A Report on the i-Smile Happiness Watch
Photograph by Ella.
by Juliet Jacques
A REPORT ON THE i-Smile Happiness smart watch
Rebecca Pennock, BA (Hons), MA
The i-Smile smart watch has recently been developed to measure personal happiness using a number of kinetic metrics. In this experiment, I decided to test the watch on its own merits, using its percentage points both as a guide to my own behaviour, and an indication of its programmers’ ideas of what constitutes emotional well-being.
Gridlocked traffic, summer solstice, 9.15am. Upper deck 243, Dalston Junction to Goswell Road, who wouldn’t look down on this sort of commute? I’m sure I did, scarf in June, four homeless people asking for help by the luxury flats that now line Kingsland Road, newspaper boards about NHS failures, twee little cafés where there used to be gig venues, supermarkets built over social services, mobile phone shouting that distracts you from reading. We turned before Bishopsgate and its Blade Runner nightmare: Old Street roundabout, JC Decaux and Google and their LCD future, some Android gadget that will cure my depression, keep me on time, in touch with my friends, in tune with the world …
We weren’t going to move so I decided to walk. My umbrella broke but the rain hit me sideways so it would’ve been useless. Ten minutes later, half an hour late, I got to reception. Big screen, Sky News, hundreds of migrants drown in the Med then in/terminable fights in the two major parties, Corbyn’s too left-wing, Cameron’s too left-wing. Swiped in, ground floor, pressed the button for the fourth, dripping wet, harsh rigid lines of this open plan nightmare. I never signed up for this. Yes you did, says Maria, we all did. I didn’t mean the job itself, I meant the- 231 emails / no time / morning briefing / Christ.
Sit at the back, sketchbook out. A man and a flipchart, I don’t know the face but I know that haircut, it must come with those suits. OHP: external consultant, he means business, lives it, breathes it. His mundanity moves me, so I note what he says:
– We’re thrilled to be partnering you on this new project. Content/ment Solutions have been working on the i-Smile Watch for three years, and because your manager said you were all interested in digital technology, we thought you’d like to help us develop it.
He went round the room, handing all twelve of us an expensive piece of kit. A few people wore it immediately, pleased at the thought of their emotions becoming Big Data. Others examined it. No Off switch, apparently.
The i-Smile watch, as you might guess [he laughs, forced] measures worker happiness. Not from what you say, like in your one-to-ones, but kinetically, from what you do – how you move, your tone of voice, what energy you carry around. It will give feedback on how relaxed or uptight you are, which emotions you transmit through your speech patterns, which people you meet with kindness and which with hostility. It’s our hope that the device will understand these better than you, providing some constructive feedback, and help you to manage your workplace relationships better.
I leant back in my chair, waiting for the revolt. None. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear.
– What will this info be used for?
– Simply to help your management make your office a happier environment.
– How long do we have to wear these?
– The experiment lasts a month. We ask that you wear these at work for the whole period – if you want to record or submit data in your own time, that’s up to you. It’d be a big help.
He gave me the watch, stood over me as I put it on. Smile! We both knew that what I did was a grimace, and I went back to my desk.
I took off the watch and put it away. I peered at Maria, struggling to make hers comfortable. CPUs humming, fans whirring, birds outside singing. Ryan swaggered past, shit-eating grin: Not wearing yer watch Becs? I shook my head. Cheer up love it might never ‘appen. He’s like that prick at those parties, late 1990s, I’d chat in the corner and he would berate me: Have fun! That’s not fun!
Half an hour later, Maria leant over.
– I don’t know why, she said, but just wearing this makes me feel better. I had nothing to say. Maybe it’s because I know it will make me happier.
– Or maybe you don’t want anyone to know that you’re miserable, I replied.
– Maybe you don’t want to know that you’re miserable, she told me, and I didn’t think she was joking.
But I am miserable, and don’t see why I should hide it: so why do those rebukes hurt so much? The woman in halls who asked “Why do you hate the world?” when I knew full well that I did hate the world, or at least how it’s run, but it made me feel awful …
– You’re not even going to wear yours, are you?
– I don’t know. I’m not in the mood.
She half-laughed and went back to her work.
Can we talk in private?
Customer Service Advisor
Glass-box meeting room. Everyone can see who you’re talking to … your gestures … expressions … when you start crying.
– Can’t I opt out of this?
– But you’re one of the people I was most worried about. Every day I see you, shoulders dropped, head down, not talking. Wouldn’t you be happier in a happier place?
– Well of course, but how can I live in London and make art without a job?
– I didn’t mean that, I meant that you’d be happier if we made a nicer environment.
– I guess …
– If you still can’t find any positivity, you’re free to look elsewhere …
– What’s the point?
I shrugged and put on the watch. Maybe it could become a project. I’d have to be like the consultant: live happiness, breathe happiness, dream happiness. Did that mean getting inside his head? Perhaps if I dressed differently …
Charity shop, Kingsland Road, new gear for work. Pinstripe suit? Power-dressing c.1985, I’m not Theresa fucking May, those people try to look more casual now, or more restrained. Black heels so I don’t slouch – jacket – knee-length skirt, navy blue like I’m back at school – happiest days of your life.
7.30 alarm, starting score of 20% – must have been the groans as I stopped hitting snooze. Brisk shower, tried not to get annoyed at the state of the bath or my flatmate never cleaning the sin. Left home, head up, headphones off to embrace the world. Smile at those who smile at me, talk to those who talk to me …
Sunny so I walked to work. I hit 45%, getting exercise and vitamin D, all the things the doctor tells you … Shoreditch High Street, infantilised nightmare, signs saying ‘It’s a hot shop for cool people … Lolz!’ or ‘War is peace / Freedom is slavery / Ignorance is strength / Time for tea’, austalgia for those who believed that the Tories after the Credit Crunch were the same as Labour after the Second World War …
You can’t think like that, the watch reminds me, showing 32%. The Boxpark doesn’t help, that apparently temporary ‘pop-up’ mall with shops in hangars, its aesthetic stolen from the early 2000s clubs where I strove for happiness with MDMA. I think about that cat café and that cereal bar for London’s ever-expanding kidult population and then reach Great Eastern St. I turn off before that heart-warming graffiti, ‘Snowden, E.’, thumbing its nose at the vanity towers and the surveillance industry, and the thought puts me 2% up before I pass Hoxton 7 with its ‘happy hour’ that lasts from 12 to 8.30.
There’s an advert for more flats that won’t help the housing crisis, SE1, this time called The Music Box – I hate that they’ve named it after Laurel & Hardy but it’s less offensive than ‘Avant-Garde Towers’ off Bethnal Green Road, and I bet the first thing the residents do is get the experimental cinema shut down …
The Shoreditch Art Wall just has a badly painted Corona advert, opposite the slogan for the Village Underground club, ‘Let’s adore and endure each other’. There’s Child of the Jago too, a stylish clothes shop named after a novel about Victorian poverty in this part of London, poor and undesirable ever since the people of the City threw their shit over the walls. I move down a few percent as I walk up towards Old Street station, and it strikes me that for all the people who ask for money on Kingsland Road, there isn’t anyone sat in the subways like there always was: they haven’t put spikes on the floor like in West London, but maybe the Council decided that the homeless don’t fit the new Old Street vibe, all pop-up street-food, pop music, fake art and coffee shops, all the hallmarks of that East London, anti-corporate search for authenticity as entrepreneurial opportunity, and moved them somewhere sadder.
The imperative to happiness, rather than the removal of signs of imperfection, featured mainly in advertising, trying to hide the way that the possibility of every space being bought makes public life feel grubby and empty. My watch never scored higher than 45%, and only wavered above 35% when I saw ads for music I like – Autechre, Aphex Twin – and thought it might mean someone else feeling like I did when I first heard Flutter or Raising the Titanic, and then felt depressed that those sounds were commodified everything else.
I noted one other thing, as I approached the office. I looked over at St. Luke’s Parochial School and its declaration that it was founded in 1698, and then up the street at a building where an old Salvation Army inscription remained. The prosaic temperance of a Protestant past had been replaced: where the hoardings outside St. Luke’s Education Centre would once have read ‘Closed for refurbishment’ or ‘Under construction’, they now yell: ‘Having a makeover!’ Everything has to be fun. What happens if we stop enjoying ourselves, for even a moment?
I stood outside, deep breaths. That’s for anxiety, I thought, and tried to recall moments of happiness. Barely any movement, 33-34%, a sharp drop as soon as the office came into view. Positive attitude, I told myself – I smiled at the temp on reception, at the digital start-up people from other floors, and registered a slight rise on my wrist, even though I didn’t believe my own projection. Still, I got in on time and got straight into my work.
– You’re early, I heard from across the desk.
– Bright on time, I replied.
– Are you alright?
I just grinned. Surprise flashed across Maria’s eyes but, to her credit, she returned my smile. As I wondered if we understood each other a little better, I watched the number on my watch spike, just momentarily, until I caught her gaze again and saw that sarcastic look that insisted: This won’t last.
I opened my emails. Subject: Customer Service Training. ‘I’ll do that’, I wrote, picking a date after consulting my diary.
Three mornings later, an appointment flashed up on Excel. I went back into a glass box: my manager sat there with his iPad, a soft, welcoming look on his face that I hadn’t seen since he told me You’ve got the job.
– It’s only been a few days but I’ve really noticed a change, it’s like you’ve become a different person. Pause: Is it the watch?
– My scores were very low … He tilts his head, sympathetically, as if to say I’m not surprised. So I thought that if I tried to get on with people, get involved with things …
– We’ll have to start an Employee of the Month award for you, he replies. Low laughter. I couldn’t stop myself smiling. He smiled back; I thought I could feel a movement on my wrist, absurd, it can’t put out endorphins … He told me to go to the training room in the afternoon, and to enjoy myself, and fleetingly, I wondered if I might.
I got there on time. Just a couple of others, who seemed nice enough. They stared at their phones, so I joined them. For once, finding nothing new felt like a reason for calm, not anxiety: I put it away, logged in, sat and waited. But I could tell who was taking the training from the way the door swung open.
– Hi everyone, I’m Ryan – I’m taking training today as Jen is off sick and – Rebecca Peacock! Never thought I’d see you here!
– Well, you have, I said, trying to smile. He raised his eyebrows and checked his notes, and I knew that however much I tried to make this more tolerable, he would try to force me back into the miser role that he had created for me, and then defined himself against. I spent the next two hours trying to ignore his smug little grins, ironic-unironic remarks about how I’d end up running the place, his passive-aggressive platitudes about life being what you make it, and how stupid it was to ever consider ‘Artist’ a “realistic career choice”. I watched the percentage plummet to its lowest yet, and didn’t even learn anything about customer service.
I was doing everything right and everything wrong. I got back to my desk to find that already, Maria was passing phone enquiries to me; when the first caller ranted about a problem with a driver for our 3D modelling software, I said nothing until he started yelling, then put down the receiver and set the handset to Mute. I spent the rest of the day on the internet, in the canteen, going to the shop, anything as long it wasn’t my caseload of press contacts, complaints for the Technical Team, or anything else that the computer could do, quite happily, without me.
I was surprised that I got away with this for nearly a week before the manager took me aside.
– Rebecca, you were doing so well. What happened? I shrugged, unable to say that something inside me had broken, as far as my ability to stomach this job was concerned, and couldn’t be fixed. Unable to say that I didn’t understand how so many people around me didn’t feel the same: they must have left for university with the same ambitions and dreams as me, the same promises made by those in power, the same belief that if they kept listening and reading and thinking and engaging, then life would somehow reward them …
I gave the watch to him. He raised his eyes – I’d not checked the score for days, but it must have been low enough for him to understand that it’d be better if I left. He didn’t stop me: I passed through the gates, put my pass on the Security desk and stepped out, wondering what to do now, resisting the urge to go back and apologise, knowing that struggling by on the dole would make me happier than this.
In my spare time, I re-read Alenka Zupančič’s book The Odd One In, where she writes that ‘In the contemporary ideological climate it has become imperative that we perceive all the terrible things that happen to us as ultimately something positive’ – in my case, turning the hated surveillance into an art piece, something that I performed and would continue to perform, was just that: a protective measure against the minor injuries and humiliations of the world of work. ‘Negativity, lack, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, are perceived more and more as moral faults – worse, as a corruption at the level of our very being’. This ‘bio-morality’, she states, ‘promotes the fundamental axiom: a person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person: a person who feels bad is a bad person … This is very efficient, for who dares to raise her voice and say that she is not happy, and can’t manage to – or worse, doesn’t even care to – transform all the disappointments of her life into a positive experience’?
Paradoxically, it was only by making this statement that I made myself feel any better – and I’m sure that it did the opposite to my colleagues, who either had to replace me or take on my work, and had to reassess or repress their feelings about what they did, who they were. As I scanned various websites and local papers to fill out my Jobseekers’ diary and get my £71 a week, I wondered if I could be happy in anything less than a socialist utopia – but even then, I thought, there would be no need for art, and then how would I fill my days?
About the Author:
Juliet Jacques is a writer, cultural critic and journalist. Her fiction has appeared in Five Dials, The London Magazine, 3:AM, Necessary Fiction, Berfrois and elsewhere. Her Transgender Journey series for The Guardian documented her gender reassignment between 2010-12 and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011. She is a regular blogger for the New Statesman and her work has also appeared in TimeOut, The Daily Telegraph, The New Inquiry, The London Review of Books and other publications. She was the featured artist at UBUWEB in December 2013 and her book, Trans: A Memoir, was published by Verso in 2015.