👁 In 'Made for Love,' Crisis Meets Habit
Christina Lee's new show on the fear and paranoia of never not being watched
In early April, Amazon was in the spotlight for the unionization efforts among its warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. One of the stories that came to light during the vote was a rumor—initially denied and later confirmed—about Amazon delivery drivers peeing in bottles in their vehicles to meet the intense demand of deliveries.
Though the union was thoroughly beat down in a more than two-to-one defeat, the process shed light on larger questions regarding working conditions in large tech companies and the ramifications on workers’ bodies. The instilled fear of not meeting delivery quotas set by Amazon reflects a broader concern that companies’ high expectations of worker output are affecting individuals’ bodily habits.
The concept of stretching the limits of the human body to optimize for productivity has pervaded all levels throughout the tech industry. “Body-hacking,” a trend in which individuals pride themselves in cutting corners with their basic bodily needs has gained popularity in the past few years, with practices ranging from tracking one’s sleep and diet habits to at-home genetic engineering. One notorious example is Marissa Mayer, who shared that her level of productivity could be attributed to successfully scheduling rest, showers, and bathroom breaks while working at Google.
Yet for workers on the other end of the labor chain at the company, hacking one’s own body to optimize output is not always done autonomously. Rather, their bodies are getting hijacked and pushed to the limits of what the human physique is capable of.
One of the lessons reinforced by the pandemic has been that certain types of bodies (across racial and occupational categories) are more indispensable than others. The manual labor of some is taken advantage of in order to maintain or push company stock prices higher without the benefits seen by those in the professional-managerial class. These bodies are taken advantage of for the company, to their detriment.
These examples demonstrate the ways in which companies alter the habits, and their physical effects, of individuals. The fear around private and public surveillance, especially around our modes of communication (like the FBI agents listening to your phone calls) is not new. “Made for Love,” an HBO Max series, hinges on this very fear by following Hazel Green-Gogol (Cristin Milioti), the wife of a tech megacompany founder, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), who plants a chip in her brain to maximize their romantic connection before its launch as a widely available product.
Their relationship, however, is anything but romantic. Byron implants the chip without Hazel’s consent and tracks her every move as she attempts to escape her life with him. His influence extends beyond her feelings and four senses (Byron doesn’t “believe in scent”) and into all modes of communication, setting off a game of cat and mouse once Hazel escapes The Hub, a commune where she and Byron have self-isolated for several years. Because any sensory information Hazel takes in can be used against her, even away from her home with Byron, she can no longer practice the same liberties free to her before marriage. She wears blindfolds when she travels so Byron can’t extract her location, nor can she even begin to describe to her dad her personal struggles while living with Byron. She can’t trust herself to see certain things that might serve as information to Byron. Suddenly, the expansive desert landscape that serves as backdrop begins to feel claustrophobic.
In “Made for Love,” bodies are made valuable for their utility. Hazel’s biometric and emotive data are valuable to Byron because they give him insight into how to convince her that life with him isn’t so miserable. (This is a hard sell when their past life consisted of forcing Hazel to perform daily rituals and her movements throughout their campus are monitored and controlled, which are also tracked to an obsessive degree.) The quantitative analysis of her data is executed on such a granular level that confuses viewers as to whether his obsession for Hazel is having her as his life partner or as intellectual property.
While watching the show, I thought of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s book Updating to Remain the Same, in which she describes habits as packaged units often deployed as media to control and influence individuals. Habits constitute the fabric of routines, predictability, and comfort, so they often go unnoticed and unchallenged. More often than not, they are manufactured by monolithic forces such as companies or forms of media. However, their summation serves as information about someone’s life and links to other individuals who practice the same habits.
Yet the implications of the summation of a habit can spell out the fulfillment of influencing forces’ most dangerous ideologies. “Through habits, networks are scaled, for individual tics become indications of collective inclinations. Through the analytic of habits, individual actions coalesce bodies into a monstrously connected chimera,” Chun writes.Eventually, we become dulled to what is happening to us and act in ways that uphold the power of the governing bodies that write these programmed habits.
With Chun’s description in mind, Byron’s microchip product is the dystopian distillation of the technology industry’s vision of the future. Consumer apps often tout a message that experiences are meant to be deeply personal, curated with content and recommendations based on your unique user profile. The aim is to create habits that increase the daily user activity of the product.
The danger, however, is when habits begin to erode individuals’ personal boundaries. For Chun, inherited habits create a dependent relationship, an indebtedness, to the originator. Though Chun writes that this indebtedness is not always bad, in “Made for Love,” the debt is to always give yourself (your habits) to the watcher/observer while the benefits received are unclear. Any information a user doesn’t want to share requires breaking the habit, disrupting the signal. The truly damning part about this relationship is that the debts may never become paid off. To have a habit is to lose because to no longer have these particular habits mapped onto one’s life means to risk obsolescence and social irrelevance.
Missing from the show are any dissenters surrounding Byron. As Byron continues to transgress privacy and human rights violations, one begins to wonder what may have happened to those who spoke up against the product, if at all. Between Byron’s two henchmen who vacillate between moral extremes, the faceless surgeons who anesthetize Hazel for surgery, and the invisible engineers who brought Byron’s vision to fruition, it’s clear that money talks, but it also silences. “Loyalty is one of life's greatest commodities,” Byron says with relish at one point.
If love cannot be bought, perhaps loyalty is the next best thing. Loyalty can erode even the most extreme boundaries, including the boundaries one decides for their own body. For Amazon workers who voted against the Bessemer union, the health insurance provided by the company from day one of employment was a win for their loyalty. Claims, however, that the company causes workers to suffer from long-term detrimental health conditions from being overworked might contradict this rationale. (This aligns with what David Harvey coined as the “culture of consent,” in which neoliberalism enables individuals to endorse policies that only work against them.)Amazon’s provision of healthcare makes it stand out as a company deserving of loyalty since few other companies offer this for warehouse workers or drivers, especially at a time when concerns about health and safety are most dire.
Yet given the almost laughable extent to which Byron is able to get away with, it is perhaps no surprise, then, that a myth about microchips being implanted through Covid vaccines has circulated among migrant farm workers in California; the main concern being that a microchip would enable companies and the US government to track the movements of individuals and deport undocumented workers. In the show, Hazel’s entrapment feels finite because of Byron’s implicit ability to bribe journalists and law enforcement to his advantage. He can distort any story brought to the media, consequently alienating Hazel, or anyone else against him, as a crazed scaremonger or conspiracy theorist.
On the surface, the idea that tech industries could not only produce a microchip that integrates with one’s DNA into a vaccine shot but could also veritably get away with it is easily dismissible as just that—an unbased sensationalist claim among anti-vaxxers. But these myths feel real to these individuals in vulnerable populations with their livelihoods at stake, while also posing very real consequences for their communities since vaccine adoption rates are lower. If tech companies, and the individuals who run them, have this level of power and leverage, then the realm of possibility of what they can accomplish blooms.
As in “Made for Love,” without a sense of moral intervention comes a sense of futility for both the actors and observers. The attribution of nefarious activity, even if mythic, to tech companies counteracts the interpersonal reach touted by tech companies—that the experience of tech products are supposed to be personal, with content and recommendations curated for your unique user profile. Beneath this message lies more And yet, when is personal too personal? Without privacy and an ever-present fear of being preyed upon, exploitation and control becomes a lot easier.
Though the microchips-in-vaccines rumor is untrue, companies have surveilled and controlled, through monitoring individuals’ habits and movements in the past. Amazon has created wristbands that track employee activity, while a Tesla whistleblower accused the company of illegally surveilling workers. A former longtime Amazon warehouse worker has written about how employees may have indirectly lost their jobs from going to the bathroom. Sometimes they do this in collaboration with the US government to deport undocumented workers. This is especially true for individuals in marginalized communities because they constitute the class of laborers who fulfill the dreams of these companies on an everyday scale (this is especially true for gig economy workers). Even more so, that even in the face of these controlling practices, these individuals experience the futility of seeking redemption or preventing the total control of these bodies.
Though “Made for Love” feels at times ham-handed, trying to embroil the missteps and absurd practices of the several companies that have come to dominate our daily lives, it shines in making explicit the everyday level of paranoia and paralysis of existing under the ever-present possibility of surveillance. Even before the implanted chip, Hazel’s movements throughout The Hub, and her access to parts of it, were tracked, forcing habits that felt alien to herself. Yet now that the surveillance is made overt and [transparent] in a world away from The Hub, she changes the shape of her actions and habits with the knowledge of being watched, not too dissimilar to the acute self-consciousness felt from being on-camera during virtual meetings.
The real anxiety is the question of what will be left when technology meted out by the largest corporations has full control over our bodies, habits, and decisions. “He took all my hiding places. He took my solitude,” Hazel says when asked about how her new way of living feels. And in the wide eyes of her hollow, glassy gaze it feels like a mirror being held up.
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Updating to Remain the Same, 2016.
David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 2005.