Living with smartness

Will new technologies turn people into passive human beings?

David Beer
27 April 2015

Credit: All rights reserved.

I used to see smartness as tyrannical. This was over a decade ago, when I was toiling away in a cold-calling telephone sales job. I tried to communicate my struggles to my manager. I was working hard, I informed him, but with little success. His response was simply to point out that I should “work smarter, not harder.”

The message, as I interpreted it, was simple: failure is your fault—the product of your lack of ingenuity, limited initiative, and absence of guile. You’re not entrepreneurial enough. You’re not smart.

There it was—the blame lay squarely on my shoulders. Smartness made my inadequacies tangible. I wasn’t competing effectively. This was one of those “brushes with neoliberalism on a granular scale” recently described by the writer Philip Mirowski—moments when we discover that “competition is a primary virtue, and solidarity a sign of weakness.” Smartness was the vehicle by which the individualizing properties of contemporary capitalism found their way into my life.

I was jolted into these memories by a recent gift—a complimentary bottle of “Smartwater” that came with a supermarket food delivery. Smartwater, we are told, is inspired by ‘nature’ and ‘clouds’ and includes ‘electrolytes.’ The implicit suggestion is that this is water that adapts to our individual needs for hydration.

This appears to be a new product, but it’s not the first time I’ve come across a mention of smart water. A few years ago I was at York railway station and noticed a large billboard informing me that “smart water” was used in the city—in this case to stain the clothes of criminals and make them visible to law enforcement officers.

So today, smartness is still a means for promoting individualization, but it finds its way into our lives in the very objects that surround us. Such notions of smartness are now ubiquitous, like the advert for “smart toothpaste” that recently appeared on my TV. This is a kind of toothpaste that knows your mouth better than you do. It can change its actions to suit the needs of your breath, plaque levels, cavity prevention, enamel erosion, whiteness and so on.  It judges these needs for itself, with autonomy and thinking-power, treating us as individuals.

The most obvious presence of smartness in our lives is in our cell-phones. We’ve had “smart-phones” since around 2007, when the iPhone was launched, and over the last few years they’ve become a familiar and established presence. Smart-phones have become a part of bodily routines, narratives and lifestyle images, and are deeply woven into the social fabric. They’re a part of how people live. Their smartness is celebrated and enthused over.

Smart-phones learn about us in different ways and respond to our needs. They predict things about us and what we might want to know. We get recommendations through them. We get notified. We get anticipated.

The idea of smart objects is a notion that can be placed at the boundary between technology and science fiction, a line that is often blurred. Encouraged by science fiction, designers have been imagining smart technologies for many years, like the smart fridge. This is a fridge that notes which items of food are getting low and orders replacements. It is likely to be found in the kitchen of a ‘thinking home’ that adapts to how you live and guesses what temperature, humidity or light levels you would like without you asking.

Radio Frequency Identity Tags are often used in these types of technologies—minute sensors that can be embedded in objects, spaces or bodies to give them a unique identity code that can be scanned. These tags lead us to envision the ‘internet of things’ and the enmeshing of the material and immaterial.  The connected environment is seen as the smart environment.

These environments are already with us, but in a more humdrum form. We have on-demand TV and music streaming services that predict our tastes, and make recommendations. Indeed, recommendations are everywhere and are delivered to us by lots of smart devices.

In her cyborg manifesto, which is now over 25 years old, the feminist writer Donna Haraway suggested that as devices become more mobile and bodies are technologically enhanced, people will become increasingly cybernetic—connected with each other and with machines in systems of communication. Cyborgs and cybernetic imagery are often used to explore the blurring lines between humans and technology.

The result, for Haraway, is that human beings will become directly connected into their surroundings. Her conclusion was that people will become “frighteningly inert,” while the technologies they live with will become “disturbingly lively.” The cyborg metaphor was frequently used in the 1990s and 2000s to evoke both the passive body and the energetic technology that connects people with their informational environments. So the underlying consequence of smart objects might be passive and sedentary human beings.

However, as smartness has become a leitmotif of modern life, notions of liveliness and passivity have become more complex. Rather than people simply becoming immobilized by machines, smart technologies might be seen to assist in the training of the self or as thoughtful facilitators of self-improvement. Smart technologies make our homes supportive of our lifestyles and future-proof our bodies by making them fitter, cleaner and more efficient.

In some cases they do the work for us, and with applications like “Fitbit” or “Strava”—which track and compare fitness and lifestyle data—there are cases where smart technology is pushing the body towards heightened activity, though still based on individualized competition and the use of metrics in search of the ‘perfect lifestyle.’

The sociologists Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval argue that “practical exercises in self-transformation tend to transfer the whole burden of complexity and competition exclusively onto the individual.” Smart objects play the dual role of training the neoliberal subject while also allowing people to feel they have some help and assistance with the individualized burdens and complexities of contemporary life. They stretch us, but they also make us feel that we’re more able to cope with the pressures that are placed upon us.

There is something comforting about the idea that the objects that surround us are smart. We are made to feel special by these objects. They give us personal service. They know about us—intimately. This promotes feelings of a life lived in an environment in which all our needs are catered for.

These objects also enhance our own sense of smartness. They make us feel as though we do indeed work ‘smarter, but not harder,’ and perhaps they even know things about us that we don’t know ourselves—like the type of dental issues diagnosed by my smart toothpaste. The object is the expert, so we can trust them to know what to do. They are thoughtful, autonomous, and deeply individualizing.

But tucked away in these notions of smartness is also the ‘everyday neoliberalism’ to which Mirowski refers. These objects are seen to enhance our own smartness. They contribute towards our effectiveness as self-trained, individualized, entrepreneurial subjects, while also offering the comforting reassurance that they are taking care of us.

Living with smartness is to live with objects and ideals that bring these broader political dynamics to the inside of our everyday lives. 

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