“Hacking Your Body”: Femtech’s Self-Tracking as a (Re)productive and Biopolitical Practice in the Neoliberal Era

by Fé Versteeg
2535 words





“Hacking Your Body”: Femtech’s Self-Tracking as a (Re)productive and Biopolitical Practice in the Neoliberal Era

Fé Versteeg

HUM211: Late Modernity

Word Count: 2535


Femtech is often lauded for being a “long-overdue corrective” to a technology industry dominated and tailored towards men. Yet whilst the apps that fall under the category of femtech purport to “empower” its users, this paper argues that the apps make their users more, rather than less, vulnerable through the commodification of their data and the exclusion of certain identities. In fact, this paper argues femtech apps have the dual objective of reinforcing the existing power structures of neoliberal capitalism. It outlines how femtech apps drive capital accumulation both as a productive force, and as a supplement to reproductive labour. Finally, the paper explores the biopolitics of femtech, and how it reinforces the corporate and entrepreneurial logics of neoliberal capitalism. 

           At the top of the download charts, the bright-pink smartphone application Flo draws attention with the claim that it enables “you [to] take control of your health and learn more about your unique self” (“Flo Period and Ovulation Tracker”, 2019, §1 as cited by Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). Along with other fertility and menstrual tracking apps, Flo falls under a hyper-popular category of software called “femtech” (Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). Femtech apps are designed to “empower” their users by improving their self-knowledge and, as prefaced by Flo’s description, enabling them to take control over their own bodies (Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). This demystification of the body operates through the conversion of self-tracked information into data, which the algorithms of the apps compare and analyse to generate explanations, projections and solutions (Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). In addition to details on menstruation, this self-tracked information often includes physical, emotional, and social experiences which femtech users are encouraged to log daily.

            Femtech has been lauded as a “long-overdue corrective” to a technology industry long dominated by and tailored towards men (Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). In reality, the apps do little to empower women, and rather reinforce the existing power structures of neoliberal capitalism. In fact, this paper illustrates how femtech apps are an instrument for capital accumulation both as a productive force, and as a supplement to reproductive activity. It discusses how femtech technologies make its users more, rather than less, vulnerable through commodification and alienation. Lastly, it explores the biopolitical side of femtech, and how the apps reinforce the corporate and entrepreneurial logic of neoliberalism.

            Whilst logging intimate information on femtech platforms is often seen as a means towards “self-knowledge” and “self-improvement” unrelated to the employment relationship, it is in fact a capital accumulation-driving activity (Ewen, 2017, p. 237). Like others investigating the interrelation between digital activity and capital, McEwen (2017) builds her notion of digital self-tracking as “productive for capital” on Marx's basic argument that under capitalism, surplus-value is created through the exploitation of labour power: as surplus-value requires selling a commodity for more than it costs to produce it, it is necessary the capitalist pays the worker less than the value her labour produces (p. 237, 238). In this context, self-tracking on femtech platforms is also a surplus-generating labour activity: companies extract value from its unwaged performance through multiple pathways, of which most profitable is the harvesting and selling of self-tracked data to third parties, who proceed to use this data mainly for marketing and advertising purposes (Roetmans, 2020, p. 2; McEwen, 2017, p. 238). As such, the logging of information such as mood, menstruation and physical activity on femtech platforms can be conceived as a form of unwaged “digital labour”, generating data that can be sold as a commodity (p. 238). Drawing on Jarrett (2016), McEwen further finds that this notion of “digital labour” can especially be understood in the framework of the “social factory”, an Autonomist Marxist concept that describes the post-Fordist relations by which “various life processes, once deemed exterior to the commodity relation, have become integral to the economic calculations of capital” (Jarrett 2016, p. 140, as cited by McEwen, 2017, p. 238). In other words, McEwen (2017) and others argue that the lines between work and non-work activities have become increasingly blurred, and that digital labour activities are herein exemplary (p. 238). Whereas keeping track of one’s menstruation, mood, and other intimate details on femtech platforms appears a highly personal experience outside of the economic domain, it is in reality a profit-generating labour activity within the post-Fordist social factory.

            Alongside its capacity to produce surplus-value, it can be argued that the use of femtech apps is productive for capital when seeing it as a supplement to reproductive activity (Roetman, 2020, p. 2). Fraser (2016) argues that reproductive practises such as affective care, raising children, and maintaining social connections are vital to capitalist society, as they sustain economic production (p. 99). However, she argues, these practices have been threatened by a new financialized form of capitalism arising in the 80s, which–characterised by state disinvestment from social welfare arrangements and an increased recruitment of women into the labour force–has externalised reproductive practices onto families while simultaneously undermining their ability to engage in them (Fraser, 2016, p. 104). Consequently, Fraser argues, reproductive activity is “privatised” for poor classes, whilst it is “commodified” for those who can afford to delegate it to women of the former category and find employment elsewhere (Fraser, 2016, p. 104, 112). Similarly, femtech apps allow those that can afford its technologies to outsource a more personal form of reproductive labour by performing the “caring work” for the female body (Roetmans, 2020, p. 4). It allows users to efficiently generate knowledge of and care for their minds and bodies, for example by helping them anticipate energy levels, moods and fertility and giving directions on how to act upon this knowledge through algorithm-generated personal health plans. It herein aids in the reproduction of the labour force not because it allows users to care for those around them, but because it lets them care for and control their own bodies, hereby cultivating the “productive subject” (McEwen, 2017, p. 244; McEwen, 2017, p. 235 as cited by Roetmans, 2020, p. 4). Femtech is then doubly productive for capital, as its users perform both the digital labour of data production and the reproductive labour of caring for their wage-labouring bodies.

            The cultivation of an efficient labour force through femtech apps is not always an implicit process of making self-care more efficient. It also operates through more direct channels, as in addition to being sold for marketing purposes femtech data is often also sold to employers, which in turn use this data to monitor their female workforce (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 14). Fears about the potential for surveillance and discriminatory practices that the femtech-employer alliance could give rise to have dominated critical discourse from its outset, but were realized after a 2019 Washington Post article revealed that the company Activision Blizzard encouraged its female workers to download the menstrual and fertility self-tracking app Ovia. The company used the data Ovia generated to monitor which of their female workers were highly fertile, trying to conceive or pregnant and whether these pregnancies were high-risk or not, in order to, in Ovia’s promotional words, “cut back on medical costs” (Harwell, 2019, §25). Whilst operating “under the banner of corporate wellness”, employer’s dealing in intimate information as such sets the stage for discrimination against pregnant workers, or workers with high-risk pregnancies in order to dial down on health-care spending–a discrimination which would cultivate a maximally “efficient” group of employees (Harwell, 2019, §25). In the neoliberal context in which femtech operates, which is characterised by the rise of short-term and precarious employment conditions and diminished abilities to unionise, the apps further increase precarity by giving employers more grounds for abusive hiring-and-firing practises (Lorey, 2015, p. 6). This redemonstrates how femtech commodifies intimate details, but more crucially how in a social context where the nature of labour is already extremely precarious, femtech makes its users even more vulnerable to the loss of income.

            This is not the only way in which femtech makes its users vulnerable. To articulate these effects, Jacobs and Evers (2019) define femtech technologies as a “pathogenic” source of vulnerability (p. 13). Pathogenic vulnerability is generated when something that is meant to alleviate an existing form of vulnerability has the adverse effect: it makes the individual even more vulnerable, or generates new vulnerabilities (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 13). To further illustrate these effects, the authors discuss an example of a transgender man who uses the app Flo to monitor his cycle to mitigate any unease or surprise that comes with his menstruation (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 14). His existing vulnerability is that his body functions in a way dissonant to his perception of how it should function (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 14). However, the user finds himself greeted with “hey girl” and is confronted by a stereotypically “feminine” layout when opening Flo: the app sketches menstruation as something unique to women, and appears particularly concerned with the “fertility” of its users (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 14). The transgender user does not want to be addressed as a woman nor be repeatedly reminded of his fertility, thus Flo increases rather than reduces his subjective vulnerability (Jacobs & Evers, 2019, p. 14). Similar effects may arise with non-binary users, or as Jacobs and Evers (2019) argue, anyone else that does not conform to the heterosexual, fertile cis-woman that the young white men currently dominating the femtech industry imagine as their audience (p. 14). Indeed, femtech apps such as Flo also alienate rather than aid users with irregular menstrual cycles or fertility issues, depicting a steady menstrual cycle as a reflection that “your body is working normally”, and in the case of the app Clue directly stating that if one has unstable cycle this means “something is not working as it should be” (“Clue Period Tracker”, 2019, §1 as cited by Kressbach, 2019, p. 249). As such, those that do fit the narrowly-defined standards that femtech imposes are already made vulnerable when their intimate experiences are commodified and used against them, but those who fall outside of its norm are further made vulnerable as the legitimacy of their identity is repeatedly questioned.

            Pointing out the ways in which femtech defines certain people and processes as “normal” also lays the ground for questioning if it is a modern instrument of biopower. “Biopower” is a term articulated in the late writings of Foucault, describing a form of power that began to pervade the capitalist social order from the 1700s onwards and which focuses on the “vitality of the body” and the “biological existence of the population” (Ajana, 2017, p. 5). Foucault described the technologies and rationalities by which this power operates as “biopolitics”, which function to control and normalise the body implicitly rather than through outright coercion (Ajana, 2017, p. 5). As argued by Ajana (2017), this control and normalisation “begins with the self itself”, by managing its “performance and productivity” (p. 5). In turn, this self-management first requires “an understanding of [the body’s] vital characteristics and activities”, and femtech provides just that to its users: by logging weight, mood ratings, energy levels and other metrics throughout the month, the body becomes easier to understand as numerical patterns can be discerned and used to make predictions (p. 5). Femtech defines what is “normal” in terms of fertility, sex drive, and as mentioned, the menstrual cycle in general, and its algorithms compare its user’s data to these norms (Ajana, 2017, p. 13). Femtech apps not only yield the quantification and comparisons required for self-management, but also directly provide the techniques: the apps give advice on how to benefit from certain cycle phases to increase energy levels, and allows users to personalise the app to “get notifications about weight, sleep, water intake, step goal, and birth control” in order to micro-manage their health (“Flo Period and Ovulation Tracker”, 2021, §1). As such, femtech can be regarded as an incarnation of a “biopolitics of the self”, whereby the body is regarded as an object that can, and should, be managed (Ajana, 2017, p. 5).

            The ways in which this self-management of the body through femtech both echoes and reinforces the ethos of neoliberal capitalism cannot be ignored. Firstly, it illustrates how neoliberal corporate logic has extrapolated into the personal sphere: the practises of femtech instigate individuals to see themselves as “projects” and “mini-corporations” that require improvement and investment, rendering the individual an “entrepreneur of the self” (Ajana, 2017, p. 4). The idea that every aspect of human existence is rendered an entrepreneurial existence in neoliberalism is also reiterated by Brown, who reasons that as competition becomes the main principle of the market, its actors become perceived as capitals that require entrepreneurship (2015, p. 65). In this context, the neoliberal subject is held personally responsible for its own health and wellbeing and the ability to fulfil these needs is seen as dependent on one’s entrepreneurial capacities, rather than being the responsibility of the state (Harvey, 2005, p. 65). Femtech and other self-tracking technologies serve to further push the responsibility for healthcare from state institutions towards the individual, herein reifying a conception of the subject as an “entrepreneurial subject” (Ajana, 2017, p. 4). Femtech encourages its users to “take matters into their own hands” rather than depend on established health services, even though many medical practitioners have issued warnings against the reliability of the apps (Kressbach, 2019, p. 242). Femtech can therefore be seen as an instrument of neoliberalism in that it perpetuates its corporate and entrepreneurial logic, sometimes with dire consequences.
         In conclusion, femtech technologies are more of an emblem of neoliberal capitalism and an instrument of power than its fluffy, friendly jargon may suggest (“You’re beautiful! How are you feeling today?”) (Kressbach, 2019, p. 243). Whilst it purports to “empower” its user, femtech has a dual objective, as the user’s activity is used to drive capital accumulation by making their reproductive activity more efficient and by capturing value from tracking activities. As such, it can be argued that users are performing “digital labour” in personal spheres of life, which can be best understood in the context of the post-Fordist “social factory”. Their logged emotional and physical activity is commodified when it is transformed into data, which can be bought and sold to advertisers and employers alike. The latter can use femtech data to cultivate an efficient labour force and exclude individuals in order to cut down on medical costs. The enhanced vulnerability femtech creates is also reflected in how it questions the legitimacy of some users, for example by excluding trans people or constructing irregular menstrual patterns as abnormal. Femtech’s construction of norms also allows one to argue that it is a biopolitical tool. Femtech can be seen as a tool for “biopolitics of the self”, in how it allows the individual to “manage” their bodies by quantifying its functions and advising the individual on intervention. The body as “manageable” also reflects the neoliberal corporate structure and positions the individual as an entrepreneur that should “invest” in their body. Femtech apps further reconstruct the entrepreneurial neoliberal subject by shifting the responsibility for health and wellness further away from the state and more towards the individual. Mapping out these aspects of femtech apps allow one to conceive their paradoxical effects, and to articulate how these apps pose a threat to female autonomy in the modern era as they reinforce hierarchies of labour and identity. It should be noted that self-tracking technologies are however not confined to female health: running apps, calorie trackers and sleep monitors are all popular forms of technologies for biometric data that may be used to the same malicious ends as femtech apps are (Vuorinen & Bergroth, 2020, p. 6). Though technologies to use these platforms remain accessible to only a privileged group of people, there is a self-tracking app tailored towards every personal goal within this group. As such, it is crucial to be conscious of how these apps reproduce and exploit the neoliberal subject.  


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