The Quantified Self; The Partial Self

A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’

I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).

One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.

This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.

As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.

The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.

So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the latter conclusion.

Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.

What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).

I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.


Posted on March 27, 2012, in Critical perspectives, ICT, Social Informatics and Current Events and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. little detail: Plato did not say “know thyself” – he made Socrates express is in his writings…

    and about its applicability to the quantified/technological self, I’d say that these are not acts of self-knowing (because what to we actually get to ‘know’ by looking at numbers, in themselves symbolic abstractions not referring to anything real), but self-seeing.

    however, this self-observation is not without consequence, as all of this takes place within the modern life project of self-disciplining. how wonderful it is that we are ‘self-improving’ in the service of whatever society mandates we should be: people more obsessed with straight-jacketing themselves rather than using their newfound powers of observation and communication to change the world.

    • Thanks, Mark. I always love hearing your thoughts. There is perhaps some overlap between self-seeing and self-knowing though, right? I could have written pages more on the self-disciplining part of this phenomenon, but couldn’t go there due to time. Perhaps in the future, though. 🙂

  2. This idea of self-observation is what helps society get rid of the responsibility for the health of its citizens. Instead of conducting interventions at the population level (e.g. limiting amount of sugar/hfc/salt/food colorings in food, making sure poor people will get fresh food with food stamps, give kids healthy meals at public schools), corporations develop apps that will presumably teach adults and kids to eat healthy food. shifting the blame for the obesity epidemic to the individual level.
    It’s all fits within the ideology of individualism and in long term will only benefit the “haves” and not the “have not’s”.

    • I completely agree, Daphna! Thanks for the amazing insight! I can envision a time when companies are no longer asking for our Facebook passwords but are asking us to give them data for the past 2 years on what we’ve eaten, how much we’ve exercised and how well we’ve slept. If you can’t provide this, well, you may not get the job.

  3. Great post Lindsay! I can definitely relate, especially to the running bit. I use the RunKeeper app, which tracks my runs using GPS. So when I’m done I have these beautiful graphs and maps and mile splits that I pore over afterward while I stretch (or lay flat on my back like a corpse, depending on the run). If for whatever reason a run doesn’t make it into my RunKeeper log, it feels like it doesn’t quite ‘count’ somehow!

    I also dabbled with food tracking a couple years ago, but didn’t stick with it long. Given my postphenomenological bent, I can’t help thinking about the type of relationship with food and one’s body that is mediated by those types of apps. In addition to the disciplining function Mark and Daphna already mentioned, it gives a way to assess ‘healthy’ eating behaviors in a way that does not require one to listen to the body. It not only quantifies the self, but also moves it away from one’s embodied experience of stomach, taste buds, energy level, digestion, local season, cravings, etc. and onto an ‘objective’ app. And that just strikes me as being UNhealthy in the long run, on a number of levels.

    At any rate… Cheers to that impromptu beer in the sun. 🙂

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