‘real change will happen in individuals as they work through self-knowledge … of one’s body, mind and spirit … a rational [path]: unless something can be measured, it cannot be improved’ (Kelly, 2007).
[…] On one level, self-quantification transgresses the mind–body split; however, it also places the mind firmly in control. In this binary, the mind determines rational knowledge and quantification. The body (and ‘spirit’) is a passive object of this process, subject to being improved, whether they like it or not (Moore and Robinson, 2015).
Nothing is new – people have been counting for ages; the technologies and tools changed but we are still trying to make sense of ourselves, analysing numbers, creating statistics, and developing patterns. The quantification process brings to life the idea of ‘knowledge through numbers’ and today, more than ever before, we are embodying life measuring tools which are becoming widely available with the growing popularity of smart technologies, such as smartphones, watches, wristbands, i.e. wearable devices with embedded biosensors. Our everyday life is occupied by numbers – we are counting our steps, the calories we eat, the fluids we take, the hours we sleep, the beats of our heart; we are counting the likes and the hearts on our social profiles where we share our steps and calories; we are using mobile applications to create patters and understand ourselves in order to improve ourselves. Sometimes this process is hiding obstacles, mental and physical, and the constant counting could turn into anxiety disorder bringing along negative affect like guilt, shame, demotivation, frustration.
This article is aiming to critically explore the side effects of quantified self who is constantly reminded by notifications how inactive they have been, when the advised numbers are unachievable and the user fails to fit in a standard created by unknown analytical experts using the data flow of others. In her article ‘Stepping down: rethinking the fitness tracker’ Sara Warson is asking straight away ‘Why 10,000 ‘magical’ steps? Why 30 minutes a day of vigorous activity? Why 64 fluid ounces of water? […] Those metrics might be good for average global health, but how adaptable are they to meet individual needs?’ (Warson, 2014). Following from the articles of my colleagues Jenna and Tiantian exploring the quantified health and beauty we can clearly see how numbers are setting normativity, developing standards which are wiping away user’s subjectivity; to use Kate Crawford’s definition of emoticon system ‘a taxonomy of feeling in a grid menu of ideograms’ (Crawford, 2014). Diving further in this particular area was also motivated by ancient weight scale advertisement ‘He who often weighs himself knows himself well. He who knows himself well lives well’ which clearly assumes that knowing the numbers is crucial for one to have a decent life. What provoked me to question morally this statement is the problematic and, in my personal view, vague translation of feelings into numbers, going from abstract to concrete, interpreting everyone’s data under a common denominator with a promise for a good life. Furthermore, disturbing implication of data collection and repurposing in the context of monitoring and surveillance tighten up the knot of contemporary technologies’ agency over our live.
As part of my research on the quantified-self anxieties I developed a survey which was distributed to LEMA (Literature, editing, media and audiovisual) students from the Sorbonne during MA CCM international media experience in Paris. For the purposes of this article I am going to include and examples and analyze a total of 18 results received in the period 4th – 23rd of April 2017. The participants in my survey are 11 women and 7 man, between 17 and 32 years old. 77.8% of them are using or have been using tracking device/applications and the rest 22.2% have never used one.
Using different ways of measuring and self-tracking with the clear goal to change something which is ‘wrong’ about us strengthens one of the most powerful resources of anxiety – trying to live up to social expectations. In ‘Our metrics, ourselves: A hundred years of selftracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device’ Crawford defines measurement as instrumental to understanding and intervening in the social world, and to defining what is normal and what is deviant (Crawford, 2015). As mentioned above the topics discussed by Jenna and Tiantian are closely related and we have been trying to create meaning of our body numbers since the development of height and weight chart, ‘from what this person weighs to what you should weigh and what you could be’. 50% of the people who took part of my survey agree that self-tracking tools can support the establishment of health and beauty stereotypes in contemporary society defining what is ‘average’, ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ and the same percentage of them admit that this can increase the feeling of shame and guild among users who don’t fit in the health and beauty standards. Often, even subconsciously, we tend to categories things as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, we are raised with mind identifying misfits compared to ‘normal’ behavior and in this process of classifying standards and exceptions we are becoming subjects as well as objects of assumptions.
How we make sense of numbers is as important as the actual counting and there are people who believe that growing popularity of self-tracking devices is normalizing neurotic behavior. Data-driven life can become constantly attempt to fix what we can measure and in the same time lose track of what really counts. Arwa Mahdawi shares her personal experience of quantification ‘it took me a long time to stop seeing food as a spreadsheet of numbers’ and 72.2% of the participants in my survey agree that calorie counting obsession can enable eating disorder as anorexia. These numbers speak to me that users adopt tracking application basic functions and trust the data provided by the apps, rather than being skeptical considering their own experience and feelings. Didžiokaitė and Saukko quoting Chloe and Whooley claim that QSers do not just (passively) use self-tracking technologies, they adapt, change, tweak and alter them. The image of the user, emerging from studies of QS, is one of a creator who ‘built their own tools’ even if ‘numerous commercial self-tracking tools are available’ or ‘wrote software programs that could extract data and integrate it into a representation they were happy with’ (Didžiokaitė and Saukko, 2017).
Moreover, self-tracking technologies often come with the option to share one’s results which can give the feeling of being part of community. Entering into worldwide data, seeking for comfort and sharing one’s achievements worries me as act of comparison in the flow of the networked society. In ‘Barriers and negative nudges: exploring challenges in food journaling’ some of the participants report feelings of shame, judgment, or obsession and others are discouraged by the success of others ‘I hate coming on to forums and seeing how much people have lost and I have made barely any progress at all’ (Cordeiro and Epstein, 2015). Comparing may lead to disappointment when one believes that certain ‘right’ numbers exist and all people should match the same score so we all end up several percentage points healthier and happier.
Another debatable aspect of biosensing technologies is their accurateness and the ambiguity of our data. 38.9% of the people who sent me their answers highly agree that there are limitations concerning the reading of body’s response without interpreting mind’s experience. In this line of thoughts, users can have their adrenaline levels increased in both live threatening situation and while living their dream of skydiving. Leszczynski explains this anxiety as ‘the worry that the digital selves constructed through practices of data dis/assembly across data ﬂows disclose things about individuals that they have not willingly divulged themselves, and that these disclosures are inaccurate and/or too abstract, failing to account for the complexity of identity and quotidian identity performance’ (Leszczynski, 2015). I believe here is essential to mention that in 2014 was the first court case that attempt to use data gathered through wearable device as prove for plaintiff’s claim which might intensify the negative side of using self-tracking devices which bring us closer to ‘new age of quantified self-incrimination’. ‘Yet with wearables, who is the witness? The device? Your body? The service provider? Or the analytics algorithm operated by a third party?, Kate Crawford asks and continues with warning: ‘This ‘chaos of the wearable’ might be merely amusing or frustrating when you’re using the data to reflect on our own lives. But it can be perilous when that data is used to represent objective truth for insurers or courtrooms’ (Crawford, 2014).
Last but not least important is the surveillance anxiety, disturbance and invasion in private life created by data collection. The motto ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ gives the feeling of power and control in the user’s own hands but the use of the produced data by third parties (for example, in a court case) results in a lack of control. Combining the 24/7 self-tracking with ‘blurry at the edges’ data can cause fear of being tracked as well as frustration of personal data being commodified. Users of self-tracking tools should worry and/ or fear about companies collecting personal data and intervening their personal lives admit 66.7% of the interviewed in the survey and more and more people confess that they are turning off their GPS location service on their phones not only to save battery but also because of worry. When it comes to privacy issues the biosensing technology developers have to work on the ethical implication in order to guarantee transparency for users and safety for their data. Often people generate and share personal data without even realizing, without being part of quantified self movement as these tools for measuring are becoming more and more embedded in our lives. The networked nature of social and mobile platforms enables not only the voluntary generation of personal locational information about oneself but also allows people to share information about others (Marwick and boyd, 2014; Ricker et al., 2014). It is more than concerning when one finds out that ‘sexual orientation may be discerned on the basis of patterns in the kinds of ads that an individual clicks on within Facebook’ (Leszczynski, 2015).
My first acknowledgement of quantifying the self came with my last phone which came with installed by default counting steps application and without any intention to count I started to receive daily report of my activeness. The goal was already set to 10,000 steps and usually I achieve my goal… except during exams. When I have to work on projects with deadlines approaching, I am rooting on my desk, tirelessly working with my mind and barely moving my feet. This was the time when I started to receive notification of how inactive I had been recently, and advises to do some workout which creates instant negative affect, mainly guilt that I am not performing well enough. I started to wonder how people are responding to such self-tracking technologies, how these tools can shape us, influencing our way of life and understanding of the self as well as how we look at others who are not ‘fitting in’ the norm we know. Furthermore, in conversation with Dawn Nafus she agreed that our mind has the power to shape our reality and biosensing technologies can actually affect us like the placebo effect (or respectively the opposite of it). That response brought me to thoughts that if, for example regular blood pressure measuring results are showing high levels (even if the person is feeling perfectly okay) one can indeed start suffering from high blood pressure symptoms convinced by the ‘accurateness’ of the device and aiming for the ‘standards’ which are believed to be ‘healthy’ without acknowledging their personal feeling, their subjectivity.
In my research I found that there are different aspects which can trigger negative response and cause anxiety and frustration among self-tracking users. Undoubtedly, there are people who are quantifying themselves and benefit incredibly from this sort of technologies, so why some users can take advantage and other are blindly enslaved? During this research I found out that awareness is key factor – awareness of the self – knowing yourself, your abilities and limitation and being critical about standardizing features which fail to count the differences. People who suffer from the negative sides of quantification are usually those who ‘did not question the usefulness of calories or the science behind the programme’ as Didžiokaitė and Saukko discussed in their article and give example with Emily, who when asked why she decided that 1400 calories were the right limit, explained, ‘Because that’s what it tells me’. […] It was all app-driven, I made no personal decisions to change, and I figure, you know, basically I’ve put the trust in the app. […] As Freddie, a gym manager and ardent bodybuilder, ‘When it was making my goals it was making my protein too low, and I knew it was too low. But I didn’t know where to go with it, because I didn’t know enough about it and I kind of got a bit frustrated.’ (Didžiokaitė and Saukko, 2017).
Quantified self metaphor as Lupton and Swan understand it is about the creation of a new self. Those who approach these sort technologies with awareness are using their bodies and the cultural resources around them to see outside the frame that devices set for them’ (Nafus and Sherman, 2014) and usually are also called self-hackers because only when users acknowledge their subjectivity, body and mind uniqueness, when trust in their own experience only then they can start improving themselves using quantified approach. We can use self-tracking technologies and instruments in our everyday life without necessarily experience the ‘down side’ of it if we educate ourselves not to separate our own body and mind; we can have control over our quantified self when we practice qualified understanding of it.
- Crawford, K., The Anxieties of Big Data. Available from: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-anxieties-of-big-data/ [29 March 2017]
- Crawford, K., 2014, When Fitbit Is the Expert Witness. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/11/when-fitbit-is-the-expert-witness/382936/ [29 March 2017]
- Watson, S.M., 2014, Stepping Down: Rethinking the Fitness Tracker. Available from: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/hacking-the-fitness-tracker-to-move-less-not-more/380742/ [30 March 2017]
- Crawford, K., Lingel, J., Karppi, T., 2015, Our metrics, ourselves: A hundred years of selftracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device. Microsoft Research New York City, USA; MIT Center for Civic Media, USA, Microsoft Research New England, USA, SUNY Buffalo, USA. Available from: ecs.sagepub.com [16 March 2017]
- Didžiokaitė, G. and Saukko, P., Greiffenhagen, C., The mundane experience of everyday calorie trackers: Beyond the metaphor of Quantified Self. Loughborough University, UK, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong. Available from: journals.sagepub.com/home/nms [22 March 2017]
- Cordeiro, F., Epstein, D.A., Thomaz, E., Bales, B., Jagannathan, A.K., Abowd, G.D., Fogarty, G., Barriers and Negative Nudges: Exploring Challenges in Food Journaling. Available from: http://www.depstein.net/pubs/fcordeiro_chi15.pdf [29 March 2017]
- Mahdawi, A., 2014, The unhealthy side of wearable fitness devices. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/03/unhealthy-wearable-fitness-devices-calories-eating-disorders-nike-fuelband [30 March 2017]
- Leszczynski, A., 2015, Spatial big data and anxieties of control. School of Environment, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Available from: epd.sagepub.com [19 March 2017]