On the Elegant Cyborg

[In light of new thoughts since originally writing this I will be posting an update shortly to this site.]

‘Wearables’ or even wearable technology are slightly misleading terms. We wear technology or the products of technology close to our skin all the time. Nearly all of us consume technology or the products of technology all the time, we have modified, created and shaped our environment through technology. We are all, as Donna Haraway has stated, Cyborgs.

What is new is the connection between elements of technology and how you can wear new technology close to your skin and it can both respond and communicate how your body is reacting. Partner that with the network of wireless communications and the Internet of Things and once again we are radically changing our environment.

As such we can define wearable technology as a collection of sensor and communication technologies that have been packaged into physical format that allows for easy carrying by an individual. You could extend this definition to the mobile phone, which in the shape of the ‘Smart Phone’ is a complex computational and communication device. This description also easily encompasses the latest, marketed technologies such as Google Glass, or the activity trackers such as Nike+, or UP 24.

These new wearable technologies are different in other ways as well. Whereas before the technology would most likely be a medical intervention, from vision correction via glasses, contact lenses or even laser sculpting of the actual eye lens, through to other bio-mechanical prostethics through to the use of pharmaceuticals, the current batch of wearable technologies fall (at least initially or predominantly) on the other side of what we are calling the prescription filter.

The prescription filter is a lens through which we can view the different technologies and how the decisions are made that allows them into our bodies. Classic medical interventions are often through the lens or filer of some kind of medical professional. This could be embodied by a Public Health Service or a private doctor but there would be a set of criteria that would either allow or suggest the use of these technologies.

On the other side there is a self-prescriptive filter, where the individual decides to use one of these new technologies. Whereas the medical filter is usually predicated on keeping the individual either alive or better able to interact with the rest of society according to set norms (hearing aid, corrected vision) , the self-prescribed route can be seen as one of enhancement.

‘I wish to improve X and technology Y says it can help do that.’

The decision to wear an activity tracker is not, usually, directly associated with a medical decision. The individual may feel the need to be more active or get healthy in some more general way and decide that using such a device is the way to help them do this. The questions and inputs that lead to the acquiring and use of wearable technology through the self-prescriptive filter are different from those through the medical-professional one.

Of course some of the technologies could be prescribed by either of these filters. A medical professional may ‘prescribe’ an activity tracker to help them monitor a patient for example. Here though questions can be raised about the privacy and providence of the data. If a doctor prescribes  a blood pressure monitor that works with the individual smart phone to capture and upload the data to a secure place to be shared with the doctor, who provides that service and how is it paid for? Whilst it is currently highly unlikely that a Nationalised Health Service would currently do this, it is not inconceivable that a private medical practitioner could. Would the device and service they use be one that has been developed specifically for use by the medical profession or would they use a more ‘off the shelf’ service? Would it be clear to the individual concerned what is happening to their data.

Can you describe possible ‘data side effects’ in using wearable technologies?

The ‘Elegant Cyborg’ is a research project being carried out by geekyoto. It is an umbrella of projects, thoughts and ideas that contribute to the dialogue around the position of the cyborg and communication politics. The overall project aims to use some of the existing language and tools that are being used and developed to critique network infrastructure to be able to examine the more specific case of wearable technology. The Elegant Cyborg project aligns itself with the Stacktivism ‘movement’ as a way of examining the modern landscape. These new wearable technologies are mostly developed by the Stacks, or with the goal of becoming acquired by one of the Stacks and thus designed with the Stack philosophy in mind. They are reliant on the infrastructure that is either created, maintained or being co-opted by these corporate entities.

An Elegant Cyborg is one that understands how their data flows, what the chains of production are and the infrastructures are that enables their technology to work and to be mindful of the political and social implications of these components. An Elegant Cyborg should also, possibly, be aware of when to stop. Stop recording and sharing, when the data is becoming noise and the signal, the reason for the intervention in the first place is getting lost.

Mapping the Cyborg, the first project in the elegant cyborg project is using SCIM to map the position of the human in the data flows around these wearable technologies. Its aim is to use the SCIM framework and develop visual maps to show how the data flows from the individual to the ‘Stack’ through the wearable the network.

The initial visualisations attempt to show the individual and the two filters spoken about, medical professional and self prescriptive. Whilst we are currently focusing on the spec prescriptive side as this is the place that the Stacks most obviously operate, what is also interesting is the fact that the medical professional filter also shows the flows of information through to big, global, corporate entities. The space of public health institutions, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and governments creates a web just as complex as the new webs that are being exposed on the side where the stacks operate.

These visualisations will help us uncover areas for further research, to develop new approaches on how we communicate to potential users of these technologies what the flows and implications of these flows of data could mean. A critical toolkit that allows both the designers and users of new wearable technology is vital in being active participants in a democratic, digital society. Developing a way to be digitally polite around your friends, neighbours and everyone else is vital. Otherwise we run the risk of subsuming ourselves into a loud, brash and uncontrolled environment that is driven purely by the philosophy of the Stacks.

Stacktivism, Stacks and SCIM?

Stacktivism is the critical study of the Stacks, as coined by Bruce Sterling. The Stacks are the new corporate style entities, global, highly technically integrated capital systems. They collect data from everywhere they can get it, they process, package, mine and try and turn this data into a capital asset.

They deal in you. You are a part of the network and environment onto which they have mapped their capital model.

The cyborg has always been attached to the institutions, governments and other entities and as such, to examine the cyborg one has to also examine the political systems as much as the technical ones.

Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps were developed to evaluate personal and social resilience and is used by Stacktivism to help visualise and understand the political and social analysis of the infrastructure of the modern world.

Updates on the Elegant Cyborg project are posted at http://www.geekyoto.com/?cat=48


[This article was written as a contribution to Connected, The Internet of Things Quaterly for the second issue on wearables]

[It has been pointed out that Benjamin Bratton coined the term Stacks in the context it is referred to here, which was picked up and popularised by Sterling. Not coined by Sterling as I state in the text].