Quantified self as executive unfitness

Notes on Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine (1988)

1. The effect of information technology and increasing mediation of personal interaction and communication in the workplace (and the social factory) is to make the “acting-with” skills of the executive function seem even more mystified and ineffable. Executive skills are defined by a negative theology; they are precisely everything that can’t be quantified. As Zuboff puts it “the work of the executive has been, by definition, work that is not subject to rationalization.” They are defined ex post as intuition or feel or comfort with authority or leadership. The executive function consists of the remainder after everything else has been rationalized. It is primarily a mode of distinction, not a tangible and transmittable set of skills. The transferability of other skills is what makes them non-executive. They are like all other information subject to digitization and redistribution: radically devalued.

2. In other words, information technology abets the process of purifying the executive function of its quantifiable components, leaving the perfectly mysterious executive, whose power can only be understood through a cult of personality, in terms of charisma. The boss operates on inscrutable hunches that can’t really be challenged; these form the basis of the boss’s authority.

3. When an individual’s contributions to a productive process (and sociality is a productive process) are quantified, they can accrue no surplus. They lose the ability to negotiate for compensation on the basis of something arguable, intangible. (“Your tweets had a declining retweet rate of 24%, therefore your pay will be reduced accordingly.)

4. People who choose to self-quantify, who seek out ways to turn themselves into data, are in essence opting out of executive responsibilities, then. They are volunteering to be deskilled and controlled. The logic of their decisionmaking is not a matter of hunches but a matter of data, and thus a decision anyone could make for them, given the same data.

5. To put that in reversed form: the quantified self, the data self, is a means for excluding people from qualifying for executive decisionmaking. Because production is shifting to the social factory, and most people’s social lives are being quantified in social media, that suggests that self-quantification is a way of extending the workplace hierarchy into the social sphere that once at least appeared to be sheltered from it. If your friendships are mediated and quantified, they are controlled; the network is stabilizing them and draining them of their potential for power or value creation independent of pre-existing systems of sociopolitical management. They are internal to the “System.” Maybe sociality, identity, etc., are always internal to the System. But the quantification of sociality strengthens the prison bars. Sociality in everyday life ceases to be a resource for resistance to the system; it becomes a source of innovation for refining it, perfecting it, completing its totality. (Our destiny: Everything is subsumed.)

6. Maintaining the ineffability of social behavior becomes a primary form of resistance as well as a way to claim bureaucratically acknowledged power, since power in bureaucracy is distilled into ineffable, unquantified forms. That is, to maintain power in the social factory, one has to evade quantification and preserve the sense of being a subject of the social process more than its object. The more of your social life revolves around uncaptured face time, the more you are the executive of your own productive social life. The more your social life is captured in media, the more you are an employee in your own social life “acting-on” others rather than “acting-with” them, to adapt Zuboff’s terminology. (Acting-on means you are a body transforming other objects through direct labor; acting-with means you coordinate, communicate, produce cooperation, do all that general-intellecty virtuosity stuff.) The quantification of the self implies the management by an outside force, even if the nature or identity of that outside force is known, or even if one believes it is oneself doing the managing. Self-quantification still limits one to instrumental tasks, even in the social realm, and prohibits one from assuming the power-accuring qualitative, charismatic tasks.

7. Leadership means refusing to be quantified.

8. Will Davies argues in this paper about the “Emerging neo-communitarianism” that neoliberalism is a technocratic means to guarantee liberalism’s idea of freedom as rational choice. It’s technocrtatic instrument is quantification to ensure efficiency, which verifies freedom in the way it understands liberalism.

Bureaucrats, teachers, social workers and so many other professionals are all ultimately trusted to take their own decisions in a neoliberal society, but only on the basis that their outputs are made explicit, so that this trust can be reviewed at regular intervals. The liberal faith in individual reason just about survives, but freedom is now located within carefully designed systems of audit and incentive management, which by the 1990s had become collectively referred to as ʻgovernanceʼ. The task of neoliberal government is to quantify the outcomes of social and economic behaviour, such that individuals are able to exercise choice in an informed way, whether inside or outside of markets.

That analysis fits well with my contention that Facebook and other social media are neoliberal policy tools, or how I usually put it, that they prop up neoliberlist ideology and support/constitute neoliberal subjectivity. The point is that quantification is a modality of control more than of information; it is about auditing and not self-empowerment. If you think it is about self-empowerment, that is because you are mistaking self-auditing as not being in service of existing external authorities. Quantification is confessing yourself to the authorities. (Foucault’s view of confession’s function applies here.)

9. Quantifying the self is doing the neoliberal state’s work for it; it’s collaborating rather than resisting. It is making oneself subject to power, circumscribing the space in which one might be free to operate. Instead one inscribes oneself in the space delineated by incentives and targets and goals, all of which are subject to optimization not on the self’s behalf but for the state or the firm.

10. A quantified self is a neoliberal self is a postauthentic self is a data self. (?) It is the sum of information that can be known about itself and processed; its goals are to more precisely quantify itself, elaborate its connections, and perhaps perfect its feedback mechanisms to achieve some short of ecstatic short circuit of self-reflexive identity. Information wants more information. It doesn’t want to be free, it wants to replicate and proliferate. That is, the data self wants to broadcast richer and richer data sets of itself in an attempt to make life more meaningful. It can no longer find meaning through action; it can only be processed into meaning.


3 thoughts on “Quantified self as executive unfitness

  1. Nick Carr

    This is interesting. How much is Zuboff and how much is you (I haven't read the book)?

    In Heidegger's terms, the more you quantify the self, the more you transform the self into standing reserve.

  2. Rob Horning

    Thanks. This is mostly my extrapolation from Zuboff's observations.

    I'm still reading the book; I think it is going to end up arguing that “informating” the workplace need not deskill workers but may allow workers to develop analytic skills and undermine hierarchies, etc.

  3. Carson Salter

    I haven't read it either. The standing-reserve (or 'bestand' resource) nicely describes the situation of a quantified lowly freelancer, eg. But couldn't a “fit” exec also be on-reserve? Like, say, a private equity man, or an efficiency 'consultant' of 30 yrs ago – those external bosses who proudly self-quant in a market setting? – Romney as the quantified standing-reserve-exec de rigueur. When you say “fitness,” …to what?

    looks like Zuboff's interest is in workplace politics?


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