Friday, July 15, 2016

The Gamification of Everyday Life, Self Care, and Neoliberal Shortfallings: What Has Pokemon Go Done for You Lately?

I have a confession: I kind of suck at maternity leave. My son is eight weeks old now, and this is officially the longest I have gone since I was 15 years old without working. I still have a little over a month before I am back to teaching, and I'm staring down those days with something like dread mixed with something like willful determination. It's like I am preparing to run a particularly grueling marathon course instead of spending a blissful month snuggling with my children and making precious memories. That means that on top of feeling overwhelmed by the task, I also have to feel guilty about feeling overwhelmed. After all, getting this much time off is a privilege that many parents are denied. And isn't this motherhood gig supposed to be the most important job of all? Does the fact that thinking of another month of all of this togetherness makes my throat tighten and my chest hurt mean I don't love my kids enough?

But it's not really togetherness that's bothering me. In fact, it's quite the opposite, and I think that I'm starting to place that panic into a larger philosophical context.

At some point (fairly early in the process), maternity leave started to feel like a giant self-care project. It's a time to "get your body back" and make home cooked meals, a time to "nest" by decorating the house, and it's a space for building perfect and unshakable familial bonds.

Of course, maternity leave is not a vacation (as the backlash to that awful "me-ternity" article a few months ago made clear). I think that's the part that is the hardest for me. This time "off" is time that is supposed to be spent hard at work on all of these projects of self-fulfillment, and some of these projects of self-fulfillment feel pretty hollow and, to be frank, like bullshit. It's within this personal context that I came to read Laurie Penny's "Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless."


Penny is trying to tease out some tension between neoliberal notions of self care as a numbing salve for the pain of late capitalism and the fact that (even if we are coming together and sticking it to The Man) we do actually need to take care of ourselves. Her essay is worth a read in its entirety, but I'm just pulling out an early foundational piece of it to build on here. Penny situates our culture's current obsession with self care (which she epitomizes through Instagram gurus who post pictures of themselves doing yoga on beaches and drinking kale smoothies) within political power structures: "There is an obvious political dimension to the claim that wellbeing, with the right attitude, can be produced spontaneously." It's a tried and true method to keep the masses complacent and compliant to convince them that their happiness (and thus also their misery) is of their own making.
The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are. 
Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.
Our narratives of self-care (buy this supplemental powder, join this gym, pay for this retreat) are deeply embedded in capitalist pursuits. They're embedded so deeply that even rejecting them often falls into the same system. Take, for example, this post from Nia Shanks that promises to be a "Bullshit Free" way of approaching health and fitness. She promises to do away with the gimmicks and expensive lies of supplements and magic fixes for body modification. If her minimalist approach speaks to you, you can buy her "Train to Be Awesome" guide or enroll in her "Fit Like a Girl Fat Loss Program." You can pay someone to tell you how to stop paying other people to tell you how to be the best version of yourself.

I'm not even necessarily pointing that out to criticize Shanks (or the thousands like her who are using body positivity and self-love as buzzwords to generate profit). I'd even venture to guess that most of those people are sincere about their belief that we need to cast off the yoke of Big Fitness and Big Pharma and Big Diet in order to better pursue health. The fact that they enact that belief by creating books and programs they can package and sell might seem contradictory, but it is a symptom of just how embedded our notions of self-care as individual "projects" really are.

Chris Maisano writes in his article "Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul" that "neoliberalism has radically transformed our sense of self. . . . the assault on working-class organizations and living standards has led many young adults to adopt a profoundly individualistic and therapeutic view of the world and their personal development." His conclusion is that "only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken." Meanwhile, all of these self-care project gurus are offering us "solitary bowls of chicken soup" for our damaged souls.

Are we so conditioned by our capitalist overlords to see the world through an individualistic lens that we have lost the ability to see all of the other tortured chicken soup-gulping souls around us as potential allies and friends? Are we about to hit the peak of the "bowling alone" phenomenon? (And did this pervasive loneliness cause the rise of Donald Trump?) Will we soon just be tiny disconnected islands staring into our glowing screens while Amazon's robots deliver us groceries so that we never even have to leave our houses?

(I know what you're thinking. Hey! Didn't you say this was going to be about Pokemon in the title? Was this a trap?! Hold on. I'm getting there.)

In an interview with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the merger of technology with this radically individual notion of self care brings up something that I find fascinating: we may be going full circle.

Vaidhyanathan explains that the major tech companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple) are all competing to become the "operating systems of our lives." He goes on to say:
It’s going to be a closed system, not an open system. . . . It’s actually about our bodies. The reason that watches and glasses and cars are important is that they lie on and carry human bodies. What we’re really seeing is the full embeddedness of human bodies and human motion in these data streams and the full connectivity of these data streams to the human body.
He envisions a world in which every decision and action is embedded into this connected system and our choices are outsourced, ultimately determined by the companies that have partnered with these systems and the influence they have. He is concerned:
We’re accepting short-term convenience, a rather trivial reward, and deferring long-term harms. Those harms include a loss of autonomy, a loss of privacy and perhaps even a loss of dignity at some point. ... Right now, what I am concerned about is the notion that we’re all plugging into these data streams and deciding to allow other companies to manage our decisions. We’re letting Facebook manage what we get to see and which friends we get to interact with.

I started this post by discussing the very grave concerns about a culture of too much individualism. The problem with this kind of individualism is that it blinds us to the social systems in which we exist and the responsibility we have to the other people with whom we are connected. This is why saying "Black Lives Matters" infuriates some people. They counter with "All Lives Matter" which sounds collective and inclusionary but is actually a way of saying "My Life Matters, Individually" and, by extension, "Your Life Only Matters Individually as Well." They are threatened by "Black Lives Matter" because it suggests a community of people who are coming together to insist that we examine the way systemic policies and collective actions are impacting them. Admitting that we need to focus on "Black Lives" instead of each individual life is admitting that we really aren't just individuals getting to determine our own success and failure, admitting that maybe our success wasn't entirely earned and that we did indeed benefit from systems of white supremacy or class privilege and on the other side that maybe someone else's struggle isn't just a sign of their individual weakness but a marker of the ways they have been systematically denied access to opportunity.

That's a scary proposition for someone who has become fully invested in the individualistic notion of self care. Blending some expensive supplement powder into our kale smoothies is a lot easier than trying to dismantle a system of institutional inequality.

But by the end of that line of thinking, I had gotten to someone who fears a complete loss of individuality, a world in which we make no decisions for ourselves and one in which giant corporations use out networked connection to turn us into consuming automatons whose choices are no longer our own.

It's not that one of these fears is valid and the other isn't. We exist in a world where too much individualism and too much collectivism are both a threat. I think that we're quickly approaching a very kairotic moment where these two are going to overlap: the absolute individual with the absolute collective. And I think that a clear place to see the struggle that overlap causes (and its potential) is in the gamification of everyday life.

There is a lot of gamification in my everyday tasks. Walking has become gamified through Fitbit and Pokemon Go. Shopping has become gamified through Target's Cartwheel app. I can earn badges for listening to books on Audible.

Each of these instances represents a place where the individual and the collective are crashing into one another. Tracking how many steps I take in a day on a Fitbit is a wholly individual endeavor. Earning badges for the most steps I have ever taken in a day or the distance I have traveled in the time I have been using the device is an individual accomplishment. But using a Fitbit without using the collective features isn't much fun. The way that it encourages people to move more is through collective competition and encouragement.

Pokemon Go has gotten a lot of criticism for further entrenching us into an individualistic mindset. It can be jarring to see a bunch of people wandering around with their faces buried in a screen. It's a good visual metaphor for the biggest fears of individualism: we will be so consumed by our own concerns that we won't even recognize there is a world around us.

But that's not what's actually happening. Pokemon Go has quickly become one of the most popular apps of all time, and with that many people playing simultaneously, we have the chance to see what this crash between individual and collective through technology can really look like.

And what does it look like? Kind of a beautiful mess.

It has been used to promote messages of love and equality by targeting the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, sell more pizzas, give small businesses a chance to up their foot traffic, and register voters.

It has connected random people together on the streets of New York and given autistic children a way to connect more easily.

Animal shelters are using it to get people to help walk dogs, and police are using it to connect to the communities they patrol.

Not all of the stories have been positive, of course. There have been reports of people using the game to plan robberies, and some of the sites marked as Pokestops are not happy with the designation and the crowds it has brought to otherwise solemn places.

But the one thing that all of the stories have in common is that the interaction between individual and collective is highlighted through the games. People are talking to each other face-to-face because of the game when they get out of their houses and bump into one another (perhaps literally, as we forget to look up from our screens). People are putting Pokemon "lures" on places like children's hospitals in acts of goodwill. We're finding local businesses and landmarks we may have never seen before. (I've personally found three murals I didn't know existed in my own neighborhood thanks to the game.)

All of this to say, there is enough of both individualism and communalism to go around. We do not need to be so lulled by the promise of individualism in the face of seemingly insurmountable social ills that we forget other people exist. Nor do we need to become so enmeshed in the collective that we lose individual autonomy and let corporations choose our lifestyles for us. There is another option, and it's not so much a "middle ground" as it is a constant push and pull between the extremes that will overlap just as Pokemon Go has done.

We've been presented with a dichotomy of individualism and collective as if we must constantly be on a trajectory inevitably ending with complete submission to one or the other, but that is overly simplistic and ignores the collisions between those extremes.

It's in these collisions that we have the chance to escape the dystopian outcomes of either. And it makes me feel optimistic that some of the collisions can be pretty fun.

Images: Jeffreyw, charliepatrick

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