The Quantified Self Movement is not a Kleenex

•March 15, 2013 • Leave a Comment

(Note: Jamie Sherman and I wrote this text together as an experiment in mixing academic and popular writing styles. It’s still a prototype.)

The Quantified Self (QS) is a global movement of people who numerically track their bodies.  If you were to read popular press accounts like this, this and this, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a self-absorbed technical elite who used arsenals of gadgets to enact a kind of self-imposed panopticon, generating data for data’s sake. Articles like this could easily make us believe that this group unquestioningly accepts the authority of numerical data in all circumstances (a myth nicely debunked here). Kanyi Maqubela sees a lack of diversity in “the quantified self.”  On one hand, he is absolutely right to say that developing technologies to get upper middle class people who do yoga and shop at farmers markets to “control their behavior” is a spectacular misrecognition of the actual social problem at hand,[1] and one that can be attributed directly to the design-for-me methodology[2] so rampant in Silicon Valley.  The charge works, however, only if we think about Quantified Self as if it were analogous to Kleenex:[3] a brand name that can be used generically for the latest round of health and fitness gadgets technologies whose social significance (or lack thereof) is self-evident.

The Quantified Self that we have come to know is not a Kleenex. It is a particular social movement with specific social dynamics, people and practices.  Even the most cursory ethnographic examination of actual practices of its members reveals a very different picture.  We have been conducting this research for the past year and a half, alongside many other academics who have also been welcomed into the community. The Quantified Self that we know has very little to do with trying to control other people’s body size or fetishizing technology. Indeed, people who create data with pen and paper are community leaders alongside professional data analysts.  As a social movement, QS maintains a big tent policy, such that the health care technology companies who indeed would like to control other people’s body sizes do participate. But QS also organizes its communities in ways that require people to participate as individuals with personal experiences, not as companies with a demo to sell.  This relentless focus on the self we suspect does have cultural roots in neoliberalism and the practices of responsibilization Giddens identified so long ago, but it also does important cultural work in the context of big data.

An example from our ethnography can illustrate this.  At a recent Quantified Self meeting on the West Coast, discussion turned to “habit formation.” Sean, one of the organizers of the group, was talking about his frustration with tracking apps organized around “streaks.” He felt great to have kept his new “habit” seventy times in a row, but “when your mother gets ill and you miss a week, poof! It’s gone.” He was looking for something that would offer a metric for what he called the “strength” of a habit as he felt that would be much more encouraging for him. After all, the habit does not just go away  because the data does.  Other participants mentioned various kinds of moving averages that would be nice, and the conversation wandered into a debate over whether “habits” was a negative framework to use, and whether “practices” were more constructive. Later in the evening, two men, David and Tom, were talking about Tom’s recent purchase of a Jawbone Up—one of many devices on the market that will track movements and infer various things from them, like sleep or exercise. Tom showed us the visualization of his sleep data that appeared to show that he falls asleep quite quickly most nights. That information was encouraging as he had been concerned about his sleep. While he was not entirely certain how the bracelet-style device measured sleep cycles, he conjectured that it must have to do with motion. In any case, he felt like he was more rested just knowing that “in fact” he was sleeping well. The group laughed, and then continued to wonder collectively about just how the thing “decided” what sleep cycle you were in. Discussion turned to other devices that incorporated other indicators like skin temperature, perspiration, heart rate and brainwaves. A certain watch had all the sensors David wanted. He could use it for more than just sleep tracking,  but it had limits.  He knew the watch could track his heart rate, but he wanted to see the variability of his heart rate because he had been curious about the physical expression of moods. The watch only gave a pulse, as if there were no other interpretation of the underlying signals from the heart.

The relationship between “habit formation” and the limitations of devices is significant. On one hand, the habits/practices that most participants sought to instill in themselves generally (though not always) adhered to normative guidelines around health and good citizenship: exercise more, work more effectively, keep moods elevated, etc.. On the other hand, these clearly are not passive consumers swallowing blindly the parameters of “what’s good for them.” In many ways they see their activities as a response to big data and big science dictums that make claims about the healthy body from on high. In the face of generalized, anonymous one-size-fits-all prescriptions derived from population studies, they seek to understand what is right for me. What is the optimal bedtime for me? Under what diet regime do I feel my best? What activities (sleep, caffeine, wheat, dairy, and other usual suspects) are particularly correlated with mood or energy in my life?

If people in this movement appear narcissistic, it is because of their focus on the self.  The insistence on the agency of each person to track, understand, and decide for themselves what is right “for them” does draw on cultural threads of individualism, but they do it in ways that refrain from making assumptions about what is right for others. The self is the site of internalization of dominant big data visions that do control people in Foucauldian, biopolitical ways,[4] but it is also, at the same time, a means of resistance. QSers self-track in an effort to re-assert dominion over their bodies by taking control of the data that many of us produce simply by being part of a digitally interconnected world.  When participants cycle through multiple devices, it is often not because they fetishize the technology, but because they have a more expansive, emergent notion of the self that does not settle easily into the assumptions built into any single measurement.  They do this using the technical tools available, but critically rather than blindly.  It is not radical to be sure, but a soft resistance, one that draws on and participates in the cultural resources available.

The eagerness with which pundits seize on the Quantified Self as a generic brand, a Kleenex style term to toss around, speaks to the ways that QS practices cohere with current ideologies and practices of self in the mainstream. Yet to stop there, to overlook the particulars of what actual QSers do, how they do it and why, is to miss the social significance of the Quantified Self as a movement. It is not the nerdy devices they enthuse over, nor the sometimes mundane kinds of self-transformations they seek to achieve, but rather the explicitness and with which they confront the question of what the cultural dominance of data means for me.   Answering this question requires a critical and questioning point of view.   Within the Quantified Self, like snowflakes, no two tissues are alike: now, how do we count that?


[1] Greenhalgh, S. 2012. “Weighty Subjects: The Biopolitics of the U.S. War on Fat.” American Ethnologist, 39:3, pp. 471-487

[2] Oudshoorn, N., Rommes, E., & Stienstra, M. 2004. Configuring the user as everybody: Gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies. Science Technology Human Values, 29(1), 30-63

[3] Ken anderson pointed out the Kleenex comparison to us.

[4] Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011. A new algorithmic Identity : Soft biopolitics and the modulation of control. Theory, Culture & Society, 28, 164-181.

Some new blog posts–elsewhere

•March 11, 2013 • Leave a Comment

If you have arrived here and see the big gap between this post and the last one in, say, 2010, you’ll see my blogging habit is at best sporadic. But I have been over at Culture Digitally, talking about the ethnomathematics of algorithms and also debating my work on open source.

I’ve just updated the publications page–there’s some new work there that will give you some indication of what I’ve been up to.

Movie time already?

•October 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Production cycles must be getting short these days. Just how long did it take for Facebook the website to become Facebook the David Fincher movie? Not too long, though happily longer than it takes to compose a status update. As I watch Justin Timberlake valiantly hotting up the very website famous for its streaming banalities, I have to wonder just what is the deal. I remember in 2007 taking bets on just how long it would take for Facebook to go the way of Friendster and other dot com busts before it. So what’s kept it around?

The only theory I can surmise goes back to Durkheim, the sociologist who noted some hundred years ago that religion is society worshiping itself. Now, love Facebook or hate it—which many of us do in equal measure—we are inclined to grant it supernatural powers. In the anthropological sense, words like “magic” and “supernatural” and “myth” are not negative words to describe what is false or unscientific; they point to instances where the physical properties of what happened don’t matter nearly as much as the social and moral truth at stake. There is a secular transubstantiation happening here, where the wine that Facebook created is equal parts sacred (risk taking entrepreneur has the multimillion dollar idea) and equal part dark arts (said to kill privacy, promote thoughtless verbal diarrhea, and reduce friendship to a mere click).

I am not here to exonerate the “mere” technology. It’s not “only” a networking tool, but there are good reasons it captivates. I think (though I’m sure there are gaggles of graduate students studying it now, and we’ve known for a long time how Facebook and MySpace have very different demographics) one reason for its staying power must be because it speaks to the things the upper middle classes worry about. Upward mobility now means physical mobility, and friendships are made and let languish in the inevitable cycle of moves in and out of graduate school, jobs, and layoffs. It is a rare yuppie that is actually “from” somewhere, without reciting a litany of years spent in this or that city. All of which grows rather painful over time. The inevitability of having to start again, or, conversely, staying put while watching your network of support get plucked off in a steady series of career changes, is a perennial insecurity as sure as death and taxes. As Zygmunt Bauman says, we want the freedom to roam and the security of staying put, and this is what vexes modern relationships. Like Zuckerberg, we too chase our fortunes, pick up sticks when we have to, and lose friendships when it requires more effort than we can muster to maintain them regardless of how much they were once valued. And what does Zuckerberg offer as a solution? A list of people who are always there, regardless of where they really are, who don’t require much effort to be kept up with and ask little in return. The best and worst of both worlds, giving us a disquieting view of the way our social relationships panned out long before they were crystallized into a clickable list of online friends.

What makes a technology “WOW”?

•July 16, 2010 • Leave a Comment

For some reason stories about the early days of electricity seem to be circulating. In a recently heard rendition, a person who I respect quite deeply had noted that electricity, in the early days, was perceived to be useless by consumers. It was only until it had been spectacularized that this changed —in this case via women who were, at the behest of a power company, sent out to turn of the century parties dolled up in dresses glowing with lightbulbs. (This is true. You can read about it in Carol Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New). Not only did it become ‘useful’ as a new system of lighting but appealing and seductive. It ‘wowed’ in the eyes of consumers, and got everybody on the same page about how useful and important this newfangled technology was. In that moment of translation between Edison and lightbulb partygirl, technology was made to be magic.

Today, we look to user experience to do this work of ‘wow’ creation. Indeed, that was this person’s point: that the technology alone is not sexy, and there is serious work involved in making it a technology that wows which has little to do with engineering prowess, and cannot be hand waved away as mere marketing. This is a point that I agree with, and have devoted my career to.

Yet something disturbed.

There was an unsettling absence in this origin myth—a myth not at all unique to this particular conversation with this particular person. The absence, the persistent absence I see in rallying cries to delivering better user experience, is the unsettling, not so happy story about what makes something ‘wow.’ The absence in this particular story about electricity is that the “wow” was precisely in making the privileged even more privileged. For example, the early electricity demos that conspicuously don’t get mentioned are the ones where colonial administrators used electricity to literally shock natives into submission, claiming they had magical powers to which the natives should submit in the name of ‘enlightenment.’ Electricity was also sold to large estate holders as a way of zapping undesirables off their property: re-enforcing their mastery over their own land. And while I wish there were more research into new technologies for sex, literally sending electrical currents through women’s bodies to demonstrate male mastery over nature is really not the best precedent to look favorably upon as a good example of “wow”. The “wow”, it turns out, always has a social origin and it ain’t always pretty. In the electricity example the appeal comes from the idea that this technology would give you, the powerful, even more power to wield over others. This appeal, of course, it not at all dissimilar, to what goes on today: technology is said to be a “power” to be “harnessed”, or sometimes “unleashed.” Not coincidentally, it is still, by and large, white, middle class men that are its greatest believers.

The hard side of delivering user experience is how to build in the kind of space necessary to meaningfully address these questions. Is just giving people the most obvious aspect of what they “want” always the way to make money? It seems to me that there is enough complexity in how people think, talk, and act, and enough versatility in what technologies can do, that we need not go down this route. It’s a seductive route, though: if you are trying to convince a senior figure within a company to take user experience seriously, telling him (and it usually is still him) that with the right user experience his technologies will be more powerful than ever is a good door-opening strategy. Calling him a racist sexist imperialist is not. Yet, at some point, this more difficult conversation must happen. User experience people do in fact have more than a foot in the door now. So if technology is really about changing the world, then we need to find more ways to take responsibility for not just the changes we do make, but what we choose to keep the same.

Platitude Bingo

•May 30, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I was lucky enough to be included in the proceedings of WCIT. It’s a gathering of technology policy people, NGOs, and the private sector talking about everything from the latest 3D display technology, to redesigning cities, to technology for social inclusion. There were ties and people well above my pay grade.

So what I have to say will invariably sound ungrateful for the opportunity to be invited at all, and I’m not. But what disturbed me was that I had difficulty finding any actual content. I was taking notes–copious notes as anthropologists are prone to. Yet after a while they became mostly a record of platitudes.

“You need to collaborate to innovate.”
“We can use ICT for improving public services, mitigating impacts of climate change and educating rural students.”
“Our call for action sets ambitious, yet attainable goals.”

Sometimes these were mutually contradictory, like:
“The ICT revolution means that for the first time, children are teaching the older generations.” and, later, “We need to teach our children e-skills so that they can be included in the digital revolution.” Huh? Who is teaching whom what exactly?

There were some people who did actually say some things. Dr. Neelie Kroes of the European Commission made an actual argument for IPR reform to support remix in new media and the culture industries. For this she received applause, yet further substantive claims remained elusive. I was not the only one who felt this; it seemed to be a topic of conversation. Ultimately, I ended up collecting these platitudes, hoarding them even. I plan to make a bingo game out of them.

So what gives, then? It couldn’t be that 2000 smart people who show up to an elite event enjoy not speaking about anything in particular. Sure, most were there to do business of some kind–make contacts, do deals and so forth. But that the real business takes place behind the scenes doesn’t explain why so many smart, clued-in people could only speak in strings of platitudes for the onstage bit. Surely they cared about what they had to say, and put effort into those talks.

Having just completed the Social Viability Measure, which we’re touting as a framework for anticipating the long term social effects of ICT4D projects, what I can say is that these are highly uncertain, complex efforts. The complexity of actually making a tech project work, and bring together the right interested parties, is staggeringly difficult and uncertain. Perhaps, then, these just so stories are necessary to convince ourselves that progress is indeed being made? Maybe it speaks to the mess of it all if we need to create this overly tidy version of things, where technology always mitigates against global warming whilst creating economic growth, empowering the poor and while it’s at it might as well cure cancer.

As these things always do, it reminds me of an anthropology from elsewhere. In this case, Alexei Yurchak’s work on official talk in Russia during the late Soviet period. Intriguingly, he says that official Soviet speak only became rigid after Stalin’s death. Sure, the consequences for getting it wrong were more dire under Stalin than Brezhnev or Kruzhschev, but there was an authority figure against which to check what kind of speech was right and what would send you to the gulag. Later, authority was more diffuse. No one really knew what would make for ‘bad’ talk, so it became more platitude-filled and ritualistic.

The tech industry and policy world, with its distributed network of partnerships, similarly has little to go on in terms of assuredly convincing speech. Except, of course, the sentiment that technology will cure all our ills if just applied in the right way. (There was a platitude for this too, which was that “it’s not the technology alone, but the implementation and usage of that technology.”)

Perhaps being scared, confused and overwhelmed, I had more in common with the other attendees than I realized.

The social viability measure is out!

•May 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Freshly launched here in Amsterdam at WCIT. Get yours now at www.socialviabilitymeasure.info .

We did some research, and found there are three basic areas of social life that technology for development projects either get right or wrong (usually inadvertently). These are also areas that we think projects can do a little more strategic planning around, to anticipate opportunities and mitigate risks. We are accepting applications for projects to run some pilots with us. If you want free consulting, here’s your chance…

okay, no more advertising now…

Remember gift economies?

•May 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

They’re back.

I’ve been preoccupied lately with the idea of drawing on anthropology classics to explain what’s happening in technology. It’s a starting point for a new research and teaching program I am helping to launch at University of Aberdeen. The bet is that it works like the cheese and jam sandwich principle: you can take any cheese, any jam, and provided the two individual ingredients are of high quality, you will always end up with a delicious sandwich (Seriously, it works…).

At Aberdeen we had students create technology use scenarios for 5 years in the future, based on a combination of what will become technologically feasible (the cheese), and a more or less arbitrarily selected anthropology classic – Nancy Munn’s Fame of Gawa (aka, the jam). Fame of Gawa looks inside an intricate system of exchange amongst Pacific islanders known as ‘kula.’ Kula trading is the canonical gift economy–a staple case study of all anthropology 101 courses. You show up to a neighboring island on a canoe, loaded with shells to trade, they feed you elaborately in an attempt to create the obligation for you to give away your best shells. In turn, if you are a good shell trader, and have a canoe nice enough to dazzle them into giving away their best shells, your name and the name of your island get known far and wide throughout the shell-trading system: hence the ‘fame’ in Fame of Gawa.

As the students were designing their future technologies, it occurred to me that there were some underlying commonalties between kula trading and new media. New media, particularly of the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube variety, doesn’t work like your average commodity exchange, where one person produces, the other consumes, and at the moment of transaction you are both quits. But the easy ways that we now use ‘gifting’ as a term to describe it carries connotations that really shouldn’t be there. We talk about gift economies like they are nice, feelgood things, where we express our individuality, and celebrate our individual brands. That couldn’t be farther from the ethnographic record. There are four principles of I think underlie kula trading that help us understand how Web 2.0 really works:

a) Giving is about creating obligations: There is no such thing as a freely given gift. It’s not altruistic. We know this already yet somehow the tech industry still talks about content as something that’s “shared.” “Sharing” hardly gets to the fact that if my friend puts lots of things up on Facebook, it can be just be to con me into doing the same. That’s not what my momma taught me about sharing.

b) You need to have something different in order to trade: Most of the trading in kula is not about the one famed shell that everyone wants, its about smaller points of difference. So too Web 2.0: most people are not seeking to be the next David after Dentist. Even though the millions of cute cat videos seem to be nothing but noise, who shot those videos and the context in which they are shot creates these microdifferences that are in fact worthy of exchange.

c) Fame is a function of the ability to control the flow of things: Fame of Gawa is really a study of circulation—how far and wide things travel. It turns out that the only way things can travel far and wide is through the very things that don’t: things that are heavy, things that are connected to the ground rather than the sea and air. The heavy yams that come from the ground and don’t move very far, and given at shell trading meetups, are really what keeps the circulation going, and determine how far the shells go and through what time period. You need both to make the system come alive, and to exert your own power within the system. Through metaphors of lightness and heaviness, Gawans have a wonderful ways of imagining how things flow through systems—something we lack. We talk about circulation of content as a flat ‘network’, with hubs and spokes, links and feeds. It’s a flat description with a thin qualitative imagination. But if we were to use the Gawan point of view, which revolves around exchanging lightness for heaviness and vice versa, we could see that the a world of constant retweets, trackbacks, rss and data aggregations only gets us so far. There needs to be some grounding in order to have something to exchange: someone needs to have done something in the actual non-retweeted, re-aggregated world. If you are nowhere but a sea of retweets and feeds, you have nothing to trade. If you have an idea of where you are in relation to the content you are circulating, the circulations become meaningful. Web 2.0 requires us to be both light and heavy at the same time, both recirculating and producing your own.

d) People are made, they are not born: a Gawan person is literally made through feeding that person yams, and in turn that person has to pay back their own creation through other gifts. People are distinguishable from one another not through some inherent individuality but through the particular set of obligations and relationships they have. If they were tech people they would say I am my network, and my network is not your network. You only get to do anything in Gawa through other people: you can’t just get up and make yourself a sandwich. Similarly, we often think of personal brands and personal identity as something we individually construct: that we lovingly curate our online presence, that we have the ability to project our own coolness, and that the whole sea of blogs, Facebook postings and tweets is a giant exercise in individuation. Maybe it is. But what the Gawans understand better than most is that what we think is individual comes from somewhere outside ourselves. A brand is only meaningful if it speaks to other people. Your brand can’t really be that personal if its going to circulate as a brand. We Westerners can admit we have influences, but on the whole we prefer to think that we do things ourselves. But if we were all as independent as we like to think nobody would be able to have a conversation with anybody. We’d all be mutually unintelligible. Who, then, really makes a personal brand, is up for debate.

So if you fed me some yams recently…. Drop me a line 