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The work of disobedience

  • 19 May 2017

On a recent trip to Singapore the clan gathered to feast, home-cooked favourites, bought delicacies and new fancies were spread all around us. Sniggers and much head shaking erupted from one corner. Jo, 13, had been caught red-handed by her sibling shaking her Fitbit on the sly.

What used to be fondly dismissed as puppy fat had not shifted and her school had issued the gadget that day to help the child. Tasked with racking up 10,000 steps every day as a key performance indicator (KPI), Jo was told she was being monitored for her sake.

Jo refused to buy into the project and tried instead to game the system. Rebel that I am, my first thought was, 'Good on her for refusing to bow to the powers that be', but it was swiftly followed by noting sadly how encumbered she was by excess weight.

As adults we deal with KPIs every day at work, targets defined apparently for one's benefit so we all know what needs to be achieved if our jobs are to be secured. Sadly, they also determine what, how and where we focus our efforts as these targets are internalised over time.

Helen Nowotny, in The Cunning of Uncertainty, uses the term vorauseilender Gehorsam (literally 'the obedience that runs ahead') to describe this effect because, as she explains it, KPIs 'induce compliance and implicit consensus with what is set out to be achieved'.

Technologies such as databases, algorithms, 'gamified' targets and gadgets that 'datafy' our every state from resting and walking to sleeping and dreaming play an increasing role in the notion of performance. Technology did not invent enumeration but technology cloaks enumeration's intent as benign so disobedience, failure to hit the targets seems like self-harm.

Yet even amid all the anxiety about technology creating job losses, there remain calls for technology, the culprit that killed jobs and replaced them with gigs, to be their saviour.

The issue, though, is not with work but what work is harnessed to. Feminist scholar Kathi Weeks writes in The Problem with Work that 'the willingness to live for and through work renders subjects supremely functional for capitalist purposes'. Yes, a sense of purpose is essential to meaning in life but work as a system that translates our efforts into capital stymies other ways of thinking about work.


"Like 13-year old Jo, Mel rejects the tacit KPI set for her and elects to make work a fraction of her life.