‘This book is about contemporary self-tracking cultures, analysed from a critical sociological perspective. It explores how the practices meanings, discourse, and technologies associated with self-tracking are the product of broader social cultural and political processes.’
This summary is really just some extended notes I took on the book as self-tracking and the quantified self are concepts which interest me.
It’s an academic book, written for an academic audience, and probably way beyond most A-level sociology students, but it’s still fascinating, and relevant as the practice of self-tracking is a growing trend.
Definition of self-tracking: ‘monitoring, measuring and recording elements of one’s body and life as a form of self-improvement and self-reflection’. Commonly using digital technologies.
Chapter 1 – Know Thyself: Self-Tracking Technologies and Practices
The emergence of self-tracking
Covers the pre-digital origins of the practice, a few examples of some self-tracking obsessives, outlines the self-tracking movement and charts the recent growth and ‘mainstreaming’ of the practice.
Contemporary self-tracking technologies
Provides an overview of the most common areas of social life to which self-tracking is applied – everything from education to emotions and from individual health to the home.
Research on self-tracking
- A brief overview of research on self-tracking (going up to 2013-15): most of the studies are conducted by market research companies, there are few academic studies and focus on health.
- From this research we find that in 2014, fitness bands were the most popular, and white middle class men with high levels of education and technological know how seem to be the most involved.
- Academic research has revealed strong positive views about self-tracking among most self-trackers, with a measure of scepticism about how their personal data might be used. There is also evidence of strong ethos of self-responsibility (the neoliberal subject).
Chapter 2 – New Hybrid Beings: Theoretical Perspectives
Because self-tracking is a complex process, we should seek to understand it from multiple perspectives. This chapter outlines theoretical perspectives (in bold below) on self-tracking
- Datafication via digital devices is a fundamental aspect of selfhood today.
- People invest digital technologies with meaning, and we need to understand these meanings to understand people’s identities.
- Individual human actors should be understood as part of an assemblage that consists of (besides humans), digital devices, software and networks.
- Code/ space is another concept that’s been developed to capture the hybridity of human-technological networks
- G. our objects may govern our access to space (e-tickets)
- Draws on actor-network theory.
- A concept developed by Nigel Thrift to denote the way that capitalism has shifted from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from the data they generate and upload.
- This is in the context of a big data economy, there is a lot of money to be made from data-driven insights.
- In the age of prosumumption, people upload this information for free, why social media sites are generally free, because it is the data that has value.
- The four big tech companies need to be taken into consideration, due to the sheer amount of data they have access to, they have power.
- Fluidity is key to metaphors used to describe the digital data economy.
- HOWEVER, data can become frozen, stuck if people do not know how to use it.
- Data can have a determining influence on people’s life chances
- When data is rendered 2D it is frozen.
- When data is represented, it is a result of social processes, we need to ask about who has made the decision to represent data in particular ways.
Self-tracking and the neo-liberal subject
- Foucault’s concepts of selfhood, governmentality via biopolitics and surveillance are especially relevant to understanding the social significance of self-tracking.
- In contemporary western societies, the dominant idea is that ‘care of the self’ is an ethical project that the individual is responsible for – the ‘good citizen’ sees the self as a project to worked on, they don’t expect much from the state or other people in society.
- Giddens, Beck and Bauman have focused on how the self has become individualised – society is full of uncertainties, and lots of choices, and it is down to the individual to do the work to make those choices (and take responsibility for making the right choices).
- The ‘self’ in today’s society is one which must be constantly re-invented – improved in order to be a success.
- There is a dominant discourse of morality surrounding self-improvement – people are expected to do it!
- The psy disciplines have become increasingly popular today because they fit this era of self-responsibility.
- Despite the focus on the individual, power is still at work through these practices and discourses of the self. They fit in well with neoliberalism, which depends on soft modes of governing rather than hard – the former basically being everyone controlling themselves because they have taken responsibility for themselves and themselves only.
- Discourses of self-improvement and the focus on the individual ignore the role of structural factors (class, gender, ethnicity) in shaping people’s lives and the problems they may face during their lives.
- Self-tracking fits in with this neoliberal discourse of self-responsibilization.
Cultures of Embodiment
- The way we understand our bodies is culturally, socially and historically contingent.
- Digital devices offer people numerous ways for people to ‘digitise’ their bodies, and thus we are changing the way we think of our bodies.
- Digital technologies mean people are starting to think of their bodies visually (the screen body) rather than haptically (to do with touch). Rather than rely on their ‘fleshy’ feelings they rely on the more ‘real’ visually represented data.
- Self-tracking practices may be viewed simply as another set of technologies through which individuals seek to control their bodies.
- Foucault’s concept of biopower is a useful analytical tool to explore digitised bodies: it emphasises how the body is a site of struggle.
- Biopower is subtler than traditional forms of power and control – it focuses on the disciplines of self-management and control.
- In the discourse of self-tracking, those who can control their bodies are ‘moral’, those who cannot are deficient.
- Theories of boundary maintenance and purity (a la Mary Douglas) are also relevant: and we need to keep in mind that the boundary between the body and the social in digital space is less clear than ever.
- Data tracking technologies render what was previously hidden about our bodies much more visible, and subject to greater control (but by whom>?).
- NB – much of the way the body is visually represented is quantitatively – biometrics are largely quantitative, and this data can be used as a basis for inclusion and exclusion.
- ‘Critical data studies’ have emerged to challenge the claims of big data being ‘all positive’
- The process of datatification = rendering complex human feelings and relationships into digital data. This typically involves metricization, which involves numbers
- This makes complex and diverse humans ‘easily comparable’ and this formed the basis of control through normalization in the 19th century, it seems to be even more central to contemporary strategies of biopower.
- Data collected is often quite narrow (e.g. think about education) and is often used by powerful agencies to control and manipulate people. However this is not a neutral process: value judgements lie behind what data is collected and how it is used.
- We are entering into a world in which biopower and the knowledges which underpin them are increasingly digitised. Such data are frequently presented as neutral, more reliable than individual subjective data, and thus forming a more robust basis for ‘truth claims’.
- Datafication offers a late modern promise of rendering messy populations understandable and controllable.
- Algorithmic authority is increasingly important in identity construction and governing inclusion to areas of social life.
- It is also sometimes difficult to challenge, given that the algorithms are often black-boxed.
- Dataveillance = veillance which uses digital technology.
Dataveillance and Privacy
- The generation of more data increases the opportunities for monitoring.
- Veillance is Lupton’s preferred term – because there are multiple types of watching in society.
- Some obvious forms of surveillance include CCTV and Passports, but Foucault’s idea of the panopticon is probably the most relevant to understanding veilance today – where people take on responsibility for controlling their own actions because they ‘might’ be being watched.
- Veillance is extremely pervasive and works across multiple sites simultaneously and can be purposed and repurposed in multiple ways.
- It is increasingly used as a means of categorising – often based on risk.
- Sousveillance is increasingly important.
- There is no longer a clear spatial boundary between public and private…. Some commentators have even suggested that the internet = the end of privacy.
- We need to ask lots of questions about data ownership and usage rights.
Chapter 3 – ‘An Optimal Human Being’: The Body and Self in Self-Tracking Cultures
The reflexive monitoring of the self
- analysis of interviews with two self-trackers reveals a discourse of self-awareness and self-improvement facilitated by self-tracking technology.
- The data used is mainly quantitative and individuals seek greater understanding by finding patterns in their lives.
- There is always a focus on ‘becoming’ – present data is interpreted in light of a desired future (very goal-oriented).
- There is a focus on individual self-knowledge within the movement, which some have viewed as narcissistic.
- There is a strong ethic of self-responsibility, and an implication that those who don’t seek to improve their lives through self-tracking are morally incomplete.
- Self-tracking selves thus seem to be neoliberal subjects.
- The concept of the self fits well with digital entrepreneurialism, especially where the tracking of productivity is concerned.
Representations of embodiment
- Metaphors of the body as a machine and specifically as an information processing machine are often employed in self-tracking cultures.
- Inputs/ outputs/ performance are all parts of the discourse.
- ‘I can therefor I am’ is also part of the discourse of selfhood (Lury 1997)
- Digital wearable devices are viewed as ‘prosthetics’ (data prosthetics) – enhancing the capacity to act in a similar way to prosthetic limbs. E.g. videos of life loggers expand the human capacity to remember.
- The prosthetics also extend the body into a network of other bodies…. E.g. through the representation of data in social networks.
- It becomes increasingly unclear where the body ends and environmental space (‘out there’) begins (code/space is a new concept to describe this).
The affective dimensions of self-tracking
- Self-tracking devices and software and the data they generate are invested with a high degree of personal meaning.
- Obviously, the devices themselves, especially phones, matter to us, and the data collected through these devices is part of our lives, part of our biography: it is ‘my data’.
- We use these data (images, stats etc to ‘present ourselves’ and engage in ‘algorithmic self-promotion’.
- NB Even the way we organise our apps has personal meaning.
- A more over affective dimension is where apps actually track our emotions.
- The data generated by self-tracking and the responses this gets when presented also generates emotions – from satisfaction to frustration.
- Those who do not self-track may be perceived as immoral because of not taking the responsibility to control their lives. (There is a barely hidden discourse of morality in the movement)
- Emotions also come into the fact that devices sometimes measure what they are supposed to effectively, and sometimes don’t work at all – they tie people’s emotional states into the robustness of the material devices.
- Wearable devices also affect people’s emotional states differently – if they make them feel more self-conscious, this may not be in a good way: some may feel ‘fitter’, others may feel fatter.
- There are also design and fashion to consider – many people won’t wear devices if they don’t look good.
Taking and losing control
- Part of the discourse of self-tracking is one of using data to gain greater control over one’s life.
- This fits in well with the uncertainty of late modern society – data collection and using it is a means of reducing risk: in terms of poor health or broken relationships for example.
- This is most advanced in the sphere of medicine and health where the concept of the ‘participatory patient’ is well established – many patients are expected to engage in a routine of data collection and monitoring, along with their Doctors.
- However, this effectively brings the body under surveillance as never before: the technologies used may be talked about as ‘inobtrusive, but the effects are to foreground the body through the data collected.
- Some ex self-trackers report they gave up because data ‘took over’ their lives, drowning out their intuition.
- Others reported they gave it up as they found they were only happy when their numbers were trending upwards.
- And if you don’t have your device, you might regret it…
- Some people also change their habits because of their devices, not necessarily in good ways – eating foods because it fits your diet regime and not actually enjoying the food!
- Self-tracking may be a terrible idea for those with OCD or anorexia.
Self-Tracking and Surveillance
- Self-tracking and the data generated by it blur the boundary between the public and the private.
- Especially when we publish our data on networking sites, our private data becomes public.
- The practice of self-tracking is typically done as part of an assemblage – tracking of ‘intimate’ information, displayed in public.
- There is a positive side to all of this – gamifying one’s data can be motivational, as can messages of support from others.
- We need to consider that some forms of tracking may be imposed from above, and users have little choice over engaging in the practice
- Finally, there are the political implications of how our data is stored and used!
Chapter 4 – You Are Your Data: Personal Data, Meanings, Practices and Materialisations
Covers the ways in which self-trackers seek to make sense of, materialise and use their personal information.
The meaning and value of personal digital data
- Self-tracking is not only about controlling one’s body and one’s self, but controlling the data generated by self-tracking.
- Data assemblages are constantly shifting, and the data drawn upon is context dependent. They are also reflexive and recursive – people may act on the data, and those changes in action change the data.
- Even though certain data assemblages may provide a snap shot, frozen, the data are liquid entities, constantly shifting, and this requires self-trackers to engage in constant meaning negotiation to make sense of the data and the selves those data represent.
- The Quantified Self Movement says this is one of its primary purposes – to help people make better sense of the data – as they see it, collecting it is easy, making sense of it a life skill which needs practice/ training.
- There is a sense in which the data is more reliable than gut feeling or memory.
- Personal Analytics (according to QS) will help us develop optimal selves often defined as us becoming more efficient/ productive.
- There is a ‘big data mind set’ – we can get new insights from this data that was not previously available – e.g. I can look at my phone and see how stressed I am.
- Self-trackers often present themselves as scientists, collecting their own data, the digitized an information processing system
- The data is often presented as trustworthy, and the body’s perceptions as untrustworthy.
- This fits in with a long held medicalized view of the body, the only difference now is that we are visual not haptic and data is available to the layman, not just the expert.
- The data is seen as emblematic of their ‘true selves’.
Metricization and the Lure of Numbers…
- Quantification is central to the quantified self discourse.
- More and more areas of social life have become quantified in recent years (obviously?)
- Although data is presented as neutral, there is a ‘politics’ to quantification.
- The rationales of both commerce and government are supported by datafication – publics are rendered manageable by data: BIG DATA allows for people to be managed algorithmically.
- ‘Comensuration’ is a result of metricization…. This is the process whereby a broader range of previously different social phenomena are brought together under one metric – thus the process favours homogeneity over heterogeneity – – e.g. the Klout score.
- Such metrics create ‘climates of futurity’.
- These metrics invariably favour some qualities over others.
- Viewing the self through such data/ metrics encourages one to take a scientific/ comparable, and reductionist view of life…
- This cuts out the experience of (real?) life as messy/ complex/ contradictory.
Data Spectacles: Materializations of Personal Data
- Visualising data is an integral part of the Quantified self-movement. A lot of these data visualizations are very ‘neat’.
- Most self-trackers derive pleasure and motivation from seeing their data visualised
- They also see the data as ‘more real’ than their own subjective feelings.
Artistic and Design Interventions
- Artists/ designers have tried to enhance/ challenge the way self-trackers visualize their data.
- FRICKBITS – invited self-trackers to turn their data into art
- The ‘Dear Data’ projected invited women to physically draw an aspect of their ‘data lives’ once a week.
- Lucy Kimbell’s LIX index took data from various aspects of her life, and turned them into one index to criticise self-tracking
- Critical making and design fiction aim to combine critical theory and art/ fiction. Their purpose is to envisage alternative futures (that are not necessarily either utopian or dystopian) – to challenge dominant power/ knowledge regimes/ discourses.
- These may be messier/ more ambiguous than many of the representations of current data and imagined futures made by self-tracking communities.
- Outlines a few projects which have sort to get us thinking about the boundaries between self/machine, and how these are shifting in assemblages.
- 3D Printers are also being used to visualise data.
- Data is also being used to produce things, based on data.
The Importance of Context
- There is growing cynicism about the use of numbers in self-tracking, because it is often not clear what numbers mean (e.g. a high heart rate can mean different thing) – we thus need to know the context in which the data is collected.
- ‘Morris’ (blog) is a good example of how context and quality may be more useful – he took thousands of photos of his daily routine, on reviewing them he said he started to recognise more people on his daily commute, feeling more connected to them.
- Presenting self-data is an important aspect, this is context, emotional.
- Data collected and then presented back might conjure up uncomfortable emotions… e.g Eric Myer’s Facebook Year in Review experience.
- Self-trackers are also self-qualifiers… they use the data to tell stories about themselves.
Chapter 5 – Data’s Capacity for Betrayal: Personal Data Politics
Covers the political dimension of self-tracking data (who stores the data, what they do with that data and how they benefit).
- Self-tracking practices generate digital biocapital (value derived from a combination of bodies and data)
- The generation and storage of this data is now beyond the consensual and the personal and this raises all sorts of questions pertaining to who should have access to this data and its use…. Much of which has been highlighted by the recent Facebook scandal.
- Digital biocapital also raises the spectre of governments and corporations being able to algorithmically manipulate people.
- Prosumption is a form of work… the value people derive from generating the data not monetary, but the data is commodified and then has a monetary value… this is exploitation.
- Employers data trawl prospective employers
- Insurance companies are already using predictive algorithms to set premiums
- Data is being used in some legal cases.
Pushed and imposed self-tracking
- Although self-tracking is usually presented as something voluntary, there are some fields where the practice is used ‘coercively’ – where institutions use self-tracking to ‘nudge’ (often unwilling) participants’ behaviour in a ‘desirable’ direction.
- It is mostly in the sphere of health that we find this.
- This fits in well with soft power in neoliberal regimes.
- One example is insurance companies getting people to upload their health data (also driving).
- Another is Corporations offering reduced health insurance packages for employees who enrol in their wellness programmes.
- There is a fine line between consensual, pushed and imposed self-tracking.
Personal data security and privacy
- Written before GDPR – ‘many companies fail to tell customers how their data will be used’.
- Personal information is very sort after by criminal gangs who can gain access to it at two main points – data transfer, and when data is stored on online databases.
- Survey data show that people are generally OK with their data being used for beneficial purposes but are suspicious of and worried about the use of data by governments and corporations to manipulate people, and of the fact that their data may be used to exclude them.
Communal self-tracking and taking control of personal data
- Some in the quantified self movement talk of ‘pooling’ their small data so as to gain big data insights.
- (Small data is personal and identifiable, big data as impersonal and anonymous).
- Nafus and Sherman (2014) have theorised that this can be a form of resistance against control of big data by large companies.
- A very small pool of experts can create their own means of dealing with their data, most people are dependent on commercial products.
- Some self-tracking initiatives encourage collective positive projects – e.g. environmental, collective steps, hours meditated. This could be a new form of digital citizenship moving forwards.
Responses and resistances to dataveillance
Outlines three counter responses…
- Selectively recording information (the power of forgetting)
- Obfuscation – deliberately generating false data or digital noise.
- Making people aware of the sheer amount of data being collected.
More detailed summary: chapter 1 (NB – find points of interest and think of the questions I can ask, to then find further research on (reorganising this!)
Self-tracking cultures have emerged in a sociocultural and political context in which various rationales, discourses, practices and technologies are converging… these include the following:
- A self-concept that values self-knowledge and entrepreneurialism
- The privileging of quantitative scientific knowledges seen as neutral
- A moral imperative to take responsibility for the regulation and tight control of one’s body
- Digital technologies which allow the recording of more aspects of life in ever greater detail
- A digital data economy which commodifies personal data
- Governments and commercial agencies seeking to use data to manipulate behaviours.
The notion of autonomous individualism is central to many self-tracking cultures – the individual is seen as being morally responsible for rationally improving their own well-being. Little account is taken of the role of structural factors (poverty, discrimination) in affecting life chances.
Technologies tend to have been designed by white middle class men in the global North, and the decisions about what to measure through tech reflects their bias – for example the Apple Watch does not track menstrual cycles.
At the same time as being reductive, the process of generating self-knowledge is also productive – it is an active process which gives rise to new knowledges, and people use them to ‘improve the self’.
How self-tracking knowledge changes power relations is not clear – presumption means lay people can track and present data, which challenges the role of the big tech companies. However, producers of data have little control over it once it has been generated and uploaded to social media sites.
Self-tracking practices are now mainstream, and way beyond just in the realms of health and fitness.
Lupton has identified five ‘modes’ of self-tracking:
The differences are to do with the extent of consent and the purposes for which data is used.
Data devices are learning more about humans. Some of them already tell us what to do. This makes future assemblages more complex – once the world of the Internet of Things really kicks into gear!
Data Literacy is a common thing today, but we need to focus more on getting people to think about the power relations between the users of tech and the designers who make them, and commercial and governmental agencies involved.
There are many new positive uses to which self-tracking might be put, and the penultimate few paragraphs outline some of these – such as ‘empathy’ projects and creative projects.