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The Moral Economy of Gestures

Sat, September 2, 9:00 to 10:30am, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Gardner B


"In the future,” announces Beau at a regional conference for developers of sensor-enabled devices, “we will live in a frictionless world” as he flips to the next slide of his presentation deck with the words “New Normal” emblazoned across an image of a crowded urban scene. This has become a commonplace vision of a data-driven world. How should we understand the proposition that the role of wearable and sensor technology is to deliver a friction-free experience? For this purpose, I propose the working phrase: moral economy of gestures. This expression builds on Anna Tsing’s “economy of appearances,” a concept she invokes to think about capitalism’s many performances, presentations, and screens. But it also echoes Oksana Bulgakowa’s “factory of gestures.” Bulgakowa’s work explores how period technologies have helped construct and shape a new Soviet body. Here, the expression helps me to connect the training of the body performed by contemporary wearable technology with the somatic training that first originated on the late 19th century factory floor. In touching on this historiography I think through both the connections and discontinuities between turn-of-the-century projects of scientific management and contemporary self-tracking, following as I do so STS scholars who have long considered the multiple entanglements between technology and bodies. In particular, building on my ethnographic research with wearable device makers and self-tracking practitioners, I explore how contemporary technology that aims to synchronize digital flows with the flows of hands, limbs, and bodies connects with the demands of the “gig economy” that increasingly calls for a flexible, agile body capable of going along with the flow.