Beyond the quantified self: the reflexive monitoring self

This piece is partly a response to a recent blog post by Mark Carrigan about the concept of the qualified self, and partly a section of the new book that I am working on about the sociology of self-tracking cultures.

As part of my research for the book I made a Google Trends graph comparing the major terms that are used to denote the practices of voluntarily monitoring aspects of the self: self-tracking, the quantified self, life logging and personal analytics. As the resultant graph demonstrates, it was not until mid-2007 that any of these terms began to show up in Google searches. Self-tracking led the way, followed by life logging, then personal analytics. The quantified self is the newest term. It began to appear in searches in January 2010 and rose quickly in popularity, beginning to overtake self-tracking by April 2012 (although just recently self-tracking has caught up again). The quantified self, therefore, has become a well-used term, at least among people using Google Search. In another study of news coverage of the quantified self I found that the term has become increasingly used in these accounts as well.

But is it time to rethink or even relinquish the term ‘the quantified self’? For my book I prefer to use ‘self-tracking’ over the alternatives, as this term is broader and more inclusive of a range of practices (and I refer to ‘self-tracking cultures’ to denote the various social, cultural and political contexts in which self-tracking practices are carried out).

Self-tracking is not simply about quantified (or quantifiable) information. Many self-trackers record non-quantifiable data as part of their practice, including journaling accounts of their daily activities, emotional states and relationships, collecting audio data or visual images and producing visualisations that centre on their aesthetic or explanatory properties rather than their representation of numbers.

Some commentators seek to position the ‘qualified self’ as a practice involving reflection and interpretation of information, whether this information is in the form of numbers or not. For several writers, the qualified self involves interpretation and assessment of any form of data, a considered engagement with this information that seeks to contextualise it in relation to other forms of data. As two designers put it:

context humanizes the numbers and places them back into our lives in meaningful ways. For example, a fitness tracker can tell us that our physical activity is down from the previous month. But it cannot tell us that the inactivity is due to a sprained ankle. Given that context, those declining numbers might tell a different story: that we are recovering steadily rather than slacking off. Even in that simple scenario, it is clear that a small bit of context can frame data in a much more insightful way.

In her blog post on the qualified self Jenny Davis has similarly contended that:

This qualitative component is key in mediating between raw numbers and identity meanings. If self-quantifiers are seeking self-knowledge through numbers, then narratives and subjective interpretations are the mechanisms by which data morphs into selves. Self-quantifiers don’t just use data to learn about themselves, but rather, use data to construct the stories that they tell themselves about themselves.

This distinction between the quantified and the qualified self works to challenge the term ‘the quantified self’. The essential feature of the quantified self, at least as it is described in the motto ‘self knowledge through numbers’ (used on the official Quantified Self website) is self-knowledge, however it is produced. Indeed selfhood and identity as they are articulated via self-tracking are inextricably entangled with interpretation of information. It could be argued that the word ‘numbers’ really comes to stand for ‘information of any kind about oneself’ and ‘self-knowledge’ means not only the accumulation of facts about oneself, but paying attention to the self or self-awareness. The practice of self-tracking can therefore be regarded as a way of thinking through as well as with information, working to make connections between one kind or source of information and others and interrogating the quality or validity of the data.

When self-tracking is viewed in this way, numbers are not important. What is important for self-trackers is the range of information that can be gathered about one’s self, what specific types of information one chooses to collect and the process of making sense of this information as part of the ethical project of selfhood. Davis’s description of the qualified self makes the important point that the information that self-trackers collect on themselves is not simply about self-knowledge but also about presentations and narratives of selfhood – or what might also be glossed as performing selfhood. She refers to the ‘stories that they tell about themselves’, but self-tracking is also about the stories that people tell others, or the types of selves that are presented to others. Indeed the very act of self-tracking, or positioning oneself as a self-tracker, is already a performance of a certain type of subject: the entrepreneurial, self-optimising subject. A fine line must be negotiated, however, in seeking to perform this subject position. Too much focus on the self may be interpreted as self-obsession and narcissism, while too little signifies failure to conform to the idealised responsible citizen who is actively seeking out information as part of the project of taking control over her or his life.

At the broader level of social explanation, self-tracking is the latest practice in a long tradition of ethical self-reflection that extends back to the ancients, inflected through newer devices for tracking and contemporary understandings about ideal selfhood. Novel ways of collecting, representing and sharing data have emerged in digital society. What might be better described as ‘the reflexive monitoring self’ is an aggregation of practices that combine regular and systemised information collection, interpretation and reflection as part of working towards the goal of becoming. Underpinning these efforts are the notion of an ethical incompleteness and a set of moral obligations concerning working on the self that are central to contemporary ideas about selfhood and citizenship. I will be looking in detail at these aspects in the book and expanding on the arguments presented here.