The Quantified Self – a post of 839 words, finished in 35 minutes at 18:32 on Wednesday 18th September

On Tuesday 17th September I attended the inaugural meeting of the Quantified Self Research Network, convened by Mark Carrigan and Chris Till.  For those of you who don’t know, which included me until very recently, Quantified Self/ quantified self is very basically using technologies to track, monitor and improve. There is Daytum that lets you track your everyday data, MoodPanda that tracks mood, or FitBit that tracks movement. All you need to do is use the devices or applications, monitor what you do and take steps to improve.  (If you’re interested, read more about QS here here and here and Google it.)

The event brought together speakers looking at applications of QS in health, sports (cycling and triathlon) and the movement in general.  I’ll link to the event write up when it’s available (here).

One of the standout issues for me and apparently for the rest of the audience was who these individuals are, and so the significance, scale, and generalizability of this trend. QS’ers are typically the tech savvy, entrepreneurial, self-starters who meet in start-up spaces apparently in between pitches for venture funding and/or highly motivated triathletes, marathon and ultra-marathon runners.  Can these obsessives really be the future for the rest of us, over-weight and only partly aware of the data of our failings?

My gut reaction is that QS poses the prospect of a dangerous alignment with homo economicus, a homo quantificati.  The issue is the comparison between the quantified and improved QS selves and the un-quantified masses of the great unwashed.  There is a long-standing tradition of blaming the poor and wretched for their situation due to their moral failings.  The indigent are unemployed because they are feckless and lazy.  This is, of course, the culture of poverty thesis. The bête noir of the underclass was given the kiss of life by New Labour and now is friends with (but pushing for without) benefits of the Conservatives, especially Michael Gove and his views on why people use food banks (read here).  The point is that rather than the retrospective framing of failure in terms of deserve and a pattern of moral and individual failings, QS could provide the data of all the steps not taken, the pounds not shed, the unappealing habits left in place, the perspiration un-perspired, the boxes unfilled and checks un-ticked.  All of an individual’s efforts, plans, activities and actions quantified and added to matrices and leagues that rank from high-to-low, successful to objectively bad and failed.  Standing opposed to them will the high-achievers that stand over and above, whether in steps taken or money earned… and there will be the data to prove it.

I spoke to the obesity researcher and she noted that when she stands on her scales and is heavier than she or society would prefer, or doctors say is healthy, then she stands alone on those scales. The metric of kilograms or BMI on fancier scales does not factor in having to work many miles from home, care for children, fall exhausted in front of a television each night and generally live in an obesogenic environment. Blaming the poor and obese etc based on metrics of decisions, activities and consequences individuates conditions with societal and structural influences. Simply charting a graph of an individual’s descent into poverty, to take an example, would reflect dwindling finances caused by bad financial management but it would ignore the negative effects of scarcity on the brain leading to decisions and actions that worsen poverty as identified by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having too Little Means so Much (read a review here).

There were some interesting tensions, parallels and in all likelihood fairly terrifying prospects for education.  Education, at least the GERM variety, is sold on the idea of a self that can be quantified, measured, monitored and improved. It is easy to see applications of QS in schools. I just got sucked into trying to improve my reading speed with Eyercizer.  For a list of developed QS technologies for learning click here. The distinction between the QS self-starters is the level of choice and agency to start tracking and to select a particular tracking tool etc.  Pupils do not usually get to choose what tools that are made to use, or maybe that could change if there were enough tools and pupils were hooked up to something that was pushing them, grading them and forcing them to improve. Yet there were numerous examples where the intrinsic reward of going for a run or taking the stairs was replaced with the extrinsic reward of producing, viewing and sharing the data.

Another thought is that maybe it is not only pupils in schools that need to worry about having to endure QS strategies.  Car insurance is now offered with inducements of cheaper deals if the driver fits a black box recorder, has his or her driving monitored and drives safely.  This is a form of QS device, offered to us as part of a better offer.  There are lots of similar ways in which these forms of technologies might be offered to us as incentives. We’re bounding towards private health insurance so you might get 5% of your premium if you wear a FitBit and move around enough. Check out this video on potential future scenarios, including games leading to tax breaks for encouraging your child to learn the piano

QS provides the technologies, rationalities and a cadre of ‘power users’ to bring these factors into all our lives, changing our relationships to our self/ selves and each other.

James Duggan

5 thoughts on “The Quantified Self – a post of 839 words, finished in 35 minutes at 18:32 on Wednesday 18th September

  1. Great post James. Is this the ultimate narcissistic digital tool? I can’t imagine anything worse (although if you gave me more time I could probably come up with something). Still, just another reason to be very selective of the digital tools one uses and another argument for taking long, sustained digital sabbaticals fairly frequently. (54 words, 285 characters (no spaces), 338 characters (with spaces), 5 lines).

    • Ha. Cheers Jonathan! They’re strangely compelling though. I tried the eyercizer one and it’s pitch is
      1. You are still using the same reading strategies that you developed when you learned to read (Plausible but probably untrue)
      2. The average American reads at x/ per minute rate (Really? I’m sure I can do better)
      3. Speed read any text on your web browser with our bookmarkable tool
      4. Then you can see how you improve

      A guy made an interesting point at the conference: what’s the difference between this and the Grecian tradition self-mastery? I guess you have to go into neoliberal/ business understandings of the self, and the guy developed the point by talking about human capital. The question is though what would be wrong about a pupil improving their reading speed using Eyercizer? When do they help and when do they not? At one point does keeping an eye on something become the application of business rationalities to the mind and body? Maybe these issues frame a digital-self-mastery? Like you say you have to be selective of the tools you use.
      (not quantified)

  2. Thanks for this – it’s fascinating stuff.
    And you’re right. For teachers particularly, it’s pretty terrifying – largely I think because this ‘quantified self’ is actually less human than our understandings of what human is, or could be.

  3. James, I enjoyed reading this post and think a lot about these ideas and issues. In the US, insurance companies can monitor your driving to reduce your rates. Of course that’s how it’s advertised. They don’t mention that they might use this data to increase rates. ***quantification is digital and meta/physical enclosure?!*** I also started reading free bits of Scarcity a couple weeks ago. There’s a project here somewhere!

  4. Pingback: Space and Place in the Democracy Project – Call for expressions of interest | ESRI Blog

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