Interesting Questions From "The Quantified Self: The Practice of Personal Science"


@extantproject to @agaricus: at the end of the video you were asked a great question but had to end the talk. is there video of the rest somewhere?

@agaricus to @extantproject: Sadly I don’t have my own recording, but the question was VERY good. Discuss elsewhere?

… the question I am interested in is after 52:50 in the video, summarized thus:

Is Quantified Self an “institutional rationalization” that we are creating to cope with our “loss of privacy” and “power” as we become more deeply tracked by our institutions (e.g., corporations, government, research organizations)?

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I just watched portions to make a decent transcript. It took too long to do more than post it tonight, but let’s return to this conversation tomorrow. (extantproject - would you be willing to use or link to your real name? We encourage it generally on the forum, and for a substantive conversation like this it has a lot of value.)

The question extantproject summarized referred back to something earlier in the talk from about 23:10

[Gary Wolf] Here’s a really common thing that I hear, that we suffer from a kind of stockholm syndrome, forming positive attachments to systems that are fundamentally abusive. There’s a whole range of skeptical and pained reaction that the quantified self provokes in people. There’s an awareness that tracking tools are pressing in on us. That’s felt as a kind of kidnapping or hostage taking, and the quantified self is seen as a pathological response to that where people are overwhelmed, and they’ve gone gadget crazy and they just can’t take it anymore,and so they say, “I submit. I love you.”

Here’s another idea: The advanced users are turning the tools of manipulation to their own advantage, creating zones of empowerment within the Orwellian nightmare of surveillance and manipulation That’s an idea that’s sometimes expressed by people who participate in the Quantified Self. OK, there’s this world of data tracking but I’m going to take it and do something with that’s meaningful to me. What’s interesting is that explanation just the same as the first explanation with the valence reversed. In the first case the person is just a pathetic dupe of the surveillance regime and in the second case they are the triumphant subverter of the regime, but in both cases the picture is that there is world of external surveillance and we as individuals have to respond to it.

Now as a participant observer and journalist by mentality, I’m obligated to find both these explanations true. They are both clear and genuine responses to something that is going on and they have to be taken into account. I’ve noticed in arguments for and against the quantified self, people are responding to a challenge from these systems, a challenge that can be seen as demoralizing or inspiring, but it is still a challenge.

[color=#000080][Question at 52:50] You used a Stockholm analogy, I would have used instead a comparison to 2nd and 3rd wave feminism in the eighties, when Madonna was becoming popular and Camille Paglia came out with a new notion: it wasn’t that men were exploiting women and objectifying them, it was women were taking advantage of their own exploration in order to profit from it themselves, and that there was something ennobling about Madonna’s behavior that wasn’t ennobling about Marilyn Monroe’s, a generation earlier. The result was that we had an institutional rationalization that allowed us to continue to see naked women on TV. In the same way, is there a way in which this notion of the quantified self is a way to provide an institutional rational to continue to allow interested entities like corporations and governments and research organizations to poke into our activities, and what we’re doing, but pretend its an empowering thing instead of a disempowering thing?

If I can come up with a reason to give Crest and Colgate a lot of information about what is going on inside my mouth with a wifi enabled electric toothbrush, well if they’re going to give me back some information about my tooth brushing behavior than I’ve learned something. But I’ve given them a lot of information that they can use to more effectively market their products. So, is this notion of the Quantified Self a way to provide cover for the continuing loss of privacy and movement of power from individuals to organizational centers the same way Camille Paglia was a way to continue to allow us to enjoy exploiting women except this time with an institutional rational.[/color]

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Via self-measurement I found ways to sleep better and lose weight. There was no loss of privacy involved. Without the self-measurement I suspect it would have been impossible to learn what I learned.

I agree with you, Seth: measurement teaches us things about ourselves. For example: it’s not impossible to lose fat without measuring it, but it definitely clarifies where you are at when you start, illuminates how you’re doing along the way, and allows you to create goals that you can know without a doubt that you have reached. This is because you can keep taking measurements and compare them with your outcome/goal measurement until they match; measuring allows you to create strict success criteria (a la “successful outcomes” in Getting Things Done/GTD).

Right, so…

I use apps – if I use them at all – that keep my self-tracking data local to the devices in my possession. But I primarily hand-write records on index cards throughout the day and corral them into a physical manilla folder labeled “data entry”. I eventually enter these data points into a JSON text file on my personal raidz2 ZFS box that lives at home within my “security perimeter”. This is to say that it is completely possible to do self-tracking without exposing anything to anyone else, institutions or otherwise. No question. But doing that digitally means being keenly aware of how the systems you use work and what they do with your data (i.e., being a tech person) or trusting companies to do that for you (hmm… hmm…). Tracking using paper and pen or analog tools is easy enough, but generally inconvenient, especially when it comes to analyzing the data. etc., etc., etc.

What is more germane in this context is that self-tracking apps/sensors/systems may/will/do retain data about you (“your data”, as it’s called) for you. Some companies will use that data to advertise to you. Some companies will sell that data (anonymized or not). These sorts of things are in user agreements and privacy policies, but not many people (especially that are not technical) care about such things; they just want to “lose weight” or “sleep better”, stumble across app/sensor/system X, find it to be helping, and therefore continue to log everything in app/sensor/system X.

It’s not hard to see what companies, for example, stand to gain by encouraging people to get on board with self-tracking. An easy example is a health insurance company: they can better assess the risk of you having a health problem which directly affects how much money they make. So the question becomes are we as Quantified Self-ers just fabricating a narrative to justify the behavior of our institutions? (I’m having a hard time getting this question carved out because it’s one of those sprawling/messy types…)

I keep my data (self-tracking and otherwise) to myself and generally don’t use apps/sensors/systems that store my data anywhere but on devices I own. So, I ensure that my self-tracking data is completely private and I am not surveilled/watched/measured by any entity in this regard. That’s great for extantproject, but what about non-technos?

Well, QS isn’t big enough for this to be a huge issue yet, so this is a more of a philosophical thing at this point. It’s underpinned with a context of personal data being everywhere already and no sign of that stopping anytime soon or anyone really caring. There are, of course, advantages to generating more data (“moar sensors!”) and having your data managed by other entities – but this discussion (to me) is more about the twisty/subtle advantages for our institutions and the danger of us fooling ourselves/rationalizing their behavior.[hr]
When I heard the question in the video “The Postmodern Condition” by Jean-Francois Lyotard (1979) immediately came to mind. Institutions and narratives…

I just look at the Wikipedia entry on “The Postmodern Condition” to see if I should add this to my reading this.

I enjoyed Wikipedia’s entry on Lyotard’s book for its understated but helpful advice that I’d be wasting my time, but if you think differently I’d like to know.

I’ve been trying to read fairly widely in this area because I think the issues raised by the questioner in the talk are real. The typical academic reference in a question like this is to Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish. I’ve read this and agree that its lessons are relevant, particularly the focus on the relationship between utilitarian benevolence and social control. Also helpful so far has been Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self and Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process. And the easily underestimated McLuhan is a good antidote to the moralizing implicit in Foucault. (If the widespread McLuhan allergy requires avoiding this terrain, Hugh Kenner has tools that work, too.

I know this mere list is not really an answer to the question. I’m not sure what the answer is. I agree it’s important to see propaganda and marketing for what it is. I hope QS will not be merely a marketing handmaiden,. I appreciate your reminder that most of the things that are personally meaningful here are not coming from large scale data aggregation, but from small scale tracking and experiments. Most of these have no storage requirements that go further than the local perimeter you describe. Robin Barooah also frequently reminds me of this. His apps, which I use, do not aggregate data.

At the same time, QS is part of a change in our sense of the self, something that is likely to effect our lives in many ways. Effects on so large a scale challenge traditional kind of moral judgments; either escape them altogether, or require a revision of the language of evaluation. So questions like the one asked at Berkeley have to be answered in several registers. First, I’d venture that language like “isn’t this just (x),” where “x” is some supposedly well-understood evil is inadequate. The things QS describes - new technologies of self-observation - aren’t very easily interpreted as “just” something particular. There is so much going on, and so much of it is still invisible or poorly characterized. Let’s not tag it with a slogan quite yet. Also, the “x” of the analogy may itself be poorly characterized or understood. In the speaker’s question, the “x” is Camille Paglia’s praise of sexual display, which turned out to be merely, in the questioner’s view, merely a justification for continued objectification of women in commercial media. If QS turned out to be fairly analogized to something like that, it would be a disappointing result. But Paglia may not be the most important thing to have happened in our understanding of sexuality in the 80’s; in fact, she may have been just one participant, famous for a few years but not necessarily key for that reason, in a larger, slower, more confusing process of re-organizing our sex lives. And her defense of sexual display may be read as evidence of something other than just a new strategy of exploitation. (Of course it’s possible to read her this way without accepting the terms of her polemic.)

As a warning to QS not to do naive service to hypocritical marketers, I think the challenge is important. It’s by answering challenges like this that we help see more clearly how we want to participate. But for the question to work, we have to also question its assumptions.

That’s my tentative answer… and I’m interested in any replies.

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The questioner seems to be concerned with a particular form of self-tracking: one that makes personal data available to businesses. However, if we address the above question with respect to a private form of Personal Science, privacy concerns can be dismissed and the assertion that Personal Science somehow empowers institutions (in general) seems tenuous at best - if anything the opposite is true.

Sure, the institution that actually provides me with a measurable and beneficial effect will gain power (i.e., money). However, those institutions that fail to provide me with detectible effects will not receive my financial power in exchange for their falsified product. Maybe Personal Science will function as a much needed immune system for capitalism.

I’ve only been through Gary’s talk once (which was excellent), but I am curious to hear anyones thoughts regarding what seems to be a paradigm shift (in the Kuhnian sense) toward Personal Science.