Quantified Self and Philosophical Anthropology

Last week I listened this Radio 4 documentary about the Quantified Self which was much better than I anticipated. However I was confused at what I couldn’t help but see as the vacuity of the esteemed critics invited by the programme. Their objection seemed to be that the idea of self-measurement (as if this was something which began in the last few years) necessitated a reductive orientation towards the self. Somehow it seemed that an attempt to know oneself through measurement constituted a great violence to human nature, occluding a more direct engagement with the existential questions posed by day-to-day life, given we are beings who care thrown into a world beyond our control. Perhaps the strongest (and also silliest) claim made by these critics was the apparent argument (I’m not 100% sure here) that the problem with digital measurement is that it mediates the relationship between human beings and their emotions and so shatters the ‘natural’ emotional life we would otherwise enjoy.

I hope I misconstrued these arguments and that there was a sophisticated understanding which I missed. But if these were the cases made, it points to something interesting – as so often is the case when clever people end up recurrently saying stupid things about a topic – namely that the discussion lacks an adequate set of concepts with which to be carried out. Which is not a surprise given how the debate around the quantified self leads quite naturally into social theoretical questions of structure, agency and culture – none of which enjoy much in the way of clarity or agreement. Many of the points of contention in the debate rested on empirical questions about how the technologies being subsumed under the term ‘quantified self’ were actually being deployed by concrete actors, as the present moment of an ongoing biography, within specific social and cultural contexts. This issue is crying out for empirical research & when I get a chance to look next week I hope to find some. Furthermore these discussions are crying out for a more fully rounded picture of the ‘self’ which both seeks quantification and is in turn quantified as object. The model Margaret Archer has been developing for the last 15 years would be absolutely perfect as the framework to make sense of what the quantitative self ‘is’, how ‘it’ operates and why ‘it’ is spreading.

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