Flux and Stasis in the Data-Self
Discourses surrounding self-tracking (aka personal analytics) tend to invoke “improvement.” Fitness trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone Up promise users a better, smarter way to exercise. More data=more knowledge=better exercise.
So when I read Deborah Lupton’s great new blog post about how self trackers construct meaning, it made me think of the connection between meaning-making and improvement. Fitness tracking devices’ greatest promise (and where I think they fail most clearly) is a sense that self-tracking offers us a pathway towards constant self-improvement.
Lupton’s analysis of self-tracking focuses on the liquidity of data (she has more on pervasive metaphors of liquidity in data, which I willingly embrace here). As a new kind of data-driven selfhood, these practices embrace the constant flux of data streams. Self-trackers foreground the diverse sources of data and their variability. Yet in order to make any meaning out of these streams of data, self-trackers need to “fix” the data in charts and graphs. Observing the data deluge isn’t enough. We can’t stand on the shore and let it wash over us—we need to stop it, if only briefly, in order to really see it. Only once we turn flux into stasis can we really analyze anything. Meaning emerges from the frozen stream, not the rushing river.
But what is the overall goal of collecting data on one’s bodily behavior? The goal is always improvement.
In the ethos of Quantified Self, and in the marketing narratives of fitness-trackers, it is clear that the goal is to get better—to improve your health, to optimize your life in some way, or to make some task more efficient.
The Ideal Self of Personal Analytics
The paradigm of improvement within self-tracking discourse constructs an image of an “ideal self.” This ideal self is constantly improving. This ideal self uses data to make changes and to make life more efficient. This practice of selfhood is “ideal” because it creates a drive towards perfection; towards an ideal state of selfhood. As Lupton correctly points out, data is only useful in so far as we can make meaning from it. And if that meaning is always geared towards perfection, its meaning will be judged against some ideal form. If data is the pathway towards improvement, the entire practice of self-tracking is aimed towards perfecting not just one’s own data streams, but the very practice of tracking itself.
The Quantified Self group prides itself on generating new and better ways of tracking one’s behavior. A big part of their “show and tell” process is discussing methods of tracking.
Thus, the “ideal self” of personal analytics is concerned not just with improving one’s stats, but with improving the methods of tracking.
Why Do We Need Wearables?
With the growing rise in wearable technology, critics have asked a collective: why? Why do we need wearables? Some have pointed to Apple’s strategy of embracing fashion and the high-end watch market to inculcate a desire to wear technology. Once the cultural barrier to wearing technology is passed, tech companies can create new and better kinds of health-specific applications and devices. But before the wearable market really explodes, companies have to convince people to actually wear them.
We see the same phenomena with fitness-tracking devices. Users tend to wear them for a short while and then abandon them. Through their marketing and advertising, fitness tracker companies try to inculcate a desire to track by linking this activity with images of happy, healthy people. They depict a lifestyle in which tracking makes sense and is naturalized.
In order to be successful, the marketing and advertising efforts of fitness-trackers need to convince us that managing one’s own body-data is an important way to improve the self, and therefore achieve happiness. If wearable technology becomes widely popular, fitness-tracking companies have a ready made narrative: they have positioned data as a pathway to improvement.
If wearables become generally adopted, body-data will shed its initial association with the fitness and health world, and instead will be positioned as an overall way to improve one’s life.