On tech

Just read Edward Mendelson’s excellent NYRB essay, “In the Depths of the Digital Age,” in which he cites Bernard Harcourt: “In place of the medieval idea of the king’s two bodies—the king’s royal powers derived from heaven and his natural self—Harcourt proposes the two bodies of ‘the liberal democratic citizen…: the now permanent digital self, which we are etching into the virtual cloud with every click and tap, and our mortal analog selves, which seem by contrast to be fading like the color on a Polaroid instant photo.’ ”

It would be interesting to consider and discuss the burgeoning of today’s physical practices, and the new asceticisms they have engendered, as a response to our increasingly robust digital selves. This would not be a new phenomenon: various fitness practices, from gymnastics to sport, arose in the early 19th century in response to the technologies of the Industrial Revolution and to the new sedentary jobs, like being a clerk, that became more prevalent in newly growing urban areas.

Mendelson continues: “Meanwhile, the body is taught to find new extensions of itself. Apple, Samsung, and others foresee great profits in systems that use sensors in a “smart watch” or wristband to record the wearer’s physiological data for corporate processing. Software can now tell you how well you slept last night, supplementing your subjective sense of yourself with reliably objective measurements, and subtly outsourcing your everyday bodily senses in a different way from, for example, an annual blood test. No one has offered a clear idea of the effects of such procedures.”

True: no one has yet surveyed the effects of these procedures. It seems to me there are two broad ways of approaching the phenomenon, and they are not mutually exclusive. One is takes a Foucaultian angle, seeing in these procedures of self-discipline and self-care a type of submission, of self-monitoring imposed by proxy by a corporate power structure. The other views these procedures as efforts of self-knowledge and a means of self-creation. Both perspectives partake of the truth; each needs to be explored in more depth.

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