Qualitative self-tracking and the Qualified Self

The idea of “qualitative self-tracking” is one that I’ve mentioned on my blog before. It’s a term in which I think but it’s also one that I’m aware of being unclear about exactly what I mean by it. Searching google shows a complete absence of material relating to it – returning only three hits for the exact phrase, all for the same document, which makes reference to “qualitative and quantitative self-tracking data” as opposed to the specific sense in which I’m suggesting qualitative self-tracking can be thought of as a distinct type of practice.

There’s a lot more on the notion of the Qualified Self. This is a term that had occurred to me a couple of years ago and I really like it. My point at the time was that the ethos of self-knowledge through numbers does very little for me personally. But I’m intellectually drawn to the Quantified Self because it’s a fascinating example of the intensification of reflexivity in contemporary society.

In talking about the Qualified Self I’m not disputing the complexity of the inferences that people can and do draw about their selves and their lives on the basis of quantitative data. I’m just suggesting a different starting point which might often have similar implications at the level of practice. I also think there’s an inherent tendency towards behaviourism in a lot of the discourse surrounding the Quantified Self. To be clear: I don’t have any objection to quantitative research into human behaviour (in fact I’d find such an objection absurd) but I do see it as a form of abstraction that is methodologically unavoidable in addressing certain kinds of question and/or to work at a certain level of scope. But what ultimately concerns me are the qualities of things – this is something that’s often associated with description and narrative but I’d argue causality, in the sense of what lies beyond observable regularities, necessitates invocation of qualities. Why does X do Y under condition Z? I see how it’s possible to reject the assumptions underlying the question but I don’t see how it’s possible to address such a question without a concern for the qualities of X, Y and Z.

So rather crudely here’s an attempt at a definition of qualitative self-tracking: using mobile technology to recurrently record qualities of experience or environment, as well as reflections upon them, with the intention of archiving aspects of personal life that would otherwise be lost, in a way susceptible to future review and revision of concerns, commitments and practices in light of such a review. So obviously things like personal journals would fall into this category. Quantitative self-tracking pre-existed the Quantified Self, as well as the novel practices that began to diffuse and prompted the elaboration of the QS. But I think qualitative self-tracking goes back much further. It’s the continuities that interest me here and how examination of what is similar can help us better understand what is different about our present circumstances.

While I use the term ‘mobile’ above in a rather generic sense, it’s nonetheless the case that smart phones facilitate greater opportunities for qualified self-tracking. For instance iDoneThis, though designed as an enterprise tool, has been something I’ve increasingly enjoyed using in the last week. Every day it sends you an e-mail at a defined time asking, perhaps unsurprisingly, “what did you do today?” – to which the response is to e-mail back and say “I done this …. “. It’s an incredibly quick process, automatically formatting each line of the e-mail into a separate entry. These are then indexed to the day in question and marked on a calendar which can be (re)viewed later:

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 12.38.04

In a little under a week of using this, though not on every day, I’ve already been struck by the variability with which I respond to it. Some days I’ve immediately been able to say “I did a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h” etc. On other days, it’s necessitated that I deliberate about what exactly I did do that day. I find this very interesting as an example of a socio-technical system inculcating a deeper degree of personal reflexivity about how you’ve spent your day. Some days, I felt I did a lot but then realised upon reflection that I hadn’t done a great deal. Other days, I thought I hadn’t done much but then realised I had actually accomplished rather a lot.

Goalstreaks is a ‘habit tracker’ which may seem an odd choice to include in a post about the qualified self. It’s designed to keep track of the number of days in which you have taken action towards a goal. The idea is that this produces a goalstreak which, as it becomes longer, feels progressively more jarring to break. I’d argue it’s qualitative, at least in the particular sense in which I’m using the term, as a result of the distinction it draws between goals and action. The idea is to define a medium term outcome (e.g. write a book) and then specify a particular daily task which contributes substantively towards achieving that goal. In this sense, it links what the social theorist Harmut Rosa describes as everyday and biographical time horizons – drawing out connections between day-to-day routine and the unfolding of your life in the longer term, with the intention of progressively reshaping the former so that it contributes towards the shaping of the latter. This is why I think meaning is integral to the process – it tracks but it does so in a way that tracks the quality of the action vis-a-vis personal concerns. The normativity is built into how you use the app rather than being something that only factors in when you interpret the data (in fact the scope for treating goalstreaks as data is quite limited I think, over and above modulating your plans because certain goals you’ve aimed for progressively come to seem as if they might be unsustainable).

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Hopefully this has given some sense of what I mean by ‘qualitative self-tracking’. As I said at the start of the post, it’s a term I use in thinking about my own life, as opposed to one I’m necessarily serious about as a proposed concept for sociological inquiry. But this is my starting point for investigating personal reflexivity and digital technology. So it seemed a good idea to try and clarify, at least for myself, what I actually mean when I use the phrase.

6 responses to “Qualitative self-tracking and the Qualified Self”

  1. Excellent article, and I’ll follow your development of this topic with interest. Personally I have an aversion to the tiny victories and brags of the quantified self (“I just smashed a 2.3km jog on Nike+!”) but can see a huge value in setting internalised, qualitative goals. It’s not a new idea as you acknowledge (and Goalstreaks is an exact replica of Seinfeld’s writing policy) but technology can really add something in recall and motivation. Thanks!

  2. Precisely, that’s what I’m interested in – how new technology reshapes these ways of relating to our selves and our lives, as opposed to just being preoccupied by the novelty.

  3. Mark, you might be interested in a project I led a couple of years ago, Lifestreams, exploring new ways we might make meaning from personal biosensor data that are very much about personal reflexivity.
    Transforming data into physical objects offers a wholly different register of ways in which we can begin to encompass much longer timeframes than the immediacy of digital media often dictates, perhaps giving us insight into life patterns that become discernible when we begin using more of our senses than just the visual.

  4. that looks very interesting – thanks! just put it on my reading list for when i’m travelling later this week

  5. I really appreciated this article. Thanks.
    In this vein, I have started to write some software that attempts to put some qualitative (1-5 style) personal surveys along side some personal journalling, with the goal of looking at qualitative trends on any personal metric you want, and encouraging people to reflect on the results.

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