In this contribution to Bulletin 28, former ISRF Fellow Gavin Weedon asks what the proliferation of breathing apps and fitness trackers tells us about time scarcity and embodied experience under late capitalism.
My entry point for thinking about the digital condition is the contention that in the 21st century breathing has become more difficult, that there exists a collective attenuation of breath that is patterned unevenly by social and ecological injustices and dispersed across porous national and bodily borders. This difficulty is increasingly recognised and represented in all sorts of places, in scientific literature, news media, art exhibitions, intellectual fields, and in social movements. It’s in air quality indexes, racial injustice mantras, and viral diseases. It’s in popular books and practices that aim to remedy ‘incorrect’ breathing to fix all manner of ailments and even optimise health and performance. This attenuation bonds groups of people in states of shared vulnerability just as it creates and exploits the impetus to seek control of their own individual breathing.
For the ISRF’s Digital Condition and Humanities Knowledge conference in 2022, I took this contention that breathing has become more difficult as an invitation to think about this difficulty in the context of digitalisation. For a start, both digitality and air are classically ‘everywhere and nowhere’ objects of analysis and come with all the attendant methodological challenges of following evasive flows of energy. Air is also one of Silicon Valley’s favoured euphemisms for frictionless travel, lightness, and sleek user experience, standing in for wireless connectivity or slimline portable computers. Sceptically, we might figure the arcane conjurings of ‘air’ and auxiliary terms such as ‘cloud’ data storage as expediently immaterial notions given the energy-intensive and ecologically ruinous infrastructure required to sustain digital capitalism. But these metaphorical connections are only the beginning. How else might claims of a collective attenuation of breath and the experience of digitality be entwined?
One of the material forms that their convergence takes, and my focus in this essay, comes in digital interfaces intended to regulate breath for the purposes of relaxation, mindfulness, and stress relief. Apps like Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, and My Life are leaders in the ‘mindfulness and meditation market’ and have together accrued tens of millions of users and subscribers in the past decade. An upsurge of subscriptions and downloads during the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive growth projections for this market to more than USD $ 4 billion by 2027. And while wariness should prevail in the face of such speculative accounting in these sorts of investor-aimed press releases, the timing of this boom in digital mental health technologies suggests pandemic conditions of isolation, precarity, and vulnerability to be drivers of their demand. More broadly, these interfaces are part of a biopolitical turn towards responsibilising individuals for neurological health, such that downloading a meditation app to modulate breathing is an ideal, even entrepreneurial, mode of work on the self.
The boom in breathing and meditation apps heralds a moment in which a primitive bodily function becomes technologically mediated and regulated not for biomedical assistance but for psycho-social respite. Understanding this state of mental ill-being and desire for a slower, more present experience of the world requires attending to the forces that stoke that desire. In what follows I attempt this by situating digital breathing interfaces as indicative of the embodied experience of the digital condition—an experience that is often declared or implied as disembodied in sympathetic and critical accounts alike. This means rejecting the mystifying, incomprehensible scales of abstraction inherent to digitality as explanatory frameworks for its experiential dimensions. It also means tempering the hype of digital capitalism, from AI and machine learning to galactic colonisation, and in the process redirecting attention to the problems of everyday life that digital capitalism produces, highlights, and exacerbates. I focus instead on time scarcity, a sensation that can be attributed to the intensification of work and the colonisation of leisure time in digital capitalism, from which these breathing and meditation interfaces promise techno-spiritual respite. Critical attention is owed to how they work through the body, in particular their key promise of helping users slow down and make present their experience of the world.
The Digital Condition and Embodied Experience
Perspectives on the digital condition tend to pivot on the question of novelty. Much like mid-century debates about the rise of a post-industrial society, the split is between those heralding a technological revolution as the new engine of history and those for whom such informational ideology merely masks class, empire, and other struggles that shape the modern world. The most sceptical perspectives counter transformational claims about the digital revolution by bringing its operations into the orbit of capitalist logic, where accumulation through the creation of new markets remains key. The digital is thus simply another frontier, even where social relations with dominant economic arrangements are acknowledged.
By some contrast, and more apposite for my arguments, Shoshana Zuboff diagnoses the digital revolution as the age of surveillance capitalism, a ‘new actor in history’ distinguished by the mining of human experience in its totality. Zuboff’s influential thesis is that this mode of capitalism ‘unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data’ via a dense computational architecture from which there is scant recourse for meaningful choice or sanctuary from its ubiquity. Crucially, Zuboff sees this as an imposition onto human nature, akin to industrial capitalism’s destructive transformation of environmental nature. In doing so she maintains a distance between the digital condition and the human condition and keeps open the notion of alter-digitalities untethered to economic and social control. Exemplary here is the Fitbit wearable technology and app, renowned for the promises and problems associated with digital technology. These wearable devices are in essence digitised pedometers that combine electromechanical measurement with biometric surveillance to analyse not just step counts but all sorts of biological functions—sleep, caloric intake, breath rate—and convert it into biometric data. The fate of that data is the source of concerns about surveillance and privacy in relation to health, heightened since Alphabet’s (formerly Google’s) acquisition of Fitbit for $2.1 billion dollars in 2021. The acquisition is the subject of a US Justice Department probe, prompting concerns about whether (or perhaps when and how) it will find its way into behavioural futures markets for speculative accumulation and exploitation.
Notwithstanding these fundamental concerns about privacy and surveillance in the digital condition, I want to draw attention to the analogical function of interfaces that measure and modulate breath, how they imitate the breathing body. The Fitbit’s breathing feature takes the form of a pulsing circle that mimics inhalations and exhalations so as to direct and modulate the rhythm of breathing in the compliant wearer. Other platforms do something similar in illustrating the body and lungs as a kind of bio-pedagogical functionality, simulating the expansion and contraction of the lungs to facilitate deeper, slower breathing, and some apps offer guided meditations with soft-toned, compassionate narration to aid in attaining a certain pace and depth of breath.
By analogical, I am invoking Robert Hassan’s arguments about the digital condition as unprecedented, revolutionary, and as marking a new mode of social experience. Hassan’s argument is primarily geospatial: he contends that the digital breaches physical and spatial limits to accumulation that leftist economics had anticipated as substantive crises for capitalist growth. The virtual thus does not yield to the same spatial equations as the physical world and needs to be reckoned with as a novel economic and social condition.Hassan accordingly holds digital technology as categorically different from the analogue technology that preceded it on account of the latter meaning analogous, as in technology that is analogous ‘to something in nature and/or in our bodily capacities’. Think about the airplane as simulating the flight of birds, for instance, whereas digital scale breaches relatable comprehension in its discontinuous binary code. Breathing technologies could be thought of as analogue, insofar as they mimic existing bodily capacities in terms of diaphragm expansion and contraction. They thereby share more than we might expect with other technologies developed to support breath, such as the Iron Lung, a vividly analogue technology of respiratory assistance. At the same time, however, in their extraction and amalgamation of data on the body, they are profoundly digital in the logic and scale of their connectivity and mode of accumulation (and their digitality might even compromise the wearer’s body at a later date, such as if health insurance access were later affected by biometrics collected).
Given the dizzying abstractions of the digital condition and the challenges with imagining, let alone reckoning with, its discontinuous logic, breathing and meditation apps stand out for their analogous forms. Rather than mine human nature for behavioural surplus—or at least as a crucial part of this extractive process—they mimic a primitive bodily function in order to create a kind of corporeal recognition in both the organism and the machine. In doing so, they lend incomprehensible scales of abstraction that characterise digital logic a sense of familiarity and corporeal grounding that is integral to their operation.
This bio-informatic feedback loop is more akin to Timothy Erik Ström’s notion of ‘cybernetic capitalism’ than surveillance capitalism, even though Ström himself regards these digital networks as ultimately ‘disembodied forms of communication’. Ström’s account of cybernetic capitalism distinguishes the techno-scientific capacity to invent data where there existed none hitherto, to reach unprecedented levels of abstraction, and to profit through speculative finance, as novel qualitative dimensions of the digital condition. In his own assessment of the Fitbit, Ström reflects on what becomes of those wearing these sorts of devices, on how ‘traces of their embodied existence are drawn away to the most abstract levels of technological disembodiment’. He is right to do so, but in the rush to abstraction himself misses the kind of corporeal mimicry that makes these breathing interfaces alluring and familiar in the first place. Indeed, one of the contradictions of digital capitalism is the juxtaposed power of discontinuous abstraction inherent to digital computing on the one hand, and the affective, embodied experience of digital culture and digital technologies on the other. Cybernetics incorporates the biological animal (human behaviour) into its feedback loops in the cyborgian sense; cybernetic capitalism does this as an accumulation strategy. Both are about attaining control through reiterative systems of communication in which both organism and machine are learning from each other. The lesson to heed from them is that the haste to critique the scope and beguiling complexity of capitalism’s digital form can mean overlooking some of its most alluring modes of capture.
Time Scarcity and Techno-Spiritual Salvation
Attending to the basic workings of digital breathing interfaces highlights the embodied experience of the digital condition, how their infusion into the rhythms of daily life manifests as a kind of bio-informatic feedback loop between the body and the infrastructure of digitality. ‘Machine learning’ proselytisers make this claim at the same levels of abstraction and with the same goals of prediction, control, and profit that Zuboff and others fear. Closer examination suggests that the experience of these feedback loops, at least in the case breathing and meditation interfaces, often takes the phenomenological form of time scarcity. The website of the popular Headspace app captures this in exhorting users to ‘Catch your breath, relax your mind, and feel 14% less stressed in just 10 days’ and to ‘unlock ideas that stick, even when you’re busy’. Even insofar as these apps are behavioural futures markets in waiting, the means of attaining subordination is an appeal to a poverty of time, making these interfaces both expressions and escapes from the digital.
The sensation of time scarcity is a key experiential dimension of the condition of digital capitalism. Understanding this dimension is important for tempering claims about the limitlessness of the virtual sphere as a frontier for accumulation, not least because those arguments—whether they’re portentous or celebratory—can have much the same effect of constructing a seamless and efficacious edifice that is awe-inspiring and near inevitable. While it is often said that the digital condition marks an epochal shift because it transcends spatial limits to capital, digitality is not distinguished by its entry into a limitless realm of accumulation: on the contrary, this is one of its conceits, played out in the spectacle of space tourism by tech billionaires and in abstracted ‘food from nowhere’ regimes. Crucially, digitality is limited by the time available to attend to and maintain digital life, as well as by strictures of human labour and energy-intensive infrastructures that maintain it. Jonathon Crary is a polemical theorist of precisely this experience, noting in his 24/7 that sleep is a frontier for cyber companies—Fitbit included—and that our waking hours are a finite resource for which there is abundant competition. Apprehending this value, digital capitalism colonises time through its saturation of all aspects of human experience, yielding a behavioural surplus for those who speculate successfully on behavioural futures while leaving most people sensing that their time is not their own, that it is qualitatively and quantitatively altered by digital connectivity. Here we might think of Dallas Smythe’s ideas about the television audience as a commodity as extrapolated and intensified on a digital scale that takes in almost all of human experience as a potential object, not only those areas that we can demarcate as work.
We can debate whether this time scarcity is real or perceived, a ‘new reality’ or an edifice induced by digital capitalism (and in doing so we’d be recapitulating the debates of the 1990s about postmodernity and the global reorganisation of capital). But beyond such debate is that the popularity of breathing and meditation apps evinces a desire to slow down and exert some control over time, to ground one’s self in the present, and that this desire is tethered, at least to some extent, to the prevalence of hyperconnectivity that has come to encompass and blur financial and social marketplaces online. As such, these interfaces also need reckoning with as part of what William Davies called ‘the political economy of unhappiness’, defined through a ‘depressive hegemony’ among increasing numbers of workers who report mental health disorders and the economisation of this incapacity by the state. Whereas the UK Government’s response to this revelation is to economise mental health through the NHS and other biopolitical techniques aimed at worker wellbeing, or happy productivity, the digital interfaces for breathing discussed here bear more of the techno-spiritual aesthetic synonymous with Silicon Valley. This is no coincidence: R. John Williams documents a century of the Western turn to Eastern philosophy as a response to the enervation and overstimulation wrought by modern technologies, and the breathing and meditation app only adds a further layer of paradox to this fraught exchange. In both contexts there is an economisation of happiness and unhappiness, one from the biopolitical accounting of the state, the other from market’s slick and simple solution to the same problems of mental duress and time scarcity. The task of theorising the digital condition is to capture both of these experiences in the same frame, such that techno-spiritual salvation is not sought in the same architectures of communication and control, at home and at work, from which many people seek sanctuary.
Is it any wonder, then, that corporeal control is sought, that once implicated in the dizzying, immersive experience of digitality and the intense modes of overwork and perpetual connectedness it engenders and exacerbates, some sort of regulation is desired? Breathing and meditation apps are a small object in the scheme of digitality, but they are exemplary of the paradox of digital technology as its own salvation. These digital interfaces are designed in part to mitigate the excesses of digital abundance, a contradiction that blights the actualisation of their promise, seeing as they almost exclusively manifest in digital forms. This is not to say they are bereft of efficacy; on the contrary, they are part of a profusion of digital immersion that reproduces the need for relaxation and awareness and targets bodily sensation to this end. Ultimately, they represent a turn inwards for a semblance of control, to aid in relaxation or attending to mental health disorders or seeking respite from overwork through digital health technologies. In doing so they catalyse interactions with cybernetic capitalism’s bio-informatic feedback loops and tie us to the infrastructure of the digital condition. Beyond the paradox of digital technology as its own salvation, I see these interfaces as simultaneously expressions of and escapes from the late capitalist production of time scarcity. That they are not entirely or exclusively effects of the digital revolution, that the body matters to their experience and to their distinctive mode of accumulation, is the first port of call for understanding them.
 Achille Mbembe, ‘The Universal Right to Breathe’, Critical Inquiry 47, no. s2 (2021): 58–62.
 Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence (New Haven, CT 2021: Yale University Press).
 Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached, Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton, NJ 2013: Princeton University Press).
 Krishan Kumar, From Post-Industrial to Post-Modern Society: New Theories of the Contemporary World (Oxford 2005: Blackwell).
 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (London 2019: Profile Books), 14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Robert Hassan, The Condition of Digitality: A Post-Modern Marxism for the Practice of Digital Life (London 2020: University of Westminster Press).
 David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Cambridge, MA 1989: Blackwell).
 Hassan, The Condition of Digitality, 41.
 Timothy Erik Ström, ‘Capital and Cybernetics’, New Left Review 135 (May/June 2022): 23–41, 40.
 Ibid., 25.
 Jonathon Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London 2013: Verso).
 William Davies, ‘The Political Economy of Unhappiness’, New Left Review 71 (September/October 2011): 65–80.
 This imperative is made plain in the UK Government’s 2017 Staying Healthy and Being Happy at Work report, which somehow calculates that ‘the total cost to the country of poor mental health is between £73 billion and £97 billion each year’.
 R. John Williams, The Buddha in the Machine: Art, Technology and the Meeting of East and West (New Haven, CT 2014: Yale University Press).
Gavin Weedon joined Nottingham Trent University as a Senior Lecturer in 2016, having completed his PhD at the University of British Columbia and MSc at Loughborough University. His research explores the social and ecological dimensions of embodied practices and is presently focused on two main projects. The first (with Samantha King, Queen’s University) charts the cultural ascendance of protein as the über nutrient of our times through a blend of cultural studies, political ecology, and critical theories of the body. The second, supported by the ISRF, posits breath and breathing as central to global social and environmental crises and as the corporeal basis for a politics of shared vulnerability.