PRINT December 2014

Grégoire Chamayou

Aerial view of the Burning Man festival (Black Rock City, NV, August 29, 2014) captured via a satellite operated by DigitalGlobe, a major provider of satellite imagery whose clients include the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Photo: DigitalGlobe/GeoEye-1.

THIS YEAR, LIKE EVERY OTHER YEAR, brought a crop of indispensable new gadgets, all of which will soon be dispensed with and replaced by newer, more stylish, and equally short-lived objects of consumers’ desire. In September, Apple unveiled its latest must-have weapon in the never-ending fight to vanquish disorder, to manage information, to stay thin in an “obesogenic environment,” to stay on top of things: the Apple Watch, which pairs the functions of a smartphone with those of a “sports bracelet.” It takes your pulse, counts your steps, and measures your pace, while future versions will observe your sleep cycles and possibly monitor your glucose levels, too. Based on these body archives, it can make recommendations for you, set goals for you. The device makes it possible to pay for purchases with a movement of your wrist, gets you oriented, lets you communicate via something ominously called a Taptic Engine (defined in Apple’s marketing copy as “a linear actuator . . . that produces haptic feedback”), and in fact enables the continuous capture of information about almost every beat of your daily life, in all its various dimensions: relational, transactional, spatial, and physiological. The connected watch is the instrument par excellence of an advanced process of datification of the world and of oneself.

A brief etymological history is illustrative here: Unlike the church clock, which, when chiming, made time’s increments audible, a watch made those increments visible; hence its name, which designates it the object of looking. But while a watch is something you watch, the Apple Watch watches you. True, you also watch it watching: On its screen, it displays what it sees, in the form of figures and graphs. This circular relationship is, as we will see, essential to the mechanism. Nevertheless, insofar as it makes you the object, the new device is the inverse of the old timekeeping technology it vestigially resembles. It is the carcass of a watch, in which there has come to reside, as if in the shell of a hermit crab, another being entirely.

As it happens, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of an invention that, while little celebrated, is highly relevant to the history of the connected watch. In 1964, at Harvard, behavioral psychologists (and twin brothers) Ralph and Robert Schwitzgebel developed a “behavioral supervision system with wrist carried transceiver.” The system, tested on young “delinquents,” heralded the electronic bracelet later adopted by the penal system. It was the Schwitzgebels’ dream to replace old incarceration techniques with new technologies of control that would function in an open environment rather than a carceral one. To this end, they imagined a small, portable device capable of recording and transmitting various behavioral facts, including the geographic position of the wearer, as well as data on “pulse, brain waves, consumption of alcohol, or other physiological facts.”1 If the electronic-surveillance recorders signaled risky or prohibited activity, the individual could be located and an intervention made, preferably in a preventive manner.

Automating the remote collection of detailed information on the facts and movements of daily life was about filling an epistemic void: “Although we have daily records of the behavior of volcanoes, of the tides, of sun spots, and of rats and monkeys, there have been few scientific records of . . . how any boy lived his life from the time he awoke in the morning until he went to sleep at night,” psychologists Roger G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright mused wistfully in a 1954 book later cited by the Schwitzgebels.2 Indeed, why wouldn’t the psychologist, like the volcanologist, have his own network of sensors to measure the seismic shifts of behavior, or, like the ethologist, his own array of transponder necklaces to place on the body of (human) animals? It was proposed that this art of remote measurement of human conduct be called anthropotelemetry. But if anthropotelemetric devices were developed with a view to building a huge storehouse of knowledge, knowing was just one facet of the project. The purpose of collecting all this information was, above all, to act on it: “Gathering data in order to affect behavior” is the motto of electronic monitoring.3 “Feedback of information from the record to the patient,”4 it was hoped, would modify behavior more subtly and sustainably than cruder interventions.

The Apple Watch may be seen as a further refinement of this vision of a subtler mode of behavior modification. When the watch exhibits to the subject the graphics of her own activity, she is given her behavior as an object. She is provided with a constantly updated long-term perspective about herself, about her rhythm and her tendencies, with a diagrammatic past and a future that is traced as a line graph. The self, exposed to itself through the visualization of activity reports, can then be engaged in a process of normative transformation that proceeds via operant conditioning—i.e., not merely by instilling Pavlovian reflex in subjects but by making them adjust to a series of rewards or sanctions.

Those who point out the dangers that today’s “behavioral electronics” pose to civil liberties are certainly correct, for it is indeed by connecting to such quotidian datification devices that intelligence agencies and targeted-marketing bureaus intend to fortify their empires. At a conference a year ago, David Gauthier—an official at the NSA’s less famous sibling bureaucracy the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—emphasized the central role that the “daticultural revolution,” i.e., the process of “taking all aspects of life and turning them into data,”5 could play in the development of a new paradigm for intelligence gathering.6 The idea is to intercept and store all the data made available by ubiquitous positioning devices, social media, etc., in order to conduct “activity-based intelligence” (ABI), which focuses not on tracing specific targets but on detecting patterns, congruences, or relevant anomalies within vast tranches of information.

Still virtually unknown to the general public, in intelligence circles ABI is unquestionably ascendant, and so is the NGA, which claims this new paradigm as its natural bailiwick. The agency’s recently appointed director, Robert Cardillo, enthused about ABI in almost philosophical terms this past October, telling a reporter that the methodology would allow analysts “to find meaning in the noise.”7 His predecessor, Letitia A. Long, had sounded positively evangelical when she wrote that ABI was “a new foundation for intelligence analysis.” While analysts had been overwhelmed by “ ‘big and noisy’ data from the huge increase in the number and type of sensors,” ABI would allow them to detect “patterns of life,” to trace “weaker, more dispersed signatures,” and to liberate all the information “‘trapped’ in products, reports, [and] disparate primary sources.”8 Why focus solely on technologies of direct surveillance in a world where people and objects are spontaneously reporting in detail on their own activities, leaving an electronic wake trailing behind them? Just put your ear to the electronic shell and listen to the sound of the ocean of data.

But it might be that the problem is not only that the traces of your private activities are recorded, consulted, and analyzed by third parties without your permission. Just like the Schwitzgebel machine, these things on your wrists do not, in truth, aim only to oversee what you do, what you write, and what you experience but also to modify, in the long term, both your activity and your relationship to that activity. What their genealogy teaches us is that connected bracelets were originally designed as technologies of control and of transformation of behavior, as psychotechnologies—and about that, we should certainly be worried.

Grégoire Chamayou, a research scholar in philosophy at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, is the author of A Theory of the Drone (forthcoming from The New Press in January 2015) and Manhunts: A Philosophical History (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.


1. “Anthropotelemetry: Dr. Schwitzgebel’s Machine,” Harvard Law Review 80, no. 2 (December 1966): 409.

2. Roger G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright, Midwest and Its Children: The Psychological Ecology of an American Town (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1954), 2–3, cited in Ralph Schwitzgebel, Robert Schwitzgebel, Walter N. Pahnke, and William Sprech Hurd, “A Program of Research in Behavioral Electronics,” Behavioral Science 9, no. 3 (1964): 234.

3. See Mike Nellis, “Electronic Monitoring of Offenders: Ethics, Policy and Technology” (paper presented at the Confederation of European Probation Electronic Monitoring Conference, Egmond aan Zee, the Netherlands, May 7, 2009).

4. Behavior Therapy with Children, ed. Anthony M. Graziano (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2009), 60.

5. Kenneth Neil Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, “The Rise of Big Data,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 3 (May/June 2013).

6. David Gauthier, “Activity-Based Intelligence: NGA Initiatives” (paper presented at the Next Generation ISR Symposium, Washington, DC, December 10, 2013).

7. Jack Moore, “The Quiet Rise of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,” Defense One, October 6, 2014.

8. Letitia A. Long, “Activity Based Intelligence: Understanding the Unknown,” The Intelligencer: Journal of US Intelligence Studies 20, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2013): 8.