The quantified self movement: some sociological perspectives

Today's Track Workout

Today’s Track Workout (Photo credit: nocklebeast)

The concepts of ‘self-tracking’ and the ‘quantified self’ have recently begun to emerge in discussions of how best to optimise one’s life. These concepts refer to the practice of gathering data about oneself on a regular basis and then recording and analysing the data to produce statistics and graphs relating to one’s bodily functions, diet, illness symptoms, appearance, social encounters, phone calls, work output, computer use, mood and many more aspects of everyday life.

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.

While the concept of self-tracking is not particularly new, the term the ‘quantified self’ (QS) to represent a social movement facilitated by digital technologies is novel. The QS movement was first developed by two Wired Magazine editors, who set up a website devoted to the movement in 2008, and thus began as a technologically-informed phenomenon. According to the Wikipedia definition ‘The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)’ . This definition immediately begins to construct a view of the body/self as a machine-like entity, with ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ (glossed as ‘performance’ in the definition) that can readily be measured and quantified.

How might the QS movement be interpreted through a sociological lens? One way of analysing the phenomenon is via the theoretical perspectives offered by the ‘risk society’ thesis developed by Ulrich Beck (1992). In a world in which risks and threats appear to be ever-present, the certainties promised by the intense self-monitoring of the ‘self-tracker’ may be interpreted as a means of attempting to contain risk, to control the vagaries of fate to some extent. Beck describes the concept of self-reflexivity, or seeking information and making choices about one’s life in a context in which traditional patterns and frameworks that once structured the life course have largely dissolved. Self-tracking represents the apotheosis of self-reflexivity in its intense focus on the self and using data about the self to make choices about future behaviours. In relation to health matters, self-tracking offers users of such technologies a strategy by which they feel as if they can gather data upon their health indicators as a means of avoiding illness and disease. The self-knowledge that is viewed as emerging from the minutiae of data recording a myriad of aspects of the body is a psychological salve to the fear of bodily degeneration. As one self-tracker has noted, his tracking efforts have ‘made me believe I had more power over my health than I thought’.

Another perspective that may be adopted is that drawing on the philosophy of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s writings on the practices and technologies of the self in neoliberalism are pertinent to understanding the QS as a particular mode of governing the self. Self-tracking may viewed as one of many heterogeneous strategies and discourses that position the neoliberal self as a responsible citizen, willing and able to take care of her or his self-interest and welfare. As Foucault and others using his work have noted, neoliberalism promotes the concept of the citizen who needs no coercion to behave productively and in the interests of the state. Rather, the citizen voluntarily takes up modes of practice that both achieves self-interest and conforms to state objectives (see Lupton, 1995, for this perspective applied to public health).

The QS movement takes up and interprets a view of the body/self that positions it as amenable to improvement, an object of persona enterprise and work. Here an integral source of knowledge is that offered by metrics. The statistical aspect of the practice of self-tracking – the ability to produce ‘numbers’ measuring aspects of one’s life – is integral to the approach. It is assumed that the production of such hard/objective data is the best way of assessing and representing the value of one’s life and that better ‘self-knowledge’ will result: tellingly, the QS official website has as its motto ‘self knowledge through numbers’. The implication of this motto is that ‘self-knowledge’ as it accomplished via self-tracking and the production of ‘numbers’ is a worthy goal for individuals to aspire to. The more we know about ourselves and our bodies, the more productive, wealthier, wiser, healthier, emotionally stable and so on we can be.

The lure of ‘numbers’ is that they appear scientifically neutral and exact. The body/self as it is produced through QS, therefore, is both subject and product of scientific measurement and interpretation. Using self-tracking facilitated by digital technologies encourages people to think about their bodies and their selves in different ways; through numbers and as the product of computerised technologies. Such a transformation extends further the move from the haptic (touch sensations) to the optic or visual understanding of the body/self within medicine, as well as the increasing focus on the metric as a valued source of knowledge in many other aspects of social life. As one’s bodily states and functions become ever more recordable and visualised via data displays, it becomes easier to trust the ‘numbers’ over physical sensations.

As recent sociological analyses into questions of measure and value have argued, there has been a huge increase generally into the use of metrics in many aspects of social life, which has been greatly impelled by the development of technologies for achieving quantification (Adkins and Lury 2012). Yet there is a politics of measurement: numbers are not neutral, despite the accepted concept of them as devoid of value judgements, assumptions and meanings. The ways in which phenomena are quantified and interpreted and the purposes to which these measurements are put are always implicated in social relationships, power dynamics and ways of seeing.

The surveillance society literature (for example, Lyon, 2007) might interpret the QS movement somewhat differently. According to this literature, in the surveillance society, digital technologies are increasingly monitoring and measuring individuals, whether this is achieved via the closed circuit television cameras that have become ubiquitous in public spaces, the loyalty cards offered by businesses or the mobile digital technologies one can now carry or wear upon one’s body. Much of the surveillance society literature has focused on the ways in which others use the data they collect on individuals using digital technologies for security or business reasons. What remains to be fully explored is how the data that are collected voluntarily by an individual using such approaches as self-tracking (in other words, self-surveillance or participatory surveillance) are used by that person for her or his own purposes (Lupton, 2012).

The latest self-tracking technologies allow people to broadcast their ‘numbers’ to many others via social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. Self-surveillance here moves from an inner-directed preoccupation with the body/self to a performative mode, inviting further scrutiny from one’s friends and followers. Social media tools and other digital platforms also allow people to collate their self-gathered data with others interested in the same phenomenon, or compare their data against others’ data. Indeed at least one multinational workplace has already instituted a competition requiring participating employees to upload and display to all other workmates data they have collected on their bodily movements and weight loss using self-tracking devices as part of efforts to motivate them to achieve higher fitness levels.

Approaches from postphenomenology developed in science and technology studies and philosophy offer a theoretical approach to think about the ways in which humans interact with their technologies (see, for example, Ihde, 2009). These perspectives address such issues as the ontological nature of the human/technology interaction, the ways in which technologies are incorporated into concepts of embodiment and selfhood and how they extend or enhance these and how social relations are configured through, with and by technologies. For this theoretical position it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate technology from its user, as both are viewed as mutually constituted. Research questions focus on how the user/technology assemblage is configured, and how this assemblage views itself and interacts with other human and non-human actors or assemblages. There are complex ontological issues here in relation to the ways in which the human/technology assemblage is constructed and reconstructed.

Little specific academic research has been published that has specifically addressed the QS movement thus far, as it is such a new phenomenon (although for some interesting blog posts that have begun to explore some of these issues see my Scoop.it collection The Sociology of the Quantified Self). Yet from a sociological perspective a number of interesting questions about the quest to achieve ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ arise, including the following: What types of people are attracted to self-tracking? How do they use the data they produce? How are concepts of the body, self, social relationships, health and happiness both configured and negotiated via these data? How do members of their social networks respond to the sharing of data produced through this self-surveillance? How do self-trackers’ doctors or therapists make use of the data they produce? What the implications of shared data derived from self-tracking for patient empowerment? How does the digital device construct reality for its user, how it is incorporated into the routines of everyday life, how does it shape social encounters, how does it present users to others and to themselves? There is much more here to investigate in relation to the attempt to achieve ‘self-knowledge through numbers’.

References

Adkins, L. and Lury, C. (2012) Introduction: special measures. The Sociological Review, 59(s2), 5—23.

Beck, U. (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.

Ihde, D. (2009) Postphenomenology and Technoscience. New York: State University of New York.

Lupton, D. (1995) The Imperative of Health: Public Health and the Regulated Body. London: Sage.

Lupton, D. (2012) M-health and health promotion: the digital cyborg and surveillance society. Social Theory & Health, 10, 229–44.

Lyon, D. (2007) Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Cambridge: Polity Press.