The quantified self (QS) movement advertises itself as a way for individuals interested in tracking their daily lives to use sensors and computing technology to monitor their activities, whether those activities involve biological processes or social actions, to better understand the their habits and improve upon them. The tracking and use of personal data through proprietary sensing and software platforms is generally accepted as part of the benign “datification” of everyday life. These services span almost every activity, from making grocery shopping more efficient (Grocery IQ) to monitoring levels of physical activity (Fitbit). Many authors have made insightful criticisms and observations about the contemporary datification landscape as a system. Notably, Frank Pasquale, in The Black Box Society, writes about the increase of commercialization and the sale of users’ data, their “digital reputation,” in the opaque world of the data-as-insight industrial complex. This is a valuable systemic critique, yet I am more interested in the personal effects of self-quantification. I argue that the use of self-monitoring and tracking technologies can create anxiety around the data capturing process. Tracking technologies create an ordering of people and experiences that discourages moments which are not easily quantified.
I personally began to consistently collect data on my daily activities during 2014 as part of a summer internship. I was downloading and testing digital applications to see what degree of functionality was common to the most popular applications on the market. While most of the apps were for media consumption, I quickly became fixated on the self-tracking and self-improvement category. Whether the app was a task planner, exercise log, or nutritional diary, I was excited to see trends in my behavior beyond the one or two week period that my own memory served to recount and contextualize my activities. Initially, the experience was great! I used my Soleus GPS watch for running and hiking, MyFitnessPal for nutrition and calories, MyMinutes for regulating the time I dedicated to a list of ongoing projects throughout the day. After the novelty wore off, however, I found self-tracking and self-monitoring created restrictions on my life.
The most obvious problem was the amount of time—sometimes a few seconds, but in other instances, up to 20 minutes—I spent preparing and actually capturing my data. For the GPS watch to work, I had to acquire a signal before I could begin a run, and I don’t even want to begin recounting the runs where I lost the satellite signal midway. For the dietary tracker, there were thousands of pre-entered product entries, but I tend to buy on-sale or off brand items (graduate student on a budget here), which meant I spent copious amounts of time inputting every nutritional detail. Additionally, for any food items that were not clearly proportioned (serving sizes described solely in ounces), I felt compelled to purchase a food scale and measure ingredients before assembling them for my meal. The effort input into tracking “work sprints” and overall productivity cost me precious minutes of break time. While the time spent recording my data grew to be annoying, wasted time was not the only or most insidious effect self-tracking applications had on me.
The worst part was the anxiety that I felt every time I encountered instances of “poor” data, such as missed or incomplete information, and activities which are not easily recorded or even quantifiable. Of course the manufacturers and developers do not discuss what happens when their product is not operating smoothly, yet even if the application is working 100% as designed, it exerts force on the daily habits of the user in unexpected ways. Those forces can create a great deal of anxiety, leading the individual to be less spontaneous and avoid unknown or unquantifiable situations. My GPS watch has problems maintaining a signal, which meant I slowly stopped running in forests or on pathways that strayed from roadways. For the nutrition tracking app, I had to politely smile and decline my friend’s homemade brownies, even with my stomach growling, because I had no way to know what she put in them. The productivity tracker was the first app I stopped using (almost immediately) because an application that purports to help with work/life balance should not interfere with break time.
To better understand the source of my anxiety, I first asked: Where does the urge to quantify my behavior come from? I turned to Foucault. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish traces the historical development of the carceral system which uses public institutions to monitor and control the activities of citizens. While this historical trajectory begins with discipline in the prison system, the urge to control and monitor envelopes even the non-criminal activities of daily life, such as public education and health. These outside forces guide citizens to become ideal subjects, and these forces are slowly internalized so that individuals want to become the best version of themselves as approved by the state; we want to score well on standardized tests; we want to perform well for state mandated physical fitness tests. This continues today with the integration of our own personal technologies of discipline (self-tracking and self-monitoring applications) which track, observe, and ultimately change our bodies and behaviors. Technologies of discipline go hand-in-hand with the transition towards data driven assessment and objectivity that trumps anecdotes or impressions of the individual. Experts and expertise embedded in technology are positioned as authorities over the individual’s body. Therefore, my anxiety is a result of not being able to reliably capture my data while simultaneously feeling compelled to do so. Without reliable and complete measurements, I cannot become the ideal version of myself.
By looking at the urge to self-quantify using a Foucauldian lens, it opens up other avenues for understanding why individuals broadcast their personal information online. The desire to become an ideal subject is why self-monitoring applications and “personal progress” are not kept private. Many individuals record their behaviors and activities and then share them with others using social media. A common criticism of sharing is that the practice is a form of narcissism, yet that claim offers a simplistic understanding of the urge to share metrics about ourselves. The ideal subject has always been a public subject. Deviancy is what hides in the shadows. Sharing is part of the need to reveal the body for public scrutiny to prove that the individual is a good person.
Candice Lanius is a PhD student in the Department of Communication and Media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who gets annoyed every time she hears someone say “The data speaks for itself!”