freedom from self-imposed metrified tyranny: some thoughts on the moral psychology of self-tracking

A couple of years ago I purchased a Nike Fuel Band, partly out of a curiosity driven by my nascent interest in self-tracking and partly out of a desire to rationalise not going to the gym. If I was planning to conduct research on self-tracking practices then it seemed important to me to actually try them myself. However over the following years, my interest in self-tracking became downgraded to that of something like urbanism, as a topic that fascinates me but that I realise I have nothing useful to say on, while my engagement (entrapment?) in self-tracking practices remained, first through the fuel band then two successive jawbone bands.

I’ve been given cause to reflect on this recently by the fact that my jawbone has broken twice in the space of a week (ouch) giving me a respite from the metricised tyranny to which I had merrily subjected myself over the previous years. In defence of the jawbone: the soft wakeup function can be an extremely pleasant way to wake up. It starts buzzing up to half an hour before a set time when it detects, albeit by way of questionable proxies, you are sleeping most lightly, with the intention of reducing drowsiness. I think there’s something to this but there’s also an obvious invitation to confirmation bias: if you set a device to wake you up without feeling drowsy then you’re much more likely to ask yourself ‘am I feeling drowsy?’ when you wake up and attribute its absence to the magical powers of the band. The sleep tracker was also the first and only experience I’ve had of ‘self-knowledge through numbers’. It turns out I had a persistent habit of going to bed very early when I was sleep deprived then it taking hours for me to get to sleep i.e. it would usually take me 10 minutes to get to sleep if I went to bed 10pm-12pm but hours if I went to bed earlier. Thus undermining the point of going to bed early. I also saw for the first time how much alcohol would undermine the quality of my sleep, prompting a year long experiment with cutting back on and then completely giving up alcohol, which I’m now in turn giving up on (I missed red wine & craft beer) but that was nonetheless enormously healthy for me as a person.

Now those defensive remarks are out of the way: the jawbone is fucking creepy. I’ve written about the idleness alarm and how readily the concept would lend itself to invasive applications. But I’m wondering now about how systematically the measurements have tended to crowd out the value of what is being measured within my own psyche. My standard defence of self-tracking had been that voluntary self-tracking is an augmentation of reflexivity: if you reflexively decide that exercise is good and you want to incorporate more exercise into your life, these technological practices can be useful tools to overcome some of the all-too-human propensities which undermine the projects of self-cultivation we seek to pursue. Furthermore, critics of self-tracking often mistake the narrative of self-tracking (self-knowledge through numbers) for its moral psychology, something which I think is empirically variable but I suspect has far more in common with neo-ascetic regimes like ‘lifestyle minimalism’ and ‘life hacking’ than these critics tend to recognise. The practices, the devices, the contexts and the sensibilities upon which the diffusion of ‘self-tracking’ depends may all be new. But this self-self relation simply isn’t and anyone who fails to recognise this has a poor grasp of ‘the self’, its history or both.

Nonetheless, what I’m now recognising is how what can be reflexively taken up as an extension of one’s agency – in order to increase our capacity to act on 2nd order desires (“I want to want to exercise”) in the face of 1st order whims (“I don’t want to go to the gym today”) – nonetheless acts back iteratively upon the agent in a way that moulds their dispositions towards reflexivity. What do I mean? Firstly, self-tracking practices are outcome orientated. What matters is a completed activity. This doesn’t magically remove your capacity to enjoy an activity but it does mitigate against it: if you’re going for a walk because your jawbone tells you to, it’s not impossible that you’ll nonetheless enjoy the walk, the scenery, being outside etc but the mentality of self-tracking never encourages and sometimes actively undermines the attentiveness necessary for this enjoyment to emerge during the walk. Secondly, this mattering is unstable unless the completed activity is measured in a reliable way: the whole edifice starts to crack if you begin to think about how the instruments may be deliberately or accidentally gamed, as well as the spheres of errancy (e.g. sleep vs. lying perfectly still unable to sleep) that become obvious once you’ve used a band for a bit. That this activity matters to you necessitates continued faith, perhaps ontological security in the sense of a willingness to act ‘as if’ the measurement is as objective as it says it is, in the instruments and your use of them. Thirdly, this mattering is contingent upon continued submission to the system. If your band breaks or you cease using it, perhaps switching to a competitor, the meaningfulness of what you’ve been doing is imperilled in proportion to the scale of the technological transition.

This is all a long winded way of saying that I’ve changed my views on self-tracking. I do find it creepy after all. But I still think many of the critics misunderstand exactly what’s going on here. I think cessation of self-tracking is an enormously important empirical topic, without which discussion of self-tracking will inevitably remain prone to over-generalisation. We also need longitudinal qualitative studies of self-tracking, serious and extended versions of the auto-ethnographic reflections I’ve tried to outline here, in order to better understand how these activities unfold temporally in a way able to change both the person and the activity.