I recently purchased an iPhone for the purpose of researching an app called The Eatery. According to a review from Time The Eatery “asks you to snap a picture of your food, and provides you with a healthiness meter that rates not just your current meal, but your noshing habits over time”. The stated logic of this app is that others are better at judging the healthiness of your food than you are. Over the past 28 days I have snapped 214 meals. Each meal has been assessed by other users along a spectrum from “fat” to “fit”. An aggregate of the individual meal ratings in a week tells me how I ate in comparison to previous weeks, days and other users. For example, in the week of June 3rd I “ate 73% healthy” which was “4% healthier than last week. Thursday was [my] best day, and Monday was [my] worst day.” The more data the more details. I eat most of my meals at home. My “healthiest” meal was at Korean restaurant. And my “unhealthiest” meal was at my parents.
Of course, there are several significant disconnects in all this:
- The description and visual representation of the food is not identical to its actual nutritional content. E.g. A meat pie described “homemade” accompanying a well-lit photo gets a healthier rating than a mere meat pie in a dimly lit room.
- The “healthiness meter” does not account for the overall diet. E.g. Mandarins and apples get ratings of 90-99%, yet a diet consisting of only mandarins and apples could not be consider “healthy” let alone 99% healthy.
- Nutritional health is valued over Well-being. E.g. This app, like many others emphasises the nutritional function of food. Leaving aside the place of exercise in physiological health, food also plays a significant role in individual and communal well-being. One user put a picture of a piece of chocolate cake with the label “My 16th Birthday Cake”. On the scale of “fat-to-fit” this would rate poorly, but is the “health” of a birthday cake only located in its nutritional value or can it include notions of well-being and hold symbolic importance.
There are many other ways to consider this app and the increasing use of smartphones to measure and quantify life. However one of my primary interests is in the way everyday life is increasingly colonized by dual operation of smartphones and biomedical norms of health. Innocuous habits such as snacking on crackers with peanut-butter are not only judged against purported values of nutritional health but we willing offer up these practices for judgement. Not unlike the penitent turning to the confessional, perhaps we recognise a value in having these activities judged and scrutinized by others.
The allusion to the confessional is not incidental. Michel Foucault writes that Western society has become a confessing society. “One confesses in public and in private, to one’s parents, one’s educators, one’s doctors, to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell anyone else…Western man has become a confessing animal.” There’ll be more on the confession in a future post, but the point I am currently interested in is the attention given to the mundane and quotidian as effective of social and biomedical reality.
Many aspects of The Eatery and other apps that quantify life through measuring everyday habits are not new. Although food, exercise and health-related activities have been made conspicuous but smartphones, these developments are just the most recent in a long history of interrogating and routinising everyday life.
Charles Taylor elucidates some of this history in comparing Aristotelian to Protestant ethics. According to Taylor, “traditional, Aristotelian ethics” regarded ‘ordinary life’ – the life of production and the family – as holding mere “infrastructural importance”, serving as “the necessary background and support to ‘the good life’ of contemplation and one’s action as a citizen”. In the Reformation, Taylor locates “a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life”. Rather than finding the ‘good’ or ‘higher’ life in philosophical contemplation or monastic retreat, Taylor, following Max Weber, argues that ordinary and everyday life becomes a locus for political action and self-understanding. The importance and affirmation of everyday life “becomes one of the most powerful ideas in modern civilization” and “colours our whole understanding of what it is truly to respect human life and integrity”.
The measuring and quantifying of everyday habits and health-related behaviors is arguably a continuation of these processes – a secular working on the self that serve (bio) political ends of physical health and longevity rather than salvation in the next life, or in more Calvinist tones evidence election. Instead Th Eatery and practices like it demonstrate a vigilance over ones bodily health and attempt to align the everyday with norms promoted by putative nutrition experts.
In reinforcing the place of the everyday at the centre of the good life, The Eatery contributes to a ressentiment that values nutrition over pleasure or the “high rating” mandarin over the “low rating” celebratory cake. This is not inevitable, although the tide certainly appears to be moving in that direction. However, I contend that new pleasures will respond. Rather than nutrition over pleasure, there will be pleasure and nutrition, binging and purging, and detoxing and retoxing. That is, an agonism of consumption that is both/and not either/or. But more on this another time.
 Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge (New York: Penguin, 1998), p.59.
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p.13.
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge Classics, 2001).
 Ibid., p.14.