This post is a very tentative first step towards something which I hope others would share my enthusiasm for. I first encountered Quantified Self via Caspar Addyman who I worked with on Your Brain on Drugs. I had to drop out of the project before we finished the Boozerlyzer but it was great to see Caspar subsequently presenting this work at Quantified Self. This led me to read more about both Quantified Self and quantified self, distinguishing the two, as Whitney Erin Boesel convincingly argues we should:
As I so often remind people, there’s a lot more to self-tracking than just Quantified Self; these days, there’s a lot more to “quantified self” (lowercase) than just Quantified Self (title case), too[i]. One thing that seems to get lost in all this is that, while Quantified Self may be at the forefront of some new methods of self-tracking, it did not initiate the growing popular interest in self-tracking; rather, Quantified Self came to exist because people were already self-tracking, and some of those people were interested in discussing their self-tracking experiences with others. While Quantified Self does undoubtedly help spread interest in self-tracking (just as increasing interest in self-tracking helps drive the growth of Quantified Self), I think the group’s more significant cultural impact has been to make the very concept of self-tracking more visible—and in so doing, to make tracking-in-general more visible. It is this last function, of making more visible a particularly disconcerting thing that usually fades into the background (e.g. being tracked by others), that I think is at the heart of some people’s deep discomfort when I say “Quantified Self” out loud.
Yet, in losing track of the distinctions between Quantified Self (title case) and “quantified self,” or between Quantified Self and self-tracking generally, we also lose track of what I increasingly believe is most noteworthy about Quantified Self: its reflexivity. “QSers” don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally. Over the last two years, I’ve watched reflexive engagement with self-tracking become an increasingly important part of Quantified Self culture (which is something I find very exciting). In fact, I argue that Quantified Self’s most central object of concern has slowly shifted from the tools people use to track, to the data those tools and other self-tracking practices generate, to self-tracking practices as meaningful ends onto themselves, to developing “reflective capacities” not just through self-tracking practices, but in regard to self-tracking practices. Whether or not one sees Quantified Self as a harbinger of Data Doom, the group is also working to ask questions and to develop practices that could help to resist the very doom that the words “quantified self” sometimes seem to signify.
Since then it’s come to occupy my thinking in a number of ways, as I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by my own self-tracking while also being frustrated and fascinated by the way it’s covered in the media. There are a few particular ways in which this interests me:
- The thorough engagement with questions of philosophical anthropology which still seems to be far less central than the subject matter would suggest
- How particular answers to these questions work, implicitly or otherwise, to animate the framing of self-tracking and debates surrounding it (particularly in the media)
- The emergence of Quantified Self as an undeniable movement of some sort
- How the hyper-reflexivity identified by Whitney Erin Boesel should be understood sociologically (this is where my PhD leads directly into this research topic)
- The political economy of self-tracking and the ethical, theoretical, legislative and political issues it raises
- How to square the meta-theoretical circle between seeing this as a disciplinary technology and an emancipatory tool for self disciplining.
- The continuities and discontinuities between digital self-tracking and older technologies of the self
I hasten to add that these are just my interests and I’m sure others would disagree with my framing and/or suggest further topics. In a really insightful article, which is worth reading in full, Deborah Lupton offers an overview of the rise of this self-tracking technology:
The advent of digital technologies able to assist in the collecting, measuring, computation and display of these data has been vitally important in promoting the cause of the self-tracking movement. While people have been able to monitor and measure aspects of their bodies and selves using non-digital technologies for centuries, mobile digital devices connected to the internet have facilitated the ever more detailed measurement and monitoring of the body and everyday life in real time and the analysis, presentation and sharing of these data.
These technologies include not only digital cameras, smartphones and tablet computers, but also wearable wristbands, headbands or patches with digital technologies embedded in their fabric able to measure bodily functions or movement and upload data wirelessly. Tiny sensors can also be incorporated into everyday items such as toothbrushes, pyjamas or watering cans to measure such activities. Blood pressure cuffs and body weight scales can be purchased that connect wirelessly to apps. Global positioning devices and accelerometers in mobile devices provide spatial location and quantify movement. Apps that regularly ask users to document their mood can monitor affective states. There seems hardly a limit to the ways in which one’s daily activities can be monitored, measured and quantified. Some committed self-trackers even regularly send stool and blood samples for analysis and use commercially available genetic tests as part of their efforts to construct a detailed map of their bodily functions and wellbeing.
What I’m proposing is an informal and interdisciplinary research network to focus on Quantified Self, quantified self and broader issues of self-tracking (and gamification). An initial event could take the form of a papers session later this year, allowing those who are currently or are seeking to do work in this area to present to a room full of people with similar interests. If this idea is something you’re interested in then please get in touch. I’m open to any and all suggestions about how to proceed.