‘Computable bodies: Instrumented Life and the Human Somatic Niche’ reviewed by Dr Fenneke Sysling

‘Computable Bodies: Instrumented Life and the Human Somatic Niche’ by Josh Berson (Bloomsbury, 2015).

9781472530349Josh Berson, an anthropologist and design researcher, as he calls himself, has written one of the first books in a wave of publications that now start to reflect on recent technological developments: the fact that we can now track our sleep or count the number of steps we take and the fact that surveillance cameras can recognise our emotions. ‘Computable Bodies’ is a study of how technology influences our bodily experience. The book is not about illness, the practice of medicine, or health care, although the author does include a personal reflection on how his own broken foot influenced his body movements. Rather, it is a book about embodied human nature in an era of activity trackers, smart glasses and cameras with face recognition.

Central to the book is the question how technology changes the ways we calibrate the movements of our body, or in Berson’s words: does a world saturated by human data ‘have a distinct somesthetic and kinaesthetic character, does it foster distinct habits of movement, posture, and display?’ (p. 123).

His answer is not very surprising: technology makes ‘some features of behaviour and modes of quantification more visible and others less so’ (p. 123). What becomes more visible depends on the technology: Berson argues that surveillance cameras favour the full-frontal face over the rest of the body and over other poses, and that the Quantified Self movement – of individuals who love digital self-tracking devices – emphasises performance over other experiences and ‘self’ over the community.

But that conclusion comes after a fascinating reflection on what a body is and how we hold and move and feel and are aware of it. Berson’s method is what he calls in one of the last pages ‘somatic anthropology’ (p. 132) and it is at the same time auto-ethnography and theoretical reflection. We get to know Berson when he describes how he broke his foot, went through a depression, had no idea where he was going to live the next month and became friends with Puredoxyk, a polyphasic sleeper who sleeps only in twenty minute naps, one nap every four hours. His prose reflects this approach and is a mix of theory alternated with more popular statements, such as ‘we need a phenomenology of jet lag’ (p. 95).

Berson’s intervention in the literature is by combining a theory of niche construction with ideas about the body and technology. In Chapter Five, he develops the case for a bodily dimension of niche construction. The concept of niche construction comes from evolutionary theory, and refers to the process in which humans (and other organisms too) shape their own environment (niche) and adapt to those changes in turn. Berson emphasises that as we build our technological environment, it in turn changes how we experience our bodies and that is a refreshing interdisciplinary viewpoint, although I do not think the evolutionary aspects of how we hold our bodies add much to the argument. Sentences such as ‘Animals were the screen on which humans first projected their budding interiority’ (p. 76) are imaginative but not very substantial.

That is characteristic of some of the other sections and chapters as well, which provide entry points for thinking about the body but are sometimes more vignettes than building blocks for the main argument. Berson’s interests bring the reader from the difference between the kinaesthetic vibe in Berlin and Paris to reflections on dancing, mood cycles and the Quantified Self community. The chapter ‘Faces,’ for example, is about face-making and surveillance cameras – by now a well-known academic topic. Berson suggests that surveillance creates a new somatic niche in which ‘frontality’ is becoming the norm. He probes the issue of frontality by including cases of YouTube videos and historical photographs of indigenous Australians and describes how computers detect human social signals by analysing micro-expressions. At the end of the chapter I would have liked to read a little more about the implications of the new norm.

For those in the medical humanities, the chapter ‘Bodies’ is probably the most interesting. Borrowing from, among others, theorists of urban space, Berson describes the body in terms of movement. The body, according to him, is a configurational phenomenon with a fine-grained responsiveness to other things and beings but also to our own proprioception, our awareness of our own body and its movements. That is a dynamic process of ongoing recalibration, a choreography that humans are doing 24/7 and that we are only aware of once we are seated in an airplane with hundreds of others for hours and hours.

Technology, according to Berson, changes how we ‘know our bodies and those of other moving presences and in how we experience the flow of matter, energy, and information across the interfaces that bind self, other, and environment’ (p. 44). In the preface, Berson even says that the new technologies produce a ‘new entente between surveillance and self-awareness’ in which it becomes meaningless to ‘distinguish between seeing ourselves from within and seeing ourselves from without’ (p. x). In this book, the reader is presented with many stimulating thoughts, but does not get a full answer to what exactly that sentence means. ‘Computing bodies’ is not for the general public, but is recommended for anyone interested in technology and in what it means to have/be a body.

Reviewed by Fenneke Sysling, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utrecht, specialising in the history of the body and the history of science and technology. She published a book on the racialized body in colonial Indonesia and has recently started a new project on the history of self-tracking.

Correspondence to Dr Fenneke Sysling.

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