The Quantified Self (QS) has been the topic of much discussion recently in tandem with the development of consumer tracking applications and services. QS is a global network of individuals who voluntarily track various aspects of their bodies and lives, most often with digital and wearable technologies. If an aspect of the self can be counted, it's probably been tracked by a member of the QS community. The motivation is self knowledge and the means is numerical data.
QS technologies include smartphone lifelogging apps, health and fitness trackers like Fitbit and Apple Healthkit, EEG devices, home biomarker testing kits and quite often, spreadsheets, among other things. Typical QS projects track steps, nutrition, mood and sleep. However, a rare project will surface now and then that interrogates such things like how often a self tracker's values were exercised on a daily basis, the extent of a person's material consumption, or even conversations and things heard over a decade, in the form of a searchable database!
In this HASTAC forum, we explore a community at the intersection of posthuman and transhumanist futures, as well as contemporary debates around digital health, surveillance and self governance. Through the forum, we hope to tackle some of the tough questions and challenges facing the quantified self community, including the politics of self-surveillance, the notions of data, identity, and agency inherent in QS practices, and its efforts towards subverting institutionalized knowledge production and reforming institutionalized medicine.
- Meena Natarajan, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley School of Information
- Neal Swisher, Ph.D. Candidate, Virginia Commonwealth University
- J.J. Sylvia, Ph.D. Student, North Carolina State University
- Jason Tham, Ph.D. Student, University of Minnesota
- Gary Wolf, Co-founder of QS, founding editor of Wired Magazine
- Dawn Nafus, Anthropologist, Intel
- Ernesto Ramirez, Program Director, QS Labs
- Deborah Lupton, Professor at University of Canberra, Arts & Design Department
- Natasha Dow Schüll, Associate Professor at MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society
- What kind of “self” is practiced through personal data collection? Is the “self” a good way to discuss what QS is all about, and if so, what does QS aim to learn about the self? Does QS engage with the expansive humanities literature about selfhood and subjectivity? For Foucault and countless other scholars, forms of subjectivity are partly created by scientific investigations which produce categories of people, which are thereafter naturalized (and subjectively experienced) as “real.” Does QS manage to escape this critique because it deals with individuals, not populations? Or can we say that QS claims to investigate what it in fact produces (namely the “self” as a collection of data points?)
- The QS privileges what is typically relegated in the data and computational cultures from which it emerges - the anecdote. It foregrounds the significance of the sample size of one. It contests traditional public health research because it believes that no one is an average. Yet, it most frequently tells the story of an individual through the language of quantification. What do numbers stand for in the QS? How do they help construct the self as data? What work do they do and to what ends?
- Many QS meetups begin with the claim that it is the antithesis to big data. However, it attracts big data enthusiasts in large numbers. Big data researchers, often part of the emergent profession of data science, are interested in the possibilities of voluntary, in situ data collection and self surveillance of thousands of self trackers. What are the mechanisms through which QS subverts and big data co-opts? How are the goals of QS self trackers of achieving more personalized medical care dependent on collaborating with medical data science? What kind of precedence exists in medical history for similar dynamics and what could we learn from that history of negotiating both individual authority over one’s body, while also being able to see the self, the body, in relation to others?
- Although many early QS tracking technologies were built by self trackers themselves, most QS tracking technologies today are designed by for-profit corporations and startups that the community refers to as “quantrepreneurs.” Raw data produced by their sensors and applications are stored on corporate servers, raising privacy concerns about who truly owns the data and how it might be used in the future. How do self trackers conceive of privacy? What kind of challenges do they face in their activism for greater access and control of their data? What kinds of precedence and norms do they set for individuals who do not and cannot self track?