, function analogously. The worker becomes “free” of any encumbrance that might distance her from her workplace.
Second, as a matter of theory, it seems increasingly important to align Foucauldian concerns about subjectification (which is indeed Lupton’s framing) with Marxian concerns about primitive accumulation. This is something I struggled with on the question of dispossession of preferences, as the taking of preferences is at the same time an attempt to replace them with those of homo economicus. A lot has been written about the intersection of Foucault and Marx and the intersection of Foucault and neoliberalism; here, I just want to make the point that many of the techniques that can be described as encouraging modes of subjection can also be described as aspects of capitalist accumulation. This overlap suggests a hypothesis: we need to understand that primitive accumulation is itself a mode of subjection, and vice versa. Marx, of course, doesn’t use those exact terms, but the language of the primitive accumulation chapter in Capital clearly indicates that the conceptual overlap applies. As agricultural workers are dispossessed of the farmlands they used to till and are forced into the urban proletariat, it is precisely their subjectivity – their practices of selfhood and even self-conception – that are at stake. Here is Marx, using familiar terms from the critique of capital (page references are to the Penguin edition):
“So-called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. It appears as ‘primitive’ because it forms the pre-history of capital, and of the mode of production corresponding to capital” (874-5)
On the other hand, here is Marx, using terms that would easily fit into a Foucauldian narrative about subjectification. Following the arrival of the proletariat into cities, intensive laws against vagabondage were passed, and efforts made to coerce the proletariat into work:
“Thus were the agricultural folk first forcible expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labor” (899)
“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.” (899)
Third, and finally, the overlap between concepts of subjectification and accumulation is further muddied by the usage of alienation vocabulary by current autonomist theorists to describe the effects of cognitive capital. This is perhaps most evident in Berardi, but it also shows up in Virno and Hardt and Negri. The problem here is that a major strain of Marxist theory – that influenced by Althusser – argues that Marx abandons Hegel and alienation around the time of the “Theses on Feuerbach,” and replaced it with a more “scientific” analysis in Capital, one centered around surplus value, commodity fetishism, and the like. This narrative is of course not accepted by many theorists, who argue that Marx draws deeply from Hegel all along, but it’s an influential reading in that it was developed by theorists such as Rancière (who wrote the original part of Lire le Capital that developed the rupture thesis). This is not an issue I will pretend to be able to resolve here, except to note that the autonomist theorists generally mark a debt to Foucault in their invocation of “biopolitics” and that this indication is part of what separates their work from both more orthodox and Althusserian lines (the other key difference is that aut0nomism breaks with economic determinism by declaring that class struggle is fundamental).