The Trial of Homo Abacus: Security through Calculation

From out of the whirlwind:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

(Job 38: 4-7)

Fate, providence, karma and the “sins of our fathers” are some of the paradigms used to explain disasters – from the micro to the macro. Each paradigm has a certain economy of security – prayer, sacrifice, confession – that wards off (or halts the cycle) of disaster. In this predictive age of the present, however, there is a continual fine-tuning of statistical analyses, scientific measurements, and mathematical models that purport to replace superstitious incantations with scientific exactitude. Prayers are still offered, by some, but like software licensing agreements that are hastily clicked on, earlier economies of security have become a mere formalities. Haollowed practices. Remnants of a simpler past.

Moving away from fatalistic or providential understandings of disaster and toward calculating control has placed human agency at the centre of prediction and prevention. It is not a god that can save or destroy us, but homo abacus. The fallout from recent events such as the Fukushima nuclear plant crisis, Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the L’Aquila earthquake demonstrate this shift.

The scientific community, government inquiries and investigative journalists increasingly place human agency in the centre as the cause and control of disaster.[1] Was the Fukushima plant designed and maintained to withstand a tsunami? Did BP, Transocean and Halliburton cut costs in construction and maintenance in order to increase profits? Why didn’t the scientists of the Major Risks Committee predict the effect of the L’Aquila earthquake? The inability for these scientists to adequately answer this final question resulted in jail sentences “for underestimating an earthquake that killed 309 people in the town of L’Aquila in 2009”.[2]  Although natural events undeniably play a role in these scenarios, contemporary security strategies and discourse position human agency as the crucial point on which attempts to govern unknown futures stand or fall.

The purported obesity epidemic is another example. Although in this instance everyone is expected to adopt the practices of homo abacus – the calculating and measuring human. There are obvious differences between the obesity epidemic and the L’Aquila earthquake or Deepwater Horizon disaster. My point is not that they represent equivalent threats to society, but that a similar rationality is in operation that seeks to govern unpredictable and incalculable events that are entwined with human agency. Just as the L’Aquila earthquake cannot be dismissed as tragic natural disaster beyond human control, the obesity epidemic cannot be dismissed as relatively benign social and biological phenomenon that is plateauing.[3] Rather both have provoked countless experts that are producing knowledge, developing techniques and deploying strategies to govern future unknown threats to population health, safety and economic security.

Further, like the scientists of L’Aquila who stood trial and were sentenced for failing to predict the earthquake, each of us are on trial while simultaneously serving as jurors in the trials of others. Although some more so than others. Counting calories in. Counting calories out. Measuring waist circumference. Assessing daily percentage intake. Weighing bodies. Pinching flesh.  Dividing body mass by the square of height. These are some of homo abacus’s (in)calculable duties that secure the self and others. These are the new incantations of control that make us believe we can prevent the whirlwind and answer any questions it may pose.

[1] Risa Maeda, “Japan Fukushima probe urges new disaster prevention steps, mindset,” Reuters, July 23, 2012; Steven Mufson, “BP, Transocean, Halliburton blamed by presidential Gulf oil spill commission,” Washington Post, January 6, 2011.

[2] Sunanda Creagh, “Researchers alarmed by jail sentence for Italian scientists,” The Conversation, October 23 2012.

[3] Michael Gard, The End of the Obesity Epidemic  (New York: Routledge, 2011)., 168

Inviting Judgement: A Note On Everyday Life, Eating and Smartphone Apps

I recently purchased an iPhone for the purpose of researching an app called The Eatery. According to a review from Time The Eatery “asks you to snap a picture of your food, and provides you with a healthiness meter that rates not just your current meal, but your noshing habits over time”. The stated logic of this app is that others are better at judging the healthiness of your food than you are. Over the past 28 days I have snapped 214 meals. Each meal has been assessed by other users along a spectrum from “fat” to “fit”. An aggregate of the individual meal ratings in a week tells me how I ate in comparison to previous weeks, days and other users. For example, in the week of June 3rd I “ate 73% healthy” which was “4% healthier than last week. Thursday was [my] best day, and Monday was [my] worst day.” The more data the more details. I eat most of my meals at home. My “healthiest” meal was at Korean restaurant. And my “unhealthiest” meal was at my parents.

Of course, there are several significant disconnects in all this:

  1. The description and visual representation of the food is not identical to its actual nutritional content. E.g. A meat pie described “homemade” accompanying a well-lit photo gets a healthier rating than a mere meat pie in a dimly lit room.
  2. The “healthiness meter” does not account for the overall diet. E.g. Mandarins and apples get ratings of 90-99%, yet a diet consisting of only mandarins and apples could not be consider “healthy” let alone 99% healthy.
  3. Nutritional health is valued over Well-being. E.g. This app, like many others emphasises the nutritional function of food. Leaving aside the place of exercise in physiological health, food also plays a significant role in individual and communal well-being. One user put a picture of a piece of chocolate cake with the label “My 16th Birthday Cake”. On the scale of “fat-to-fit” this would rate poorly, but is the “health” of a birthday cake only located in its nutritional value or can it include notions of well-being and hold symbolic importance.

There are many other ways to consider this app and the increasing use of smartphones to measure and quantify life. However one of my primary interests is in the way everyday life is increasingly colonized by dual operation of smartphones and biomedical norms of health. Innocuous habits such as snacking on crackers with peanut-butter are not only judged against purported values of nutritional health but we willing offer up these practices for judgement. Not unlike the penitent turning to the confessional, perhaps we recognise a value in having these activities judged and scrutinized by others.

The allusion to the confessional is not incidental. Michel Foucault writes that Western society has become a confessing society. “One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctors, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else…Western man has become a confessing animal.”[1] There’ll be more on the confession in a future post, but the point I am currently interested in is the attention given to the mundane and quotidian as effective of social and biomedical reality.

Many aspects of The Eatery and other apps that quantify life through measuring everyday habits are not new. Although food, exercise and health-related activities have been made conspicuous but smartphones, these developments are just the most recent in a long history of interrogating and routinising everyday life.

Charles Taylor elucidates some of this history in comparing Aristotelian to Protestant ethics. According to Taylor, “traditional, Aristotelian ethics” regarded ‘ordinary life’ – the life of production and the family – as holding mere “infrastructural importance”, serving as “the necessary background and support to ‘the good life’ of contemplation and one’s action as a citizen”.[2] In the Reformation, Taylor locates “a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life”.[3] Rather than finding the ‘good’ or ‘higher’ life in philosophical contemplation or monastic retreat, Taylor, following Max Weber,[4] argues that ordinary and everyday life becomes a locus for political action and self-understanding. The importance and affirmation of everyday life “becomes one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization” and “colours our whole understanding of what it is truly to respect human life and integrity”.[5]

The measuring and quantifying of everyday habits and health-related behaviors is arguably a continuation of these processes – a secular working on the self that serve (bio) political ends of physical health and longevity rather than salvation in the next life, or in more Calvinist tones evidence election. Instead Th Eatery and practices like it demonstrate a vigilance over ones bodily health and attempt to align the everyday with norms promoted by putative nutrition experts.

In reinforcing the place of the everyday at the centre of the good life, The Eatery contributes to a ressentiment that values nutrition over pleasure or the “high rating” mandarin over the “low rating” celebratory cake. This is not inevitable, although the tide certainly appears to be moving in that direction. However, I contend that new pleasures will respond. Rather than nutrition over pleasure, there will be pleasure and nutrition, binging and purging, and detoxing and retoxing. That is, an agonism of consumption that is both/and not either/or. But more on this another time.

[1] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.59.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.13.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).

[5] Ibid., p.14.

From Mental Illness to Personal Responsibility: A Technological Transformation of Bulimic Purging

The continuing crusade against overweight and obese individuals has taken yet another bizarre and grotesque turn with the unveiling of “AspireAssist”, a personal “stomach pump [that] sucks food out of the user’s belly before the body can fully digest it”.


Such a development is not all that surprising. The so called obesity epidemic has transformed ethical and social norms to position those with bodies, habits or attitudes that represent obesity as fair game – the hunting metaphor is apposite.

The state of emergency that is the obesity epidemic has seen public health advocates earnestly recommend that obese children be placed in foster care, bioethicists argue that obese adults should be stigmatised and discriminated against, and hospital CEOs suggesting it is acceptable to refuse to hire overweight or obese people.

In this milieu of panic and desire for strategies that “really work”, AspireAssist has developed a personal stomach pump. The video on the ABC News website is more detailed, but the clip below is clear enough.

According to AspireAssist it “works by removing a portion of the food from the stomach before it is absorbed”. By using AspireAssist 20mins after eating, the pump removes 30% of the stomachs contents to reduce the amount of calories, nutrients, fats etc absorbed by the body and thereby making the individual slimmer. My interest in AspireAssist is not the extraordinary and ethically questionable attempt to normalize bodies to conform to artificial measurements such as the BMI. But the way this technology transforms a practice that most medical professionals characterise as a mental disorder.

This act of removing the contents of the stomach to achieve the goal  “normal” weight and body image is not dissimilar to bulimia nervosa, a condition that since the 1980s has been regarded as a mental illness. The DSM-IV describes individuals with bulimia nervosa as engaging “in inappropriate behavior to avoid weight gain (e.g., self-induced vomiting), and are overly concerned with body shape and weight. However, unlike individuals with anorexia nervosa, binge-eating/purging type, individuals with bulimia nervosa maintain body weight at or above a minimally normal level.”

For an individual to excuse themselves from the table to go and vomit in the toilet 20mins after sharing a meal with friends would be, according to the DSM-IV,  inappropriate. Such behavior ordinarily invokes social concern and justifies medical intervention. However, the technology of the stomach-pump transforms medically defined deviance (purging) into medically approved compliance. Performing a near identical function to purging, the use of the personal stomach-pump does not incite medical intervention as it is the medical intervention and it does not invoke social concern as it is a response to the social concern of obesity.

AspireAssist’s stomach pump probably won’t become a common tool. The panopticon was not widely implemented either. But like the panopticon, the personal stomach-pump represents a rationality of a specific (bio)political moment in which the bodies of individuals are considered to pose such a threat to the population (and themselves) that spectacular interventions are justified that transform the logics of pathologies into the logics therapies.

The Ethics of Spotify and the Social Determinants of Health

On March 16,  I woke to the news that Jason Molina had died. Molina’s struggles with alcoholism and associated health problems became widely known in 2009. It also became known that his family were struggling to pay his medical bills and that Molina did not have insurance.

Molina’s death is a singular event. It is unique. It is his death. But a feature bears comparison to the deaths of Mark Linkous (2010) and Vic Chestnutt (2009). All three died without health insurance and with financial difficulties. This scenario is not isolated to these three.

Artists like Molina, Linkous and Chestnutt were never chart-toppers, but during the 1990s they developed strong and loyal followings, including the likes of REM, Glenn Hansard, Tom Waits and others.  Despite gaining more exposure into the 2000s, this did not necessarily translate into greater sales or financial security.

A factor, not the cause, but a significant factor in the scenarios surrounding these deaths has been the rise of websites like Spotify or Grooveshark and the decline of musician income from record sales. Arguments about legality of these sites and their impact on the music industry go back and forth. Most consumers minds appear to be made up – there are 24 million users on Spotify, 6 million of which pay $5 or $10.*

My aim here is not to defend the music industry, but connect points whose relationship isn’t immediately apparent. I contend that the decline in artist royalties due to streaming sites is a social determinant of the poor health and life expectancy among artists. And this places an ethical obligation on consumers.

If consumers are only paying approximately $10 a month, but consuming more music than ever before, and artists** are only receiving 0.5-0.7 cents per stream while also living lives that are socially and medically insecure, then it is time to broaden the scope of questions from legality to ethics.

Spotify and other sites like it may be legal, but are they ethical? There is a lot talk about ethical sourcing of coffee beans or the conditions of workers in clothing manufacturers. This is important. But it would be a sad situation if this ethical concern was not also extended to those who produce the music that enriches and shapes our personal and social realities.

Many musicians of lesser fame than Molina struggle to secure basic needs such as medical care or permanent residence. This is part of mythos of the struggling artist, but it is also a reality that has been compounded by developments in music consumption via music streaming websites.

I am not suggesting that consumers necessarily need to stop using Spotify or other websites – although I am not excluding that option either – but they do have an obligation to ensure an equitable and just compensation to the artist. This could be achieved by hearing a song on Spotify and then buying the album directly from an artists website. I am sure there are many more imaginative approaches. But the point is that if we love a song or an album, then we should extend that love to the person that produced it.

* This fee isn’t for the music, but for the privilege of not having advertisements.
**By Artist I mean people who put their lives into their music. People who may have interim jobs but predominately depend on sales of records and concert tickets to live. I am not referring to hobby artists, people who have a profession and some artistic endeavor on the side.