We’ve all been there. Sweaty palms, racing heart, left eye that winks at involuntary intervals. You’re emotionally fraught and having a physiological response. It could be an upcoming exam, a big presentation, or that one friend who can’t stop telling you about their fantastic job/spouse/kids/new shoes while wondering out loud how you manage living in such messy quarters.
Our bodies are key sources of information and guidance. Bodied reactions, coupled with culturally situated reflexive analyses, help us make sense of day-to-day events and make behavioral decisions. Feel like you’re going to vomit every time that colleague stops by your office? Maybe they’re toxic. Maybe you’re in love. The bodily response prompts you to do something, and how you interpret that response tells you what that something is.
This relationship between bodily responses, their interpretation, and potential behavioral outcomes, is the principle behind self-quantification, or the tracking of bodily trends for the purpose of self-reflection and aspirational change. Self-quantification relies on a host of technological devices, each of which measures, reports, and aggregates body-data, helping the quantifier tell hirself a story, about hirself. Although self-quantification often pertains to physical health, many use tracking technologies to record variations in affect and mood.
A new iOS app extends this logic, and helps quantifiers tell themselves stories about themselves, in affective relation to specific others. The pplkpr (people keeper) uses a smartwatch to measure a user’s heart rate, employing subtle changes to identify emotional states. When triggered by a change, the app prompts the user to record who they were with and how that person was making them feel. The app then aggregates this information, revealing who is calming, toxic, or arousing. Based on this information, it initiates messages and invitations to those who make the user feel “good,” and blocks those who make the user feel “bad.” From the app’s website:
pplkpr implements a complex metric called “heart rate variability” that uses subtle changes in heart rhythm to determine your emotional state. This data is correlated with the people you interact with to determine who should be auto-scheduled into your life and who should be removed.
In short, the app treats bodily flows as raw data, which it translates into an ostensibly meaningful report. The app uses these data to quantify the affective experiences of users’ relationships, and pushes users into “healthy” pairings. But it does more than this. It does not just push users to reflect on relationships and make tangible moves on the user’s behalf (though it certainly does both of these things), it also becomes part of the relationship dynamic; it produces those relationships that it helps the user analyze. And this productive force relies upon a particular set of values and assumptions, built into the device in the form of diagnostic criteria. Anxiety is to be avoided; calmness and arousal sought out.
That is, pplkpr is a definitively prosumptive technology, and one with a deeply valued agenda. The user both produces and consumes hir data, and with this, produces and consumes relationship meanings. The pplkpr forces the user to confront hir bodied reactions—but only those bodied reactions deemed relevant by the app developers—interpret them, and act towards them in some way. That way may be to acquiesce to the data, or resist its message, but the data seeps into relationships with an inevitable shaping effect.
If we are already data-selves, with pplkpr, we create a data-us; our relationships tied to calculable metrics, and these metrics granted legitimacy and authority—A heart flutter or it isn’t love.
The implications of metric-based relationship evaluation are widespread and certainly extend outside the bounds of my speculation. Perhaps it will improve widespread mental health and abusive relationships will become a thing of the past. Perhaps we’ll all become wooden dopes, incapable of feeling outside of our numbers. Probably nothing as extreme as either of these scenarios will come to pass. I do know that it all exposes an interesting tension, one in which truth is found in data, produced with, but not directly through, the body.
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*An excellent student brought pplkpr to my attention. Thank goodness for regular access to college students.