Changing representations of self-tracking

I recently completed a chapter for a book on lifelogging that discussed the concepts and uses of data as they are expressed in representations of self-tracking (see here for the full paper, available open access). In part of the chapter I looked at the ways in which people writing about the quantified self and other interpretations of self-tracking represent data and data practices, including in articles published in Wired magazine and other media outlets and blogs.

From the beginning of discussions of the quantified self, the representation of data in quantified self-tracking discourses (as least as it was expressed by its progenitors) included several factors. These include the following: quantified data are powerful entities; it is important not only to collect quantified data on oneself, but to analyse these data for the patterns and insights they reveal; data (and particularly quantified or quantifiable data) are an avenue to self-knowledge; the emergence of new digital and mobile devices for gathering information about oneself have facilitated self-tracking and the generation of quantified personal data; quantifiable data are more neutral, reliable, intellectual and objective than qualitative data, which are intuitive, emotional and subjective; self-tracked data can provide greater insights than the information that a person receives from their senses, revealing previously hidden patterns or correlations; self-tracked data can be motivational phenomena, inspiring action, by entering into a feedback loop; everything can be rendered as data; and data about individuals are emblematic of their true selves.

In more recent times, however, it is evident that a further set of concepts about self-tracked data have emerged since the original euphoria of the early accounts of quantified self-tracking. They include: the meaning of self-tracked data can be difficult to interpret; personal data can be disempowering as well as empowering; the conditions in which data are gathered can influence their validity; the contexts in which data are generated are vital to understanding their meaning; individuals’ personal data are not necessarily secure or private; quantified personal data can be reductive; and personal data can be used to discriminate against individuals.

We as yet know very little about how people are conceptualising and engaging with digital data about themselves. Given the recent scandals about how people’s personal data may be hacked or used or manipulated without their knowledge (the Snowden revelations about security agencies’ use of metadata, the Facebook emotional manipulation experiment, the celebrity nude photo and Sony Pictures hackings, for example), as well as growing coverage of the potentially negative implications of self-tracking as described above, these are pressing issues.

Edit (12 December 2015): More on this topic can be found in my book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking Cultures.


6 thoughts on “Changing representations of self-tracking

  1. Ah Deborah, you make me think about my training data. As I think you know, I am a mad mountain biker. I am able to use either a mobile phone app, or a GPS computer on bike to track my rides. I can keep a record (as I previously did in writing while I was still a competitive runner) of all my training, how fast I went, what course I took, and how much rest between reps. Today, of course, the digital data means that I can upload all that, and random people can write and ask me (i’ve got a user name that they can’t look up in the phone book) what I think of the Barking Emu track, or whether the track builders are finished with Clinical or how I am enjoying the riding in a place i’ve been spotted.

    But I can also (shudder) rank my performance on “segments.” Who has biked the fastest between say, the car park and the top of Sally Alley. Or, who has the fastest time on the Birdwood Drop. That’s an important one, the Birdwood Drop. It’s just the 500m down hill between the top of my street and the stop light. It’s straight down, and I have the family record for that because I ride it every day to work. Fast. I am one second away from being the QOM (that means Queen of the Mountain). OK. All this build-up is just to give you a feel for one particular form of digital data collection. Now let me tell you the consequences.

    By tracking my rides, every ride has an overlay of competition. I have no way of looking at my rides times in any way other than by ranking. Who’s fastest? What is my fastest time? Am I faster than yesterday? This has the potential to shift the whole ethos of training. A fellow at the bike shop said, “when I’ve forgotten my GPS, I might as well stay home!” Shocking! But even worse, the fact that I know I am only one second from the QOM makes me wonder if I might take horrible risks just to get a downhill QOM. I am already bombing around the corners at over 40kms an hour. What wouldn’t I do?

    OK, I don’t really ride FOR my digital data, I am over-stating things to make a point. I am tickled when I get a record, and don’t really go looking for them. But the data definitely shapes how I train in subtle ways. And like the guy in the bike shop, for some people it is even less subtle. But when I first started in sport, I didn’t even have a stop watch. I used the sweep-second hand on my watch. A stop watch revolutionized my intervals. Today, my GPS or my app put me on display in the community and to myself. I can’t fake it any more.

    Thought you might find this an interesting example of digital data and its impact on my practices.

    • Hah – yes, Annemarie, you make some interesting points! There are several accounts on blogs on self-tracking etc that note that if the data are not recorded for some reason, then the ride/swim/run never happened.

      • I should have finished that last posting with “Pride goeth before data” Or maybe “data goeth before fall”… (or even “death before data!!”)

  2. After 3.5 weeks of getting my Fitbit and being spurred on, almost daily, to do better (more steps, more kms etc) than last week or at least better than yesterday, my device broke. I woke up and it just didn’t work. At lunchtime I didn’t go on my regular walk around the block. I joked to my colleagues that if my Fitbit couldn’t count it, it wasn’t worth doing. I still wore my dead Fitbit on my arm – in hope? After work I didn’t get off the train several stops before home and walk home as had become my custom. I reasoned that it was too hot (a 39 degree day) and that my day at work had been too bad, and that I just needed a rest at home with a glass of wine and takeaway Thai. But, if my Fitbit hadn’t died, I bet I would have been out there in the heat, striding home (faster than yesterday) and eating salad for dinner. It’s like the Fitbit created new practices of self-monitoring almost overnight, but they haven’t been fully integrated. They are still totally dependant on that piece of plastic strapped to my wrist.

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