Article Text

Download PDFPDF

Human life as digitised data assemblage: health, wealth and biopower in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story
  1. Luna Dolezal
  1. Correspondence to Dr Luna Dolezal, Department of Philosophy, Durham University, 50 Old Elvet, Durham City DH1 3HN, UK; luna.dolezal{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


With recent and emerging developments in technology, we are witnessing a process of cultural and social redefinition where the foundations of how we understand the body, the human and the parameters of health are being radically transmuted. These changes resonate both across global political discourses and within individuals’ personal lives; they are both intimate and remote affecting broad sociopolitical understandings, and the minutiae of everyday lived experience. At the core of these redefinitions is a scientific and, primarily, biological discourse that reduces all forms of life to the molecular level and that uses a technological metaphorical landscape as its medium.1 Under this techno-biological logic, which has become a dominant discursive frame, the human body, and human life, is increasingly conceived of as an assemblage of data and information flows, genetic and otherwise.2 ,3

The emergence of the conception of life as information over recent decades has coincided with an explosion in information technology. Technologisation has been coupled with a correlative commercialisation, which have both taken place against the backdrop of increased privatisation and the dismantling of the welfare state as a result of the spread of neoliberal doctrines and practices. Commercial tech companies have developed many novel social technologies, based on the paradigm of life as data, which are increasingly available on the free market. For instance, self-tracking technologies, such as the simple iPhone, or fitness gadgets such as FitBit, Bellabeat's LEAF and Nike Fuelband, among others that are worn on the body, quantify physiological states producing biometric data on one's everyday exercise, rest, mood, diet, heart rate and other health information. This fusion of information technology and biomedicine, with a neoliberal market agenda, has transformed the landscape of health, medicine and daily life.i 4 ,5 As the discourses of movements such as the Quantified Self (QS)6 demonstrate, there is a palpable sense of possibility and plurality when considering the future of human life and of human health as a result of the ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ that is enabled by commercial medical technologies.7

However, the ‘data-driven life’ is also fraught with contradictions and uncertainties,7 provoking biopolitical anxieties regarding technology, social control, surveillance, ambiguity regarding outcomes, and concerns about the distribution of care and resources to citizens. The unease and anxiety about where the coupling of data technologies and commercial interests might take us has been expressed through recent contemporary installation art and fiction, particularly in the speculative genre.ii 8 Art installations such as Proto/Meta's Data Identities (2015) and Alex Rothera & James Krahe's Playful Self: The Anxiety of Data, Calmed with Tea (2015) explore the potentially pernicious consequences of biometric data standing in for personal identity, raising questions about privacy, well-being, self-tracking and the status of human life in the wake of commercial digital technologies which reduce aspects of embodied life to data sets that can be quantified, monitored and compared.9 Dave Egger's novel, The Circle,10 set on the corporate campus of a Google-like tech corporation, illustrates the potential for alienation, corporate control and compromised privacy that arises when social media and self-tracking technologies become normalised, and institutionalised, aspects of our personal and professional landscapes. In this quietly dystopian novel, a ‘universal operating system’ links social media metrics, biometric data, banking and communication information to create a data-driven identity through which one's civility and social and professional worth can be measured. The imperatives of a data economy, servicing an economic elite, entail that human life becomes, in a sense, peripheral to data life. Eggers gestures to the personal and moral indifference that arises because of the instrumental decision making that deals with information and status, rather than with humanity.

The techno-anxieties about the data-driven subject that Eggers articulates in The Circle are taken to hyperbolic heights in Gary Shteyngart's highly acclaimed satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story (SSTLS).iii 11 In the near-future world described in SSTLS, self-tracking and social media metrics have become dislodged from one's professional and personal engagement with technology, and saturate all aspects of life and society. SSTLS paints a dystopian vision of the personal and political consequences resulting from the ascendancy of data as a proxy for the complexities of society and humanity. Through satire and exaggeration, Shteyngart illustrates the ‘unprecedented technological and social dislocation’12 that arises as a result of the human engagement with commercial digital and medical technologies. Inspired by the writings of the techno-futurist Ray Kurzweiliv and reflecting on what Shteyngart sees as the ‘frightening appendage’12 of the smartphone and other handheld communication devices, SSTLS employs humour to invent a world of farcical, although frighteningly familiar, extremes when considering the surveillance, control, alienation and consumerism that arise as a result of commercial technologies, which reduce human life and the physical body to information sets, or data assemblages, governed by market and workplace agendas.

In this article, I will consider SSTLS as a lens through which to explore some of the biopolitical ramifications that arise as a result of the emergence of commercial data technologies and biometric self-tracking, especially in light of the imperatives of self-care and personal responsibility that are constitutive of neoliberal market economies. Using scenes from SSTLS as exemplary, I will explore the intertwining of surveillance, health and wealth within technology-driven biopolitics. I will turn to the work of social thinkers Michel Foucault and Zygmunt Bauman, among other contemporary theorists, in order to reflect upon some of the personal and political consequences of the recent intertwining of one's personal data with commercial interests and political power, particularly in the post-9/11 age of surveillance and securitisation.13


SSTLS employs satire, exaggeration and humour to imagine a near-future society that we can recognise, although as a hyperbolic version of our own reality. The story unfolds in New York City, against the backdrop of a country that is ruled by the ‘Bipartisan Party’ and policed by the ‘American Restoration Authority’, a ubiquitous national security military presence that is the last remnant of a disintegrating police state. America, no longer a global superpower, is financially dependent on China (the US$ is now pegged to the ‘¥uan’) and on the verge of economic collapse, while multinational corporations such as ‘ColgatePalmoliveYum!BrandViacomCredit’ and ‘LandO'LakesGMFordCredit!’ effectively overshadow any of the government's power.

The protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is a death-obsessed 39-year-old with a ‘so-so body in a world where only an incredible one will do’ (p. 5). The son of Russian immigrants, Lenny loves real books, keeps a diary and is utterly out of sync with the near-illiterate, social media-saturated, highly sexualised, consumption-crazed culture that he has found himself in. At work, Lenny is the Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, a conglomerate multinational specialising in life extension, property development and privatised security. Lenny's job is to peddle ‘dechronification’ anti-ageing treatments to high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and to this end, he has spent an unsuccessful year in Rome attempting to accrue European clients. Instead, he meets Eunice Park, a petite 24-year-old Korean-American, on a year-abroad in Rome. The couple reunite in New York and begin an awkward romance, where Eunice's cruelty towards Lenny is tempered by his slavish devotion to her tiny prepubescent-like body. Hence begins Lenny's super sad true love story.

Daily life for Lenny and Eunice in New York is dominated by social media and consumption: the ‘United Nations Shopping Corridor’ is the premier shopping destination for ubiquitous clothing brands such as JuicyPussy and TotalSurrender, and the ‘GlobalTeens’ network, an ominous evolution of Twitter and Facebook, mediates most communication. The most prestigious occupations in society are Media and Credit, followed closely by Retail. While Lenny is devoted to Eunice, Eunice is devoted to her äppärät. A future cousin of the iPhone, the äppärät is a multifunctional communications device that is worn around the neck like a pendant. Each citizen is equipped with an äppärät, and it is used incessantly for online shopping, social interaction, ‘verballing’, ‘streaming’ and self-tracking.

Serving as a portal to personal communication, online consumption and social media, the äppärät is most crucially a device for generating and collating one's personal data. Among a plethora of other information, one's äppärät monitors and broadcasts health statistics, financial status, sexual preferences, geolocation, consumption habits and all media and communication patterns. These personal data serve an important role in Lenny's society, establishing criteria to measure one's social worth and one's political status. As Lenny's coworker Howard Shu implores when Lenny returns from Rome, “Learn to rate everyone around you. Get your data in order” (p. 70).

While data are shared in social contexts in order to ‘FAC’ (Form A Community) through the ‘RateMe’ app and data analytics (p. 88), it has also come to be the primary medium regulating personal and political life, crucially determining one's place in the social hierarchy. In fact, personal data comparisons dominate social life in SSTLS. As Lenny quickly realises, as a result of the RateMe app on his new äppärät, biometric, health and status data have become a feature of almost every human interaction. The äppärät's ‘EmotePad’ translates physiological responses into quantitative emotional data, sensing pulse rates and changes in a wearer's blood pressure. As Lenny's friend Vishnu explains, when you look at a woman it ‘tells her how much you want to do her’ (p. 88). Using RateMe data regarding PERSONALITY, FUCKABILITY, MALE HOTNESS and SUSTAINABILIT¥, for example, the äppärät mediates social encounters. In a bar on Staten Island with his friends, Lenny notes: “Streams of data were now fighting for time and space around us. The pretty girl I had just FACed was projecting MALE HOTNESS at 120 out of 800 … The other girls were sending me similar figures … The bar was now utterly aflash with smoky data” (pp. 90–91). Vishnu navigates Lenny's data: “‘Out of the seven males in the Community,’ he says, gesturing around the bar, ‘Noah's the third hottest, I'm the fourth hottest, and Lenny's the seventh’” (p. 91).

While exaggerated to the point of absurdity in Shteyngart's novel, ‘getting your data in order’, for the purposes of establishing one's ‘ranking’ in the social hierarchy, is increasingly becoming an imperative of the twenty-first century ‘connected’ and ‘responsible’ citizen. Shteyngart's imagining of the perhaps inevitable conclusions of social media and emerging data surveillance practices, coupled with biometric and health data, reflect some of the apprehensions arising from recent technologies available on the social, medical and fitness marketplaces.

In the wake of the Human Genome Project, the essence of human life has been rendered binary and the ‘genetic imaginary’ has taken hold in both mainstream and scientific discourses.13 ,14 The life sciences are, as many thinkers have noted, increasingly becoming information sciences.13 ,15 In short, life is increasingly understood as a collection of discrete data points carrying information and the human body as a complex ‘digitised data assemblage’.16 In other words, the secrets to our health, personality, desires and well-being lie dormant in the ‘information’—molecular, genetic, vital, psychological and otherwise—that our bodies contain. Self-knowledge and self-understanding have, in part, become about self-measurement and self-quantification, or to invoke the mantra of the QS movement, we achieve ‘self-knowledge through numbers’. In this schema, molecular and genetic data form the substrate of human life and are overlaid with a plethora of other information points. Data regarding vital functions, health status, affective states, physical performance, cognitive functions, behaviour and social status have come to form the information landscape of the human body and human life.

While we have measured ourselves for decades, using tools such as weighing scales, in order to numerically quantify aspects of our bodies,17 recent commercial technologies have allowed us to measure aspects of our bodies that were previously accessible only in the realm of biomedicine.18 From monitoring one's own blood pressure, to using Google to access health information, to getting genetic screening and using wearable self-tracking devices, individuals can access, understand, monitor and, ultimately, ‘improve’ or ‘optimise’ their body data.19 The recent proliferation of smartphones and digital wearable devices, rudimentary precursors to the äppärät, harks a new era of ‘informatic bodies’.20 Active users of self-tracking devices, such as FitBits or Fuelbands, increasingly share fitness, health and social data through their social media platforms,v and the term ‘social fitness’ has been developed to refer to the practices of sharing personal data to motivate oneself to achieve personal goals.16 In this schema, through social media technologies, health status and social status are increasingly codetermined.

In Lenny's technologically mediated social world, continuous surveillance, data comparisons and social rankings are guided by the dictates for youth, health, sexual desirability and monetary affluence. Lenny's äppärät profile, visible to all, reads like an Orwellian background check:LENNY ABRAMOV … income averaged over five-year span $289,420 yuan-pegged, within top 19 per cent of U.S. income distribution. Current blood pressure 120 over 70, O-type blood. Thirty-nine years of age, lifespan estimated at eighty-three (47 per cent of lifespan elapsed; 53 per cent remaining). Ailments: high cholesterol, depression … Parental ailments: high cholesterol, depression … Consumer profile: heterosexual, nonathletic, nonautomotive, non-religious … (p. 90).

Entwining many spheres of everyday life, for example work, fitness, love and finance, Lenny's profile seamlessly blends health data with financial and social status in order to ensure conformity, or ‘normalisation’, to use Foucault's term, within narrow parameters. In fact, it is through the coupling of medical knowledge along with human capital, via surveillance technologies, as per Lenny's profile, Foucault argues that biopower takes hold of daily life.

In Foucault's discussion of biopower, a post-sovereign manifestation of power relations, normalisation, and the correlative homogenisation of society, is achieved through standards of normality which are propagated through vast and diffuse networks of power relations that infiltrate our personal states and everyday lives, down to the smallest details. While Foucault's earlier work describes how political power controlled individuals through ‘discipline’ by training and regulating the physical body through institutional structures,21 his later work emphasises how the body is no longer inhabiting disciplinary spaces, but instead has become one. Through ‘infinitesimal surveillances, permanent controls, extremely meticulous orderings of space, indeterminate medical or psychological examinations’,22 biopower targets the vital characteristics of life—sexuality, health, reproduction, family life, subsistence, habitation—in order to ensure the production of ‘healthy, well-ordered and manageable bodies’.23 Unshackled from institutions, biopower circulates through social practices and the diffuse encounters enabled by culture, consumption and information exchange. With the aims of measurement, appraisal and hierarchisation, biopower deploys ‘numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’.22 Biopower is not just about the normalisation of individuals, but through surveillance, or what Foucault calls ‘governmentality’, it is also about the control of entire populations.

Biopower is intensified and enabled by the development of information technologies that generate, monitor and control our bodily and social data. Social media, digital ‘wearables’, online email providers, international travel, mobile phone use, internet searches and shopping transactions, among other digitally enabled activities, continuously generate and emit personal data regarding geolocation, health, personal preferences, financial and social status; data are spawned with every click, post, ‘stream’, ‘FAC’, shop, scan and ‘verbal’. With ‘posthuman speed’, as Rosi Braidotti notes, our information is uploaded to ‘the cloud’, elusive data banks more insidious and invisible than Foucault's most sinister imagining of the Panopticon.21 ,24 Evoking Deleuze's conception of the ‘society of control’ where a ‘dispersed installation of a new system of domination’ leads to the substitution of ‘individuals’ for ‘the code of ‘dividual’ material to be controlled’,25 personal data are monitored, stored, assessed and simultaneously transformed into capital and hierarchy.

The continuous generation and monitoring of personal data lead to a state of what Bauman and Lyon have termed ‘liquid surveillance’26 ,27 where surveillance has become dislodged from particular sites or institutional contexts, and instead is unbounded, with dehumanising consequences. Liquid surveillance creates subjects that are abstracted from their territorial and social contexts, rendering individuals ‘surveillant assemblages’, a concept Haggerty and Ericson have developed, which draws on Deleuze and Guattari's ontological framework of the ‘assemblage’.28 The surveillant assemblage is a fluid conglomeration of personal data that stands in as a proxy for the existentially complex and situated individual. Lenny's social world is comprised first and foremost by these human assemblages composed of digitised data: investigating Eunice Park's family online, Lenny casually reads over her younger sister Sally's profile: “I learned that she was a heavier girl than Eunice … her LDL cholesterol was way beneath the norm, while the HDL surged ahead to form an unheard-of ration … After checking her health, I examined her purchases … I watched [her family's] AlliedWasteCVSCitigroup account rise and fall” (p. 38).

Illustrating the perhaps inevitable conclusion of liquid surveillance through ‘dataveillance’,29 or the imperceptible surveillance through data-generating digital technologies, SSTLS demonstrates how individuals are grouped into discrete categories or classes, and subsequently assessed.30 In fact, all our data are tightly woven with political and social norms regarding what is acceptable status for a citizen: one must hold valid national documents, be financially solvent, tax paying and law abiding, not to mention, socially integrated, attractive, healthy, young, employable and crucially, in Lenny's social world, sexually desirable. Ultimately, playing on individuals' deep anxieties regarding threats to their social bonds, and the fear of social and political exclusion, technologically enabled biopower ensures that the idiosyncrasies of individuals and everyday life follow universal categories, or norms, which are applicable across populations and demographic groups.

As a result, the constant infinitesimal data-driven surveillances in SSTLS are deployed not merely for motivations regarding ‘social fitness’ or simple voyeurism, but take on their inevitable political dimension. In Lenny's neighbourhood, streets are equipped with ‘Credit Poles’ that give instant LED readouts of credit ranking as individuals walk by (p. 54), immediately publicly pegging each person in the socioeconomic order. In SSTLS these hierarchies cut across familiar ethnic and socioeconomic lines; Lenny observes: “The old Chinese woman had a decent 1400 [Credit ranking], but others, the young Latina mothers … were showing blinking red scores below 900, and I worried for them” (p. 54). Biopower, hence, is not just about the control of individuals, ensuring their homogenisation and hierarchisation, but, furthermore and centrally, is about dynamics of inclusion and exclusion—who has legal status and who does not—as a result, in part, of political, medical and technological innovations that make life processes susceptible to instrumentalised decision making.31

Personal data, in SSTLS, are the ultimate means to determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, positioning individuals in the social hierarchy according primarily to the triad of youth, wealth and health, which trump all other social determinates. HNWIs rely on their data to continuously distinguish themselves from their low net worth individuals (LNWI) counterparts. While youth and health imply that one is deserving of wealth, wealth can simply buy the former two. The ‘Life Lovers’ to whom Lenny peddles dechronification treatments are ‘yuan billionaires’ running Retail empires (p. 123). Not only is natural ageing seen as a disease that can be cured through biomedical interventions,vi ‘Indefinite Life Extension’ is part of the ‘creative economy’ (p. 12), pointing to what Delueze calls ‘the new medicine’, which involves neither doctors nor patients,25 but sees the convergence of medicine with commercialisation and consumerism through the management of data-determined risk factors.

Lenny's young colleague is goaded at his workplace: “I can't wait to see you hit thirty. I've seen your charts. You've got major structural damage from when you were into heroin and carbs, and your whole stupid Boston family is predisposed to alcoholism …. When was the last time I saw you working out at ZeroMass or No Body? You are going to age fast, my friend” (p. 121). At the Post-Human Services headquarters employees are under constant and strict surveillance, and a repurposed Italian train notice board displays employees' data assemblages, establishing a pecking order based on health and mood metrics:[T]he flip board displayed … the results of our latest physicals, our methylation and homocysteine levels, our testosterone and estrogen, our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and most important, our ‘mood+stress indicators,’ which were always supposed to read ‘positive/playful/ready to contribute’ but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers could be changed to ‘one moody betch today’ or ‘not a team playa this month’ (pp. 57–58).

Lenny's colleague taunts him: “He shoved his äppärät into my face. It was flashing my open-sourced blood work from a year ago. ‘How dare you just waltz back here like that with that body mass index of yours?’ he said” (p. 63). Letting one's metrics fall below ‘acceptable’ levels has serious consequences. Lenny notes: “Several of my former colleagues … were marked by the dreaded legend TRAIN CANCELLED … I wasn't even listed” (p. 58).

As personal medical and health data are available to employers and private enterprises as a result of the infinitesimal surveillances of data-driven technologies, the parameters of what is considered acceptable behaviour and appropriate health are increasingly determined, and driven, by commercial interests. For instance, health insurance companies are using self-tracking initiatives as a means to determine policy calculations, encouraging clients to share their health data in order to avail of lower premiums.30 In the USA, individuals are encouraged to participate in ‘wellness programmes’ in their workplaces and to use their health and fitness data in order to receive insurance policy incentives and reduced premiums.16 As these practices are often linked to the provision of health insurance by employers, they can thus penalise their employees for not taking part.16 As such, it is not just desirable to be young, fit and healthy, but increasingly it is becoming a moral and financial imperative; individuals are required to make ‘wise choices’ and penalised when surveillance through data analytics reveals otherwise.33 This trend takes the familiar trajectory of neoliberal ideology within medicine—where individuals are responsible for managing their own risk factors (through healthy eating, lifestyle and increasingly self-monitoring) while broader socioeconomic determinants of health and well-being are ignored—to more worrying conclusions.

Although individuals are ostensibly able to ‘choose’ whether or not they use these technologies or engage with certain self-tracking practices, they are, quite evidently, optional or voluntary in name only. In Lenny's world, individuals who do not carry an äppärät and, as a result, cannot be scanned and ranked are not merely illegible, but are illegal.34 Encountering a ‘fat man’ at the airport in Rome who ‘registered nothing. I mean he wasn't there. He didn't have an äppärät, or it wasn't set on ‘social’ mode’, Lenny notes that, “No one would look at him except for me (and then only for a minute), because he was at the margins of society, because he was without rank … because he had no business being mixed up with real HNWIs in a first-class lounge” (pp. 34–35). Upon arrival in New York a troop of the ‘New York Army National Guard’ storm the plane in camouflage, wearing bulletproof vests and wielding M-16 s, they drag the ‘fat man’ away demanding to see his äppärät. “‘I left it at home,’ the man whispered loudly” (pp. 40–41). Without a digitised data assemblage to legitimate his social worth, this ‘fat man’ is rendered illegible and, as a result, disposable. As Bauman notes, surveillance society is no longer primarily about inclusion and integration, ‘getting people into line and keeping them there’, but instead has become increasingly about exclusion, ‘spotting the people who ‘do not fit’ [and] banishing them from that place’.35

In SSTLS, the ‘inclusion/exclusion game’.35 lurks behind the deployment of all data technologies. In this story, personal data, centred on wealth and health, are used to mediate between valid political existence and the individual with no status that can be eliminated, or excluded, without impunity. Across society, individuals who have ‘neglected’ their health and wealth self-care responsibilities—the LNWIs, the elderly, the sick, unskilled migrants, disenfranchised veterans and the poor—are relocated at gunpoint to make room for the Media and Credit elite who are turning Manhattan into a ‘Lifestyle Hub’ for Chinese and Norwegian investors (p. 322). In SSTLS the most economically and physically vulnerable are rendered ‘human waste’,35 systematically marginalised and excluded from the protection of the law.35 Even at Post-Human Services, Lenny's workplace, employees are systematically subject to ominous ‘exit interviews’ based on the results of their mood and health metrics (p. 69).

History has long demonstrated the dehumanising effects of treating individuals as numbers or categories of data, where the connection between genocidal atrocities and the numbering of individuals are obvious. As Giorgio Agamben remarks: “For the first time in the history of humanity identity is no longer a function of the social personality and its recognition by others, but rather a function of … data which cannot bear any relation to it … The new identity is an identity without the person”.23 This identity ‘without a person’ is the digitised data assemblage on whom, as David Lyon notes, one's ‘life chances and choices hang more significantly than on our real lives and the stories we tell about them’.27 In other words, the ethical, spiritual or political subject has been usurped by the ‘biosubject’36 where rights are contingent on data points: where one comes from, what one looks like, one's health status, genetic makeup, who one's family is, one's personal wealth and, in Lenny's world, one's HOTNESS and SUSTAINABILIT¥.vii


Seeing human life as a digitised data assemblage has resonances both across political discourses and within individuals’ personal lives; novel technologies effect changes across both broad sociopolitical terrains and also within the minutiae of everyday lived experience. Not only is our status as political subjects at stake, but also the quality of our human relationships. For instance, Lenny protests when his äppärät's EmotePad tells him that he is attracted to a ‘pretty brunette [in] see-through Onionskin jeans’: but “I don't even know her personality”, he moans (p. 89). This drive towards ‘quantitative analysis of nonquantitative desire’.34 reconstitutes the human capacities for well-being, love and flourishing through their ability to be redescribed and mediated through digital data. As Raymond Malewitz notes in his discussion of SSTLS, technology determines ‘who should speak to whom, how that conversation should proceed, and whether or not a relationship should be continued’.34 In SSTLS characters engage in behaviours in the material world that will augment their status in the realm of digital metrics.34 Love, for example, is ‘great for pH, ACTH, LDL, whatever ails you’ (p. 66), suggesting that ‘human affect is merely a means to a greater end of biocomputational success’.34 This inversion is not merely unsettling, but is dehumanising. Like Lenny, we are increasingly implored to adjust our social signals and interactions to make them legible and amenable to data algorithms, a reconfiguration of the body–other–world interfaces that would have been beyond the realm of imagination scarcely a generation ago.3

Of course, the tangible worry that Shteyngart explores in SSTLS is that the personal analytics of social media, centring on health, wealth and sexual desirability, eventually (and perhaps inevitably) start to trump the complexities of human interaction and identity. The concern is that encountering individuals as data assemblages effaces our capacity for empathy and our tolerance for vulnerability. These anxieties about the vanishing human subject, who has been usurped by data, are taken to even greater heights in other recent speculative works. Rebecca Lemov, in her recent article ‘On Not Being There’, discusses Alex Rivera's film The Sleep Dealer (2008) and William Gibson's novel The Peripheral (2014), which explore how the momentum of data technologies, driven by economic interests, has led to the ascendancy of an instrumental dehumanising logic with respect to human subjects and human bodies.37 In the dystopian worlds of this film and novel, human bodies are literally effaced by data and digital networks as a result of cyber-labour. Flesh bodies and their concomitant lives, identities and existential needs are abandoned, while workers ‘plug in’ to cyber landscapes. Bodies can be discarded and left behind and human life becomes peripheral to data life. The maltreatment of certain marginal human subjects—the poor and migrants—is the fall out of the moral indifference that arises because of the instrumental decision making that deals with information, rather than with humanity.

In contrast to Rivera's and Gibson's imagined worlds, Shteyngart does not entirely do away with human bodies in SSTLS, but instead uses their fleshy resistance as a means to expose the absurdity of our desires to transcend ourselves through technology. Urban landscapes are dotted with gyms called ‘Zero Mass’ and ‘No Body’ (p. 121); Eunice is obsessed with anorexic models on the clothing website ‘AssLuxury’, her gaze ‘boring right through them into some new dimension devoid of hip and bone’ (p. 306); Joshie, Lenny's boss, undergoes dechronification treatments, systematically replacing parts of his body to achieve ‘Indefinite Life Extension’. Joshie explains to Eunice, “I'm going to have my heart removed completely. Useless muscle. Idiotically designed. That's this year's big project at Post-Human Services, we're going to teach the blood exactly where to go and how fast to go and then we'll just let it do all the circulating. Call me heartless. Hahaha” (p. 295). Ultimately dechronification fails, leading to organ failure and the ‘Kapasian Tremors’ (p. 329). Joshie, left drooling and twitching, admits, “We were wrong. The antioxidants were a dead end … Our genocidal war on free radicals proved more damaging than helpful, hurting cellular metabolism, robbing the body of control. In the end, nature simply would not yield” (p. 329). Towards the end of the novel, Lenny realises that Life Extension is futile and that there are enduring aspects of our humanity that cannot be overwritten by technology: “I could commit my genome and proteome to heart, I could wage a nutritional war against my faulty apo E4 allele until I turn myself into a walking cruciferous vegetable, but nothing will cure my main genetic defect: My father is a janitor from a poor country” (p. 60).

While SSTLS reaches farcical extremes and is absurd and satirical to the point of comedy, Shteyngart nonetheless executes a serious and studied reflection on the status of our humanity in a biopolitical age that has swiftly come to be dominated by technology and commercial interests. SSTLS is a semiepistolary novel; the narrative is transmitted through Lenny's lengthy journal entries interspersed with Eunice's GlobalTeens emails and chat messages to her family and friends. Lenny's longform confessional journal entries, brimming over with emotional introspection and existential angst, act as a stark contrast to the digitised data-driven world that Eunice inhabits where her patois is littered with acronyms, such as TIMATOV (‘Think I'm About to Openly Vomit’ (p. 78)) and JBF (‘Just Butt-Fucking’ (p. 22)). Eunice's GlobalTeens account repeatedly sends her the message: “SUPER HINT: Switch to Images today! Less words=more fun!!!” (p. 27). The drive towards emoticons and acronyms alters the grammar and ethics of communication, and changes the quality of possible emotional and cognitive states, effectively reducing our non-quantifiable affective and embodied responses to a type of digital shorthand.34 Lenny's journal is itself symbolic of a way of living that is facing extinction as data-driven technology seeps into all aspects of human life. As Gary Wolf notes when talking about the rise of self-tracking and the QS, “In the cosy confines of personal life, we rarely used the power of numbers … The imposition, on oneself or one's family, of a regime of objective record keeping seemed ridiculous. A journal was respectable. A spreadsheet was creepy.”7 In SSTLS this relation has been resolutely reversed, where Lenny's journal is his shameful secret. Everyone else in his world has eschewed ‘interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing’; instead ‘they are using numbers’.7

SSTLS oscillates between Lenny and Eunice's worlds to illustrate ‘ustopian’ tensions, where technological innovation results in both dystopian and utopian realisations: “the imagined perfect society and its opposite. . .[as] each contains a latent version of the other”.38 SSTLS shows us both the ‘promise’ and the ‘fear’ inherent in emerging data-tracking technologies, which are simultaneously a possible route to humanity's betterment, through augmented health and communication, while conversely a likely contribution to humanity's ultimate destruction.36 By revealing potential futures, and the opportunities and risks with respect to the material and political conditions of daily life, that digital health and data technologies afford, Shteyngart's novel fulfils the role of speculative fiction imagined by Ursula Le Guin: it is a site of social and biopolitical critique extrapolating ‘imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that's half prediction, half satire’.38 In doing so, the novel subversively reveals many of the hopes and apprehensions circulating in our biopolitical era with respect to emerging technologies that treat human life as a digitised data assemblage.


View Abstract


  • Funding Irish Research Council and Marie Curie Actions.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i I discuss the convergence of neoliberal doctrines with medical technologies elsewhere.5

  • ii I also discuss these anxieties and the speculative genre with respect to Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods.8

  • iii Subsequent page references will be cited parenthetically in the text and the title will be abbreviated to SSTLS. SSTLS won the Salon Book Award (2010) and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (2011). It was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (2010) and a New York Times Bestseller.

  • iv See Shteyngart's comments in the “Acknowledgements” of SSTLS, page 333.11

  • v For instance, the Quantified Self (QS) Movement, started in 2007 by WIRED magazine journalists Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, takes an active approach to self-tracking. Its members are part of online communities where they share and compare data. QS participants monitor and measure a range of health and personal analytics such as weight, energy levels, mood, time usage, sleep patterns, cognitive performance and athletic performance, among others. See reference 6.

  • vi For a full discussion of the biogerontological discourses in SSTLS and their relation to contemporary anti-aging and longevity movements see reference 32.

  • vii Raymond Malewitz's discussion of SSTLS explores at length the theme of the increasingly effaced human subject, focusing on the idea that human bodies are erased and remediated as a result of their engagement with information technologies in the story. See reference 34.