Self-optimisation in the service of what?

Lorenzo Ravagli

We, that is the users or customers. People, then, who in the name of optimisation are integrated into a globally networked system once they have entered into the hell of the digital economy through registration and the acquisition of certain products. I’m talking here about the fitness industry and its promise of salvation. Although it represents only one aspect of that biopolitical ideology which holds our enlightened societies in its clutches, it is particularly well suited as an example because it represents the avant-garde of a development which will sooner or later deal the deathblow to our civil liberties.

Nowhere can the conditions and excesses of generally praised self-optimisation be better observed than where we are dealing with the enhancement of physical and intellectual performance. No more than a few hundred euros are required to invest in the acquisition of a fitness band or a watch with fitness functions in order to integrate ourselves as users into the ranks of those millions who subject themselves to the permanent dictates of activation. The more functions it has, the more expensive it is – but also: the better. The only question is, better for whom?

These instruments of self-measurement are indeed pitched with the promise that they will improve us. And who would question that it is better to be healthier rather than sicker? What, then, prevents us from joining the globally networked fitness community other than perhaps the high entry price or laziness? The fitness industry is surfing on a wave which is driven by the deepest longings of secularised subjects: the hope for paradise on earth. If this life is all we have and there isn’t any kind of prospect of an afterlife, then the conditions of this life acquire an exponential value, which does indeed promise paradisiacal profits. And since the generations, even if they are in themselves finite, continue to propagate, the self-optimising subject focused on this life is something like the perpetual motion machine of capitalism.

Smart through the world

So let us buy a smartwatch or smartphone – for without these smart devices we belong to the “mass of perdition” (Augustine) which sentences itself to lingering decline consisting of a low fitness level and scandalous lactate threshold. In addition we require an app which we have to download to our smartphone – as a free bonus gift – which is the crucial instrument for monitoring ourselves. And of course it makes sense to acquire a nutrition app, preferably as a subscription, because what is the use of the best fitness training if we constantly negate its benefits through the wrong diet? 

That, thus equipped, we are on the right side is shown by the health corporations which grant whopping discounts for the use of such apps and the faithful sharing of data which they collect. Our caring state also supports our motivation through friendly nudging in that it bans smoking in public spaces, advises against regular drinking, and in general prohibits everything that is fun. Once we have acquired these smart devices – and our four walls are also meanwhile being upgraded into smart homes – there is nothing any longer to stop us getting going, other than perhaps the complexity of the devices themselves with their nested menus and buttons, their touchscreens which cannot be used with gloves on, or their dependence on a regular power supply and a mobile network which mostly fails where we need it most: out in nature where are supposed to make ourselves fit. But ignoring not-spots for a minute, these are obstacles which can, in principle, be overcome.

Monitoring unto death

Once we have installed all we need and linked all the different devices with one another, the laptop and the website of the service provider, nothing any longer stands in the way of the revelations gushing relentlessly out of the little intelligent powerhouses. They really do possess frightening abilities. They monitor us day and night, 24/7, over weeks, months and years until, despite all self-optimisation, we bite the dust. And – apart from our thoughts, at least superficially – they monitor everything: when we get up, when we go to sleep, the quality of our sleep, the number of our steps, the routes we take in the course of the day, our heart rate, our respiratory rhythm, the oxygen supply to our brain, our sporting activity, in short, the total physical and physiological states and processes in our life.

And as far as our thoughts are concerned, even these can be revealed to a certain extent by means of smart algorithms. After all, the values that are measured show how we structure our day, the decisions we take, whether or not we are doing something sedentary, whether we have the strength of will to persevere in a training programme or not. 

And that is by  no means all. As long as we agree to share our data, we can link with the user community and subscribe to challenges through which we measure ourselves against others. Thus competition, the second element of the extrinsic motivation system which dominates everything, is also taken care of. Millions of other fitness enthusiasts thus have access to the way we lead our private lives, our state of health, our likes and dislikes. We are familiar with the same kind of thing from Facebook, but this asocial network does not by a long way access our physiological states in the way that a fitness app does. If additionally we feed the health app, which of course has to be fed by the fitness app, with our dietary habits, nothing any longer stands in the way of the smart exploration of our lives. 

There is not much left that separates us from the totalitarian surveillance state. At the moment it is still private business which is investigating us. But it will not presumably take much longer until, as a result of economic pressures, the healthcare system is privatised or completely nationalised – which ultimately amounts to the same thing because then the permanent monitoring of our state of health will be mandatory or turned into a voluntary obligation with the help of economic incentive systems which make refusal  simply unaffordable or a privilege of the rich.

In small steps we are being accustomed smartly to the realisation of our worst nightmares. What we fail to notice, is that with every app and gadget we use for questionable gain we give up a piece of our freedom.

About the author: Lorenzo Ravagli is an editor of Erziehungskunst. He also runs a blog: