Image credit: author, age 6.
Credit: author, age 6

For many people, moving—especially to another city, state, or country, instead of just across town—is an opportunity to sort through (and likely, discard) possessions, in hope of making the impending relocation process less of an ordeal. I did this when I moved back to Massachusetts from California last February; I actually gave away more than 65 percent of my worldly possessions (by volume) before trading a two-bedroom house in West Oakland for a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge. This pales in comparison, however, to what my parents are currently undertaking: After 28 years in the same house, they’re preparing to move across state lines next month. For them, July has so far been all about sifting through the accumulated sediment of so much time in one enclosed space; since this is the Internet age (and since my mom has access to a scanner), for me July has been all about a steady stream of emailed highlights from rediscovered family—and personal—history.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I save stuff, and I have for a long time. Initially, as a prepubescent kid, I’d wanted to make sure that who-I-would-become would have a way to access who-I-had-been; I was afraid that, from the ignorance of forgetting, my adult self would fail treat her own someday-children with compassion. Over time my concern has shifted from, “When I am an adult, I will not remember what it was like to be a child,” to “When I am senile, I will not remember what it was like to be me,” but both fear of losing my empathy and fear of losing my identity have made equally effective documentary drives. Among the things I dragged to California and back again are small boxes of ticket stubs, received letters, old journals, longhand rough drafts, scrawled-on paper scraps, filled-up notebooks, the occasional school assignment, and paper photos from back when lab prints were the default, among other things. If informally and in a disorganized manner, I have through these artifacts documented at least some aspects of what my experience of being in the world has been.

What I didn’t think about until recently, however, is that I have only captured my existence from my own perspective. In contrast, you know who has a very different curatorial eye, and direct access to a whole lot of material?

Yeah, that would be my mom.

Author and her mother, 1998
Author and her mother, 1998

And holy crap, you guys: my mom’s got archives. My mom has saved stuff I don’t even remember making, artifacts created by a creature so tiny I can’t remember inhabiting her body without digging up a book with a tarnished lock and the word “DIARY” embossed across the front. There are things like preschool art projects, things I probably gave to my parents, but also things like stories scrawled on legal pads that I have no idea how my mother ever came to have, other than perhaps through some magical, panoptic parent voodoo. There are other things I vaguely remember writing, but that it never would have occurred to me to save (such as a particularly tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to an automated response from the email system at my mother’s place of employment, after my enthusiasm for swearing tripped a newly-installed spam filter). I have no idea where they were keeping all this stuff, but as my parents keep going, the scans keep coming—and those documents of documents are kind of amazing. Though I was only dimly aware of it at the time, it’s now quite apparent that my parents (mostly my mother) were engaged in a documentary project that paralleled my own, but that captured a notably different piece of my life.

To a lot of people—or at least, to a lot of people who are vaguely near my age and who share a roughly similar class- and cultural background—this is not particularly unusual. Saving Stuff From Childhood is just what parents, and especially moms, are supposed to do (or so we’ve been told); though the practice doesn’t have a name, we know what it is and we more-or-less expect that it takes place. Viewed through another lens, however, we can frame parental archiving as something else: as a kind of child-tracking. Some commonplace child-tracking practices are direct and quantitative, like a collection of report cards in that one kitchen cabinet, or a doorway with dates and dashes denoting height; other practices are more informal and qualitative, like a collection of stories over which one can watch my handwriting slowly solidify, and my spelling slowly become less “creative” (to use my mother’s term). Far from being the exception, then, the parental tracking of children and childhood seems almost mundane, the expected norm.

Or so you’d think. Earlier this week, Slate published an article titled, “I Measure Every Single Thing My Child Does,” which is about exactly what you’d think it’s about. Here, the child-tracking practices in question look a lot more like the kind of highly quantitative self-tracking that takes center stage in media coverage of Quantified Self, and a lot less like my family’s disorganized salvaging of early artistic endeavors. There are spreadsheets, and detailed measurements, and subjective observations coded as Likert items, some of which begin well before the titular child (a daughter) is actually born; notably the author, Amy Webb, is also the author of the book Data: A Love Story (so this is a family, or at least a couple, whose collective enthusiasm for “data” is likely greater than that of most other American parents). While I don’t know if Webb has ever been to a Quantified Self event, the story she tells in Slate does resemble what I’ve come to see as a classic QS narrative: “I track, and though my data I come to know myself better, and through this self-knowledge I’m able to be better”—a better (more healthy, more productive, happier) version of myself, or perhaps a better worker or a better partner. Webb’s story, however, has an interesting twist in the identity department: the thrust of her essay is, “I track, and through my daughter’s data I come to know my daughter better, and through this knowledge of her I’m able to be a better parent.” Webb therefore implicitly captures what I’m finding to be an increasingly fascinating question with respect to Quantified Self: where exactly does “self” stop, and “other” begin?

Credit: author's maternal grandmother, 1953
Credit: author’s maternal grandmother, 1953

Several friends and colleagues sent me Webb’s article when it came out (I love it when that happens), and there was a discussion about the piece in my Twitter feed as well. Overall, reactions from within my circles tended toward the negative: some wondered if the article was a satire, while others posited that, “[the] experience [of tracking] enables activities that begin as caution to transform into absurdity.” To be fair, Webb does acknowledge that her child-tracking practices “might seem obsessive, ostentatious, or just plain weird”; though she offers an argument for how such practices have benefited her family, she doesn’t exactly go out of her way to make them seem any less abnormal. My own first thought, however, was less about normalcy (or lack thereof), and more about “this isn’t exactly new”—although a sociologist saying, “This isn’t new” is just about the least-new thing that there is. Instead of stopping at “that’s not new,” then, I want to spend the rest of this post thinking about why Webb’s child-tracking practices aren’t that new. I threw out the term “QuantBaby” on Twitter in part as a joke and in part as a piece of character-saving shorthand, but if we consider “QuantBaby” to stand for the detailed, quantitative tracking of one’s child and one’s child’s development, what preconditions have laid the groundwork for QuantBaby to be A Thing?

To answer this one, I think you have to back—back before the turn of the 20th century, when three key things were happening: a decline in infant mortality, the shift to an industrial economy, and the coalescence of institutional medicine.

 *       *       *       *       *

Credit: author's maternal grandmother
Credit: author’s maternal grandmother, 1952

Consider the baby book, one of the oldest mass-produced tools for child-tracking. Baby books first started to emerge in the late 1880s, which historian Janet Golden credits in part to a decline in infant mortality: both the experience of raising a child and the child itself seem altogether different things once it’s more certain than not that the child will live past childhood. And yet, the mass-market baby books that appeared slightly later reflected something else as well: the shift toward an industrialized economy. As one author puts it, “Businesses discovered that babies are a wonderful excuse for consumption.” Consumer goods need consumers in order for an industrialized economy to work, and the early baby books printed by companies such as Borden’s and Carnation helped to create consumers for baby products in two important ways: first, by serving as a convenient vehicle for advertisements; and later, by helping to recast children not as something one created out of obligation (or a need for farm labor), but as a source of emotional fulfillment. From the beginning, baby books structured “good parenting” as something that involves a lot of metrics; this was due in part to the popularity of the Child Study movement at the time, and was also probably not unrelated to advertisements for rentable baby scales. Later, as both “childhood” and “the family” were reconfigured in the postwar era, baby books—along with new experts like Dr. Spock—prompted parents to record developmental milestones as well as raw quantitative metrics. Good parents still tracked, but now they did even more tracking—at least, in theory; even a hundred years ago, oldest children were much better documented than were their subsequent siblings. (As Golden points out, third or fourth children are rarely documented at all.)

The medical profession, too, has played an important role in the rise of parental child-tracking. The professionalization of medicine was gaining momentum at the turn of the 20th century, and pediatrics itself was emerging as a medical specialty (the American Pediatric Society was formed in 1888). All “experts” need a field of expertise, and this new class of experts—pediatricians—staked their claim to authority not just in matters of childhood sickness, but in “infant feeding, child hygiene, and disease prevention in well children” as well. Up until this point, institutional medicine had considered childhood illnesses to be within the purview of obstetrics, which was itself still in the process of wrestling authority away from a long tradition of midwifery; accordingly, the establishment of pediatrics as a profession was doubly-dependent on the assertion that pediatricians hold some sort of “special knowledge” unavailable to lay practitioners or to parents themselves. As sociologist Eliot Friedson argues in Profession of Medicine, institutional medicine draws its power in part from a state-sponsored monopoly on defining what counts as ‘normal’ as opposed to ‘abnormal,’ ‘sick,’ or ‘deviant’; if one’s area of practice is children and their growth, how better to delineate “normal” from “abnormal” development than through tracking individual children and comparing their numbers to aggregate data sets?

For many parents (who have access to medical care), child-tracking therefore begins in the pediatrician’s office, with or without a baby book. None of my friends who have children have tracked their children QuantBaby style, for instance, but all of those friends could tell you during their children’s infancies where their children fell in “the percentiles.” (As one friend explained, it was fine that her child was below the 20th percentile for both length and weight; as long as that stayed consistent, there was no cause for concern. While a dramatic shift in percentile placement could indicate some kind of problem, my friend’s daughter was simply “petite.”) When we recall that “educating” (socializing) parents into their roles-as-such was among pediatricians’ initial institutional goals, is it any wonder that parents—especially those with access to pediatricians—might associate child-tracking with fulfillment of their parental duties? (And similarly, is anyone that surprised that Webb’s pediatrician was irritated when she brought her own spreadsheets, rather than automatically accept his professional authority and the authority of his discipline’s metrics?)

Credit: author, age 9.
Credit: author, age 8

But what else might lead present-day parents track their children, and why might they do so at the level that Webb has? Some of it, undoubtedly, is due to the affordances of available tools: a print baby book with blanks to fill in encourages certain types of observations, whereas if what you have is an Excel spreadsheet (and we do know Webb loves spreadsheets), “every single thing” might start to look like a numerical value. Tools and affordances, however, are only the beginning. Start with the availability of digital child-tracking tools, which—like print baby books before them—will shape and structure “good parenting” in different ways, according to the end goals and values of whoever has produced them. Consider that pediatricians similarly socialize parents into child-tracking generally, and into quantitative child-tracking specifically, through the use of percentile comparisons and normative expectations for developmental milestones. Remember that (for many people) tracking is an expression of agency, an attempt to gain control—or at least, the feeling of control—over something that is vast and unknowable and possibly frightening, and that to first time parents awash in modern risk rhetoric, a helpless infant is pretty unknowable and frightening (or so I hear).

There’s a lot at stake in a present day child, especially if she’s the only child of somewhat older upper-middle class parents (as Webb’s daughter is). Such a child is not just a person, or a person-to-be; she also reflects on the person or people who created her. As Barbara Katz Rothman points out, the commodification of children has led privileged parents in particular to feel anxiety about producing “blue ribbon babies”; where a “healthy” baby once sufficed, now only an overachieving, exceptional baby possessed of “desirable attributes” will do. Privileged parents are far from the only ones to feel these anxieties, however; you can observe any parent’s internalization of developmental norms (for example) in the pride they take when their kids do something “early,” and in their embarrassed justifications for when their kids do something “late.” (In my family, for instance, my mother will tell you that I started walking “late” because I started talking “so early,” and so had figured out how to make people bring me the things I wanted; my brother, on the other hand, walked “early” and talked “late” because I “did all the talking for him.”) Parents want their children to be successful not just because they love those children and so want them to succeed, but because they themselves cannot be “successful parents” without raising “successful children.”

Credit: author, age 8 years & one day
Credit: author, age 8 (and one day)

This, then, hits upon my final point, which is the complicated interplay between a parent’s identity and her child’s identity. We tend to put more emphasis, I think, on the way parents shape their children’s identities, but in truth a parent’s identity is equally shaped, if not defined, by her child. Children “fail” or “succeed” according to a complicated interplay of factors (not the least of which is how “success” and “failure” are defined), and yet inevitably, we blame or credit parents—mothers, especially—for the actions and achievements of their children. How often have you heard someone speak of a troubled child by asking, “Where are the parents?” How often do you hear the phrase “a good family” in the same breath as mention of a child’s laudable accomplishment? Even “good parents” of “bad kids” are accorded pity, not respect; if adults want status as “good parents,” they have to produce the appropriate child or children as proof.

When you stop to think about it, that’s an awful lot of personal identity performance riding on someone who isn’t actually you yourself. And yet, it’s hard to get around it: many parents take their kids very, very personally. Webb, for instance, relates an interaction with the mother of another student in her daughter’s ballet class, and it’s plain that their conversation has nearly nothing to do with the two little girls on the other side of the classroom mirror. The other mother boasts about her daughter’s physique, and expresses “concern” about Webb’s daughter’s facial expression, but the comments are far more about Webb’s daughter as an extension of Webb herself; similarly, Webb puts the other mother back in her place (at least, in the article) by judging the other daughter’s demeanor. Presumably without knowing much about the other mother’s parenting methods, Webb presents the contrast between the two girls’ moods after class not just as evidence that her own parenting methods are superior, but that she herself is a superior parent. Alternatively, one could also consider the clichéd image of parents who are over-invested in their children’s sports games, and who scream at coaches and referees. Both types of interaction reflect competition between adults projected onto their children, and both are rooted in the same underlying assumption about parental status and identity: “My kid is or does, therefore I am.”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, if some child-tracking practices are starting to resemble some self-tracking practices. Children are in many ways cast as extensions of their parents’ selves, both emotionally and socially; how much of child-tracking, then, is tracking one’s child’s development, and how much is tracking one’s own development as a parent? Similarly, children are vulnerable, and parents can never control their children to the extent that they’d like; child-tracking might therefore seem to offer the possibility of accessing hidden power-knowledge, of gaining greater protective control, of somehow warding off the unknown yet terrifying inevitable. Children themselves can be strange and unknowable beings, both before they develop a capacity for language and perhaps even more so after; given that parents have already long been encouraged to track their children, it makes sense that some parents would move to help their children “speak through the data.” Is it that big a leap from recording a list of made-up words to filling out one of Webb’s spreadsheets, at least while we’re still talking about infants and toddlers?

Credit: author’s mother

I do wonder what will happen, however, when Webb’s daughter gets older and wants to speak for herself—as in speak with her words, not through her data. (That assertion of independent, individual identity happens with all Western children, or so I’m told.) Perhaps as Webb’s daughter gets older and gains a greater ability to speak with words, her parents won’t feel they need “data” as an intermediary; perhaps “the data” will come to reflect that Webb’s daughter finds the tracking distressing, and the Webbs will decide to stop. Perhaps Webb’s daughter will rebel by skewing “the data,” and engaging in some database vandalism as an act of resistance; perhaps the answer will be “none of the above.” In any case, Webb’s child-tracking will become less self-tracking and more other-tracking as her daughter becomes her own self, and I wonder if—and how— that will be reflected in the numbers.


Whitney Erin Boesel has so far escaped her mother’s curse that she give birth to three daughters just like herself. She does have a cat though, and a Twitter account: she’s @phenatypical.


“Steve, what did we decide to codename her?”

Steve clicked through his notes. “Turnkey, sir.”

“Turnkey? Who the hell came up with that?” Raymond knew The Agency was running out of codenames, but this was ridiculous. As a top official, he had enough on his mind; how was he supposed to keep track of this shit?

“Well, I think it’s because—”

“So does that mean we’re moving ahead?” Isobel interjected.

“The data is there,” said Michael. “We’re positive she has one of the stronger connections to Wedge that we’ve been able to identify. The frequency of their SMS communication alone—plus the fact that they so often text late at night—indicates that this is clearly more than a working relationship.”

“Not to mention,” Patricia added, “that Occupy essay they wrote came out almost a year ago. If it was purely a working relationship, they’d have no reason to still be in contact.”

“So you think they’re lovers?”

“Well, we’re not certain yet,” Michael replied. “I’ve got Steve filing for a warrant to go through the SMS content, and her email content as well. We’re hoping she’ll turn out to be less opaque than Wedge—” 

“That bastard lives to spend words but say nothing at all.” Patricia still hadn’t forgiven Wedge for the two days she’d wasted pouring over the dense, obtuse, & poorly punctuated prose that populated his outbox. The man was a journalist by trade; that his private communications were so terribly written seemed nothing short of a deliberate (and successful) effort to antagonize The Agency. Patricia was certain Wedge must have at least one other account somewhere—probably several of them—in which he communicated more clearly, and through which he conducted most of his conversations. But so far, despite a week of effort, no one at The Agency had been able to find it. Though her specialty was code in text, and not text as code, Patricia blamed Tor. Anonymity was the scourge of The Agency.

“What about the cameras?” Raymond asked.

beetle-drone“We’re working to get more of them placed near her condo, and Steve’s going through our drone footage from New York last spring. But we’re pretty sure they haven’t been in the same city at the same time for a month or two, which is well before we considered Wedge a priority target, so it’s hard to tell.” Michael forced himself to bite his tongue about the drones; a year later, he was still angry that The Agency hadn’t funded his project fully. If he’d had his way, each of them would have had a small swarm of micro-drones shadowing their every move—not just Turnkey and Wedge, and not just this new Gang of Eight, but everyone in their whole Twitter cabal, all 50 or 60 of them. As it happened, Michael only got 20 drones, and neither Wedge nor Turnkey had seemed among the most urgent targets at the time. As a result, Wedge had managed to take his computers and his phone and slip straight through The Agency’s fingers sometime during the last three days, perhaps mere hours after agents first attempted to question him. Michael’s old anger over budget cuts and partial funding was compounded by his new chagrin at apparently having failed to deploy the drones correctly.

“They haven’t been in the same city for two months?” Raymond looked at Michael with disappointed skepticism.

“Not since the Personal Democracy Forum, no. We don’t think.”

“I may not be a young man,” Raymond said, as he took off his glasses and folded them into his shirt pocket, “but I do seem to recall there are critical parts of taking a lover that require…in-person participation. Explain to me how—”

“Oh, don’t be such a digital dualist, Raymond,” Isobel quipped. She was the only social scientist on the team, and she knew no one else would get the joke, but it didn’t matter.

“A digital who-what?”

“It’s not so uncommon, especially among that set,” Michael said. “Spring semester at the University didn’t end until mid-May, and she’s teaching summer courses, so her ability to travel is limited. And obviously he’s been off covering—”

“Yes, we all know what he’s been covering,” Raymond snapped. If it wasn’t for Wedge, they could all be going home right now.

“So you see, the fact that they haven’t been in the same place doesn’t necessarily indicate—”

“Then what does make us think that—goddammit, what—”

“Turnkey,” Steve supplied.

“What makes us think engaging Turnkey will be useful? Does communication between the two indicate any sort of special relationship? Any secrets to which she’d be privy? Any reason at all to believe she knows where he is?” He was looking at Patricia.

“Not the communication we have right now, no…not directly. But again, right now we’re only looking at metadata and the contents of his email communication. We don’t have hers yet, and his are clearly—”

“Shouldn’t you have her responses in his account?”

1245-1-sms-encrypt-+“No new ones for a year, no. Which is part of why we believe he has an additional account, or accounts, probably stored locally on his machine and sent using encryption, at minimum. As soon as her responses start to become personal, they stop. And there’s no mention of the Occupy essay at any point—no initial idea, no exchanged drafts, no discussion. There’s no way this was his only email account. We’ll have the contents of his SMS transmissions in a day or two, which might help, but since we don’t know when he started encrypting those, it’ll take some time to figure out when the clear messages became decoys. But given the patterns we see in his communication before the fall of 2011, and the patterns in her communication throughout, we believe it’s highly likely that their communication moved off email as they became better acquainted. We’re working on getting full access to his Twitter account, though Twitter is being characteristically uncooperative. And unfortunately, we know they’re both avid Snapchat users.”

“We don’t have a backdoor there?”

“No, not yet,” Patricia sighed.

“Frankly, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get one. They delete all the images server-side as soon as recipients view them,” Michael added. “Right now, the only way for us to get the ‘Snaps’ sent between Wedge and Turnkey would be to pull the files from one of their phones using recovery software. But we have no reason to believe she’d just hand hers over, especially now that Wedge has left the building (so to speak). We could easily get a warrant, but as soon as we show up with orders, we lose the opportunity to form a more…collaborative working relationship with her. Which is what I think—”

“And you have no idea where his phone is, because you have no idea where he is.”

Michael could feel his cheeks pinking with anger, but he swallowed his pride and did his best to speak in measured tones. “At the moment, we are short on leads. But that’s why we want to move forward with Turnkey. Right now, she looks like the most promising available target.”

“Because you’re somehow convinced that they’re—”

“Honestly, I don’t know if that matters,” Isobel said. “What we see in the metadata alone—”

“I think it matters. Until very recently we’d tied him to that actress, and an illicit—”

“Raymond, if we want to go the discrediting route, we’ll have plenty of ammunition for that. There’s always plenty of ammunition, no matter who it is. Everyone is discreditable now. What we need tonight is an indication, a reason to start taking action, and we already have that in the metadata.” Isobel was firm. “Up until his disappearance, they were in near-constant contact. When we look at the last year in particular, the only times we see gaps of more than 48 hours are times when we know they were both in the same place. So what this tells us—”

“It’s true,” Michael said, cutting her off. “We’ve got their movements very well documented, even without going to The Archives for camera data. Public speaking engagements, passages through airports, locations of credit card purchases, Facebook and Twitter activity, occasional photos. Location data for both from cell phone towers, and from her toll transponder. And when you line up the dates from all that with—”

“So if their movements are so well documented, where is he now?”

“Someplace where he’s not using his phone or his credit card, clearly.” Patricia was ready to go home for the day, too.

tower iphone march russia 057“You know this could have been prevented if—”

“Raymond.” Isobel was going to have her say, even if she had to talk over Michael and Patricia both. “Look, right now the sex thing doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what was said in the text messages, or what was shown in the Snaps, or whatever. We have everything we need to move forward in the metadata. It’s right there.”

“And what is it? What are we looking at right there?”

Isobel suddenly noticed the room had gotten quieter. She felt awkward. Her title may have said one thing, but after two months at The Agency, she still wasn’t sure exactly where she fit within its hierarchy. Steve stared studiously at his keyboard, poised and ready to type.

“Feelings,” she said, on the spot and lacking a better word.


God, this building was quiet after hours.

“Feelings,” Isobel said, as if she wasn’t aware of how stupid she probably sounded to the rest of the team. “They have been in constant contact, and that’s all we really need to know. We don’t need to know what they’re talking about. What we know is that they rarely go two days without talking about something—anything—and that it’s been that way since even before they wrote the Occupy piece. Sex or no sex doesn’t matter; what we see in the data is that this consistency of dialogue isn’t common for either one of them. It shows some kind of closeness, some kind of attachment. And maybe it means she knows where he is, or maybe it doesn’t, but what it almost certainly means is that they care about each other. One way or another, that’s something we can use to our advantage—and we need to do that before we lose track of her, too.”

*       *       *       *       *

Behind thick blackout curtains; through the rarely unveiled windows in that Agency meeting room; down below, as a city was growing still and its streets going silent; out in the nearer distance, where electric lights shimmered on the rippling mirror surface of a river: night had arrived.

Patricia read over the most recent posts on Turnkey’s blog, highlighted and tagged passages that seemed like patterns, pieces that might be of possible interest. She updated her notes. She thought about her son, who was probably asleep by now. Or hopefully asleep by now. She realized she felt more relief than guilt over missing another bedtime story, another bedtime struggle. The Agency was so peaceful once most of everyone had gone home, so quiet.

Raymond pushed his carton of takeout aside, and leaned heavily on the conference table. He was tired, in more ways than one. He didn’t want to go home; he didn’t want to stay here. He wanted a drink.

Isobel washed her hands, checked her face in the mirror, and reached for the door…then hesitated. She paused to pull out her phone, while she still had some privacy. “Another late—” she started to type, but then heard the echo of her earlier words, and thought about feelings laid bare in quantified frequencies, and rode backspace back to its inevitable conclusion. She put the phone in her bag, and stepped out.

chinese-take-outSteve collected the takeout cartons, wiped down the table, & brought in a fresh carafe of coffee. He sat down, and waited for Raymond to reconvene the meeting. He stared at his laptop, and wished he could check Facebook. More than that, he wished he could check other people’s Facebooks, other accounts. Well, maybe just a certain someone’s Facebook account. Someday. A few more promotions. A few more missed opportunities, and a few more Friday nights sacrificed to this room.

Michael ran one last query using a new program he’d been tinkering with, but his mind was on the drones. His drones. If The Agency had just given him the allocation he’d wanted, none of them would have to be here right now. If he’d deployed the drones that he had gotten differently, none of them would have to be here right now. Anger. Guilt. Frustration. Regret. Focus on next year’s budget. Spin this the right way. The first step toward making The Agency believe that this mess was their fault was believing it himself. He was short on belief. He was certain that drones were what The Agency needed, that drones would finally enable The Agency to keep the Nation safe. He was less certain how he could have known, how he would prevent himself from making the same mistakes with the drones in the future. There might never be enough drones. He tried to set that thought aside for the rest of the night.

All five were seated at the conference table again.

“So. Turnkey,” Raymond said. “What do we know? Steve, give us the basics. Refresh our memory.”

“She’ll be 36 this fall. Single, never married, no children; some fairly ambiguous friendships but no clear significant other, at least not for the last few years. She had one sister, who died in a car accident a couple of years ago. It doesn’t seem like they were close. Her parents are both still alive, though. They have a family business that makes signs near Cincinnati, and are active in a local Tea Party group—”

Patricia couldn’t keep from smirking. “Given her line of work, there’s your ‘discrediting.’”

“We don’t get to choose our parents…or our children,” Raymond responded, perhaps more pointedly than he’d intended. He made it his business to keep close tabs on his team, just as his team made it their business to keep close tabs on The Agency’s targets. He knew, therefore, that Patricia’s son had already been expelled from two preschools, and that they were having trouble finding a kindergarten that would take him next year. The child was a terror, and Raymond had quietly given him the ‘honor’ of being the youngest name on a watch list of potential school shooting perpetrators.

“Didn’t your own daughter turn out to be a real, card-carrying Communist?” Michael joked. “I heard that—”

“My daughter is not the topic of conversation here.” Raymond glared at Michael while nodding at Steve to continue. He had no patience for this tonight, nor did he have a sense of humor about it on any particular night.

“That’s it for family, really. Her father is an only child, and her mother has been estranged from her family since before Turnkey was born.”

“What about friends? Mentors?”

“Based on her metadata and the communication we’ve been able to pick up so far, there aren’t any big surprises. Most of her closer connections map onto our existing network model, and none of the new nodes seem likely to be persons of interest. At least, not at this moment.”

detective-leather-holster“Tomorrow, start with looking at the parents. If they’re Tea Party, there’s probably something you can get them for. Guns? Disgraced mega-church pastors? Sedition? How many employees at the sign shop?”

“Three, plus the two of them.”

“They do their own taxes?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

For the first time that day, Raymond almost smiled. “Great. Perfect. Nobody gets that right—and if they’ve done it by the book, they still don’t have the capacity to absorb the work-hours they’d lose responding to an audit.”

Isobel was uneasy. “You really want to send the IRS after a pair of Tea Partiers, after all the—”

“No, I don’t. Not if there are better options.”

“And we don’t really need to audit them,” Patricia added. “All we need is for Turnkey to believe we’re willing to audit them.”

“How much do we think that would affect her?”

“It absolutely affects her—her father is the cosignatory on her mortgage,” Michael said. “She was still working as an adjunct when she bought the condo. Couldn’t have done without the family help. They’re more entangled than you’d think.”

“Steve, add ‘condo inspections’ to the list—Stick side. Put ‘mortgage’ on both Carrot side and Stick side. Michael, fixed or adjustable?”

“Fixed, unfortunately.”

“Dammit. Well, look into zoning at least, see if there isn’t something at the city level that we could use for leverage. Isobel, what do we know about her inner circle? Who’s important to her, other than Wedge?”

“Like Steve said, it’s about what you’d expect. She has a fairly extensive network of weak ties, especially when you take her social media presences into account—her Klout score is 72, to give you an idea. But she really has only a dozen or so people that we’d consider strong ties—the rest of the Gang of Eight, one friend from her PhD program, a few friends she’s known since college, and one friend from her job in between college and graduate school. None outside the Gang of Eight are involved in any political activity, so there’s no new information there. One of them spends a lot of time on autism awareness. That’s about it.”

“Well, add the new ones—what is that, four of them?”


“Add them to the list of people we start investigating tomorrow morning. I want every possible vulnerability exposed, every opportunity to make any of their lives better or worse—whether we can use those openings to persuade Turnkey, or to persuade her friends to help if we have to.”

Steve typed away on his keyboard, making lists as instructed. Raymond raised his mug, swallowed coffee, and set the vessel down hard. Click-click, bam.

mug-black“Patricia, the job. What do we know about that?”

“She’s an assistant professor of American Studies at the University. It’s her first tenure-track position.”

“And when is she up for review?”

“Two or three years from now, most likely.”

“How does that look?”

“Hard to say. The Occupy essay she and Wedge coauthored got them both a lot of exposure, but it wasn’t published in an academic journal—so it won’t be given as much weight by the committee, and some of the senior faculty may hold it against her. She’s published two other short papers since she joined the University, but nothing of note. And her blog is fairly popular, but again: a lot of academics don’t think that’s a good thing.”

“Who are our friends over there?”

“No one in American Studies, unfortunately. We have the Dean of Social Sciences, but administration isn’t supposed to participate in tenure decisions.”

Raymond had no patience for academia’s archaic, Byzantine protocols. “Well certainly he has some influence.”

“She, actually. And yes, influence, but…it’s tricky. That’s not the kind of thing—”

“I don’t care what kind of thing it is, I care whether we can directly impact Turnkey’s chances of getting tenure.”

“We know we can do it indirectly,” Isobel volunteered. “She’s well-enough known that any personal scandal will at least embarrass the University, if not worse. But the trick will be getting the scandal right. That she’s a public figure in some circles is why she can’t risk losing face and disgracing the University, but it also means that if we don’t choose carefully—if we pick something related to social movements that she can put a good spin on, for example, or that she can make into some kind of statement—then we’ve damaged her publicity just to hand her fame and potential notoriety in the process. At which point, she may actually have an easier time finding a new job, and at an even better University.”

“I don’t think she’d take that risk,” said Patricia. “She knows she’s on thin ice as it stands, especially if they want to review her case in two years instead of three. She bought a condo. She’s not planning to leave, if she has any say in the matter.”

“What are we working with here?” Raymond asked. “Michael, what have we got on tap for discrediting?”

“Well, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’ll be much more to go through once we get the surveillance camera footage, and her email, and the texts, and the rest of the social media pieces, but there’s already much more than enough here to work with.” Michael’s tone seemed to indicate that this was one hell of an iceberg.

“And? Is this—”

“There are some repeated web searches that her health insurer would probably like to know about,” Isobel said, “and more than one extra social media profile she’d probably prefer the University not know about. But our strongest hand here is by far the gender card, which will be very easy to play.” She and Michael exchanged a knowing look. “Granted, our society has become more accepting of a lot of different behaviors, and even identities. But the fact remains that women are still held to different standards than men are, especially professional women. And while some of these photos are very old—”

mirror“Where did we get the photos?”

“All over the place, really,” Michael responded. “I crawled the Facebook database looking for accounts with overlapping IP addresses, and sure enough: she has a second account. It was clearly not a professional page—a lot of profanity, nothing of intellectual merit—but I didn’t find any discrediting photos posted there. There were a few pictures that showed her wearing a lot of eye makeup, though, and when I combined those photos with the more professional photos we already had, the facial recognition software I’ve been beta testing did an incredible job. I let it run for 30 minutes during our dinner break, just to see what would happen. When the program can triangulate with those two different image sets, Turnkey’s face becomes pretty distinctive. The images the software returned are spread over 20 some-odd years, but we estimate 70-80% of them are photos of her. That’s almost unprecedented. Most of the photos are embarrassing, but benign—”

“But there are also some clear exceptions,” Isobel interjected. “There’s a range of photos in which she is clearly intoxicated, at least one of which appears to show her both underage and possibly unconscious. There are some unfortunate subcultural phases, one of which involved some questionable cosplay and one of which included a runway show where she worked as a fetish model. But most importantly”—she paused briefly, for emphasis—”we’re nearly positive we’ve found a still from an amateur pornographic film.”

Raymond may have been skeptical, and Patricia flat out didn’t believe them, but Steve couldn’t help himself. “Really?!” he exclaimed. As far as he was concerned, it would be the first interesting thing that had happened all week. Isobel, too, was fighting hard to contain her excitement; she felt as though—for once—she finally had a contribution to make, rather than an argument.

“It’s a crappy scan of a paper photograph, and the photograph was probably taken around 16 years ago if we’re reading the date stamp correctly,” she said. “But the webpage states that this film was created in the same town where Turnkey went to college, and the date stamp places the photo within the timeframe that she would have been living there. We’re almost certain that she’s one of the women in the scene—and if she is, that film is an incredible liability.”

“Where did this come from?”

“A page tucked in the way, way back of the Way Way Back machine,” Michael said, with some resignation. He had to admit: Sometimes it bothered him that the Way Way Back Machine still had files The Agency’s network of databases didn’t have, or at least couldn’t find.

“And what is this film called?” Though he’d never have admitted it, Raymond was afraid to ask. His own estranged daughter was the same age as Turnkey, and he just didn’t want to think about it.

A Virgin Sacrifice…so not terribly original,” Isobel said. “But to be fair, based on the plot synopsis on the archived webpage, it seems clear—at least, from a critical perspective—that this is really just a group of young, college-age girls, who happen to have access to some old 8mm equipment, and who have chosen the medium of film both to counter Freudian notions of ‘penis envy’ and to explore nascent notions of queer subjectivity. But to most audiences, it’s not going to read—”

And just like that, the fledgling acceptance Isobel had been starting to feel again seemed to evaporate. Sometimes she wondered why coming to work for The Agency had seemed like a better idea than working as an adjunct, specter of food stamps or no. She sighed, dejected.

camera“Basically, they thought they were doing something artistically edgy and intellectual, but I’m fairly confident most people who watch this will just think it’s really fucked up,” Isobel said. She paused a second to see if anyone was going to comment on her F-bomb, but that no one blinked at. “And since Turnkey doesn’t do film studies, or even gender studies, she’s going to have a really hard time explaining this to the University, to say nothing of the general public. It would be very, very difficult for her to salvage her academic career if this went public, so we’re looking either for a digitized copy online, or for someone who holds a film copy—there may only have been 3 or 4 of them. If we can find one, I think we have our trump card.”

“Raymond,” Patricia asked warily, “Is destroying both her career and her name really on the table?”

Isobel was unsympathetic. “She could easily get a book deal. Wedge got two!”

“Yes, and that essay will obviously continue to be far more beneficial to his career than to hers,” Patricia snapped, to her own surprise. When had she started to feel protective of Turnkey? She’d never met the woman. They had little-to-nothing in common. Yet, Patricia had to admit: The situation was making her feel increasingly angry. The more research she did, the more time she spent reading and learning and watching, the more she believed the trajectory of Wedge and Turnkey’s relationship—whatever its precise nature may or may not have been—was one in which he consistently took more of the credit, yet left her with more of the blame. Turnkey wasn’t even a suspect; she was someone who probably had information about someone who almost certainly had information about, and had perhaps collaborated with, some people The Agency wanted very much to interrogate. But were they really thinking about dredging this film up just for that?

“Look,” Patricia began again, “Turnkey wants to publish books, not get ‘a book deal.’ It doesn’t matter what she could do in theory; it matters what she will and won’t risk on Wedge’s behalf. We don’t need to find this film—she won’t be willing to risk her shot at tenure, not after getting this far. Intimations will be enough. We don’t need the thing itself.” Whether more for Turnkey or more for herself, Patricia wished she could believe her own words. But the truth was that, the more she learned about Turnkey, the less likely it seemed that she would ever betray her friend Wedge.

“So we’re certain we can have a negative, indirect effect on her tenure evaluation, and we believe we can have a either a negative or a positive direct effect on her tenure evaluation. What about a positive, indirect effect? Do we have that capability, Patricia?” At the end of the day—and this one had ben such a very long day—Raymond did prefer carrots to sticks. He believed they built better long-term relationships, better networks of informants. And they didn’t require such a strong stomach.

“Short of coming up with grant money to fund her research, I don’t see how,” Patricia replied. But she wanted to see how.

“It won’t work,” Isobel replied. “She has to state where the support for her projects comes from every time she publishes, remember? What’s she going to write, ‘This paper was made possible by a generous grant from—’”

“Michael, do we have anybody at—who gives money to American Studies, anyway?”

“We have a few Board Members at some of the bigger private foundations. It might be a possibility.”

“Well, look into that tomorrow morning, too. I want to make sure we’re clear on all our options before we make contact with her. In the meantime, all of you, go home and get a few hours of sleep.”

ExitSign1None of them needed to be told twice; it was nearly one in the morning. They went to lock computers and notes in their offices; to wait for the elevator; to be anywhere other than here, however briefly. Raymond stared blankly into the room, empty but for the curtains, the chairs, the table, and the coffee carafe that Steve had forgotten in his rush to leave. It would wait until the morning. He flipped the row of light switches in the meeting room, one by one by one, and walked back toward his own office in the dark.


It was Isobel, stepping out of the ladies’ room. Her face was lit only by the green glow of an exit sign a bit further down the hall. She spoke softly.

“I’m positive…we find that film, we can end this whole thing now. I know it.”

He sighed.

“I know. Go get some rest.”

“Goodnight,” she said, and paused—then turned to go. He waited until the hallway door had shut behind her, until the faint chime of the elevator announced her departure.

He walked back through the darkness into to his office, and pulled back the curtain.

*       *       *       *       *

Three stories up, on a wooden porch; at a metal table with a glass top, surrounded by pots full of plants. A mere suggestion of a breeze, just enough to stir cover sheets on two stacks of term papers. A Saturday afternoon, partly cloudy, a little too warm.

The doorbell filled the space left vacant by her still and silent phone.



This essay is a work of fiction inspired by recent events. It makes reference to previous scholarly work by the author, as well as to work by Erving Goffman (spoiled identities), Mark Granovetter (strong and weak ties), Nathan Jurgenson (digital dualism, IRLfetish), and Sarah Wanenchak (ephemeral media). 

Whitney Erin Boesel likes to push the boundaries of different formats. She does so with far fewer words on Twitter: @phenatypical.

Cell tower image from here; tiny drone from here; encryption graphic from here; stormy tower from here; takeout carton from here; mirror frame from here; camera from here.

If you take off your glasses and cross your eyes, my resemblance to Nathan is truly uncanny.

the Internet itself is based on a system of binaries. Dualism, mutual exclusion, and absolutes are inherent in its structure

Each space becomes its own Generalized Other, with normative expectations about who a person is and how that person should be in the world

You might start thinking that the enemy is the internet itself. Or, by extension, that the enemy is us

There were so many people standing behind the cause that it felt like you had an army at your disposal and you could just stick up for what’s right

DIS Images invites artists to create alternative scenarios and new stereotypes

Games are therefore a fantastic example of ways in which digital technology is profoundlyembodied and usually designed with the able-bodied default in mind

A suffocating deluge of violent misogyny is how American comedy fans react to a woman suggesting that comedy might have a misogyny problem

the selfie has come full circle, from sign of subject’s marginality to sign of his or her social-media importance

Now there’s an app that allows you to share the things you Hate” 

it wasn’t enough to talk about the need for drone art; we wanted to instigate it

You can’t put a drone on a couch. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle does not need tissues

There is, to put it bluntly and inelegantly, an explosion of drone art around at the moment

a single game of DRONE provides more clarity of purpose than the thousands of words spoken by our President

We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician

He feels like he’s being watched all the time

Google’s job, in many ways, will never be done because the city is one long emergent phenomenon, constantly being remade and reordered

This kind of technology, in addition to making shooting more fun for them, also allows shooting to be something that they can share with others

Could we make public consultion as easy to read & respond as the average [lost] cat poster?

Domino’s has managed to make waiting for your pizza feel like better entertainment than social networks or television, and just as tweetable

He handed me a semen sample, we hugged, and I went into my bedroom and inseminated myself

my brain is always blank / my brain is alive / my brain is a burger

Just as you grieve if a friend is killed, you should grieve if a fictional character is killed

the new Silicon Valley parable: dream big, privatize the previously public, pay no attention to the rules, build recklessly, enjoy shamelessly, invoke magic, and then pay everybody off

You can share your Wi-Fi. You can share a dog. You can even share a baby

as a provocation, I said, ‘OK, I want to try to make money with my own data’

each act of listening to music may be thought of as both recapitulating the past and predicting the future

who has the authority to determine what is ‘proper’ and ‘right’ music?

using Glass is sort of like having a superloud drum circle that you wear on your face

Perhaps taking Glass off …may just become my new tell, a sure sign of budding affection

It was like watching someone take Ecstasy, as the hologram materialized before his eye

Special NSA Section:

three main prongs of top secret government intelligence activity have come to light

we thought it would be useful to try and collect what we know so far in a single post

The NSA Files

under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk

Boundless Informant …details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks

Like the pious polygamists, they are focused on deciphering cryptic messages that only they have the power to understand

Greenwald’s storm will continue to rage because, I suspect, the story won’t be limited to just phone records or Web data

Can it really be that participating in life, the economy, and society require a forking over of one’s claim to a ‘reasonable’ expectation of privacy?

While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not

No document like this has ever been leaked from the NSA

a lack of ‘direct access’ does not preclude the type of sweeping surveillance described in the leaks

As Google’s CEO and Chief Legal Officer, we wanted you to have the facts


a long line of attempts to defend secret programs by making, at best, misleading claims that they were central to stopping terror plots

Welcome to the PRISM spin war

much of what is being discussed sounds very similar to the Star Chamber, an English court of the 14th to 17th centuries that met in secret

As the FBI sees it, the problem is that people are moving away from traditional communication systems like telephones onto computer systems like Skype

Everyone is always guilty, and you’re not allowed to know about it

a potentially aggressive cyber warfare doctrine will heighten fears over the increasing militarization of the internet

Want to buy a PRISM t-shirt?

Whitney Erin Boesel generates LOTS AND LOTS OF DATA for the NSA to pour over. She does most of that on Twitter: She’s @phenatypical.

"gone resisting, be right back" (via @zeynep)
“gone resisting, be right back” (via @zeynep)
(photo by whitney erin boesel)
(photo by whitney erin boesel)
(photo by @breidholt)
(photo by @breidholt)


(photo via @ )
(photo via @eleanor_morley )



In case you missed when The Guardian broke the story last night, here’s the TLDR: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) got a super-secret court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (or Fisa) that says that, on a daily basis and from 25 April to 19 July of this year, telecom company Verizon must give information to the National Security Agency (NSA) about all the calls that take place through Verizon’s mobile and landline systems. The court order says that Verizon can’t talk about the court order (the first rule of Sketchy Fisa Court Order is: do not talk about Sketchy Fisa Court Order), but someone leaked the order itself—and now we all know that, every day, Verizon is giving the NSA “the numbers of both parties …location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls.”[i] Because these things are considered “telephony metadata” rather than “communication,” the FBI doesn’t need to get a warrant for each individual customer; instead, it can (and obviously has) demanded records pertaining to all Verizon customers, whether those people are or might be or ever might be suspected of anything at all.

The big questions now are: 1) whether this was the first three-month court order, or just the most recent three-month court order; and 2) whether Verizon is the only telecom that’s received such an order, or just the only telecom that’s received an order that’s been leaked. While I don’t know if I can call the first one[ii], the second seems to deserve a resounding “well DUH”; I can think of nothing to distinguish Verizon in such a way as would make it more worth data-mining than, say, AT&T. If Verizon got one, then AT&T probably got one; Sprint and TMobile each probably got one, and so too did probably every other mobile or landline carrier with a US address of operations. It seems increasingly clear that, whether we’re presumed innocent or presumed guilty, we ourselves had best presume that we’re under direct surveillance. 

If there’s one thing that frequently pops up when we talk about pervasive surveillance, it’s good old Foucault’s take on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Accordingly, as I read The Guardian’s coverage last night, I wondered how long it would be before the first “U.S. Government/Obama/Verizon (etc) as Panopticon” blog post appeared on my radar. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed the Panopticon isn’t an apt metaphor for what’s happening with the Verizon phone records. A quick web search confirmed that, while the Verizon court order is news, the non-panopticon-ness of it is not—so I’m going to share what I was thinking at the time, and ask for those of you who know more about this to join the conversation in the comments section. [Please note that surveillance studies isn’t my specialty, but that for some reason—perhaps because I’ve spent the last few weeks writing on topics I actually do know something about—this is the post I’m deciding to finish right now.]

panopticon-sketchFor those readers not familiar, here’s a quick crash-course in Foucault’s writing about the Panopticon: It was a design for a cylindrically-shaped prison with a central guard tower, and individual prisoner cells along the inside perimeter. The guard would have the ability to see into each cell, but no prisoner would be able to see the guard. This means that each prisoner could be being watched at every moment, but that no prisoner could ever know whether he (or she) was being watched in any particular moment. As a result, prisoners would have to behave all the time as though they were being watched, even though each individual prisoner would only be watched some of the time. Prisoners’ self-regulation of their own behavior represented their internalization of the panoptic gaze, and therefore the disciplinary power of the Panopticon. The Panopticon itself may never have been built, but states and institutions (such as hospitals, schools, factories, military forces, etcetera) use similar principles to wield disciplinary power over citizens and subjects.

So, here we go: we’ve got a state—the U.S. government—watching everyone who has a Verizon number (and to a lesser extent, everyone who’s called anyone with a Verizon number). The easy jump would be to “Panopticon!”, right? But here are my first thoughts about why I don’t think the panoptic metaphor quite works: In the original panoptic prison, and in the hierarchical institutions Foucault wrote about, power’s expectations for prisoner/subject behavior are fairly clear. Everyone has a decent idea of what the normative expectations are, even when they fail to live up to them. There may be grey areas, but everyone knows what clearly ‘good’ behavior looks like and what clearly ‘bad’ behavior looks like. There’s something to internalize when you internalize the watcher/watched relation; you might not know whether you are being watched, but you do know what you oughtn’t be doing in the moments when you are being watched. Without this knowledge, without at least vaguely certain expectations, the disciplinary effectiveness of panoptic surveillance would break down.

verizon-iphoneNow think specifically about the state demanding phone records. I really want to believe there’s no one left who still believes the state only demands phone records when specific people are under legitimate strong suspicion of having done something genuinely bad, but I’m going to argue that an association between this level of surveillance and deviance or criminality—“the state wants your phone records, therefore you probably did something bad”—still lingers in our popular imagination. (How often do you see movies or TV shows in which a government official is going through someone’s phone records or phone conversations, and that person turns out to be innocent?) I don’t think we’ve accepted “the government going through our phone records” as simply a part of banal reality, the way we tolerate the near-ubiquitous presence of closed-circuit television cameras; if we had, the Verizon story wouldn’t be getting as much attention as it is now. The state going through our phone records, then, seems more closely aligned with the idea of punishing the deviant than with a generalized disciplinary gaze; part of our alarm is that we don’t feel we deserve to be scrutinized in this way.

Yet when potentially everyone who has a phone number is included in the “punishment,” how are we to know what the “crime” is? How are we to know how to shape our docile bodies? What is it that the state wants from us? Surely it can’t be “don’t use phones,” but then…what? Obviously, yes, the state would like us not to be “terrorists” (however it may define that term on any given day); we know that “illegal activity” will potentially be cause for getting in trouble. For most people, this doesn’t help. We know now that we’re all (probably) being watched, but what exactly is it we’re supposed to do on account of being watched? I see a lot of things going on with the Verizon court order, but one thing I don’t see is a clear disciplinary message.  Maybe that’s (part of) why we weren’t supposed to know about it in the first place.

As I said above, surveillance studies isn’t one of my strong suits, so I’ve no idea of any of that makes sociological sense (or, if it does, if someone else has already done a better job of laying out similar arguments). But these thoughts led me to go through some notes, run a couple quick web searches, and refresh my passing familiarity with Mark Poster’s concept of the Superpanopticon; that reading in turn led me to the work of (Theorizing the Web 2013 keynote speaker) David Lyon and the field of surveillance studies more generally. As Michael Zimmer asks in a review of Lyon’s edited volume Theorizing Surveillance: The Panopticon and Beyond,

“is the notion of the panopticon, characterized by subjects who persistently and consciously feel themselves under the watchful gaze of a centralized authority, useful when surveillance increasingly is hidden and dispersed among various private interests, such as in the tracking of commercial or Web-based activities?”

The general consensus among surveillance studies scholars seems to be that, while we shouldn’t throw the panoptic theory out entirely, we do indeed need to “move beyond” it—as panoptic theory can’t quite capture a world full of electronic databases, digital social technologies, and more “gazes” than one could shake any sort of stick at.

I therefore ask the surveillance scholars among Cyborgology’s readership in particular: What do you have to say about the Verizon court order? Which scholars and which theories or models seem particularly appropriate here? What sense are you making of this? And what do you think will happen next?


Whitney Erin Boesel can be surveilled, in part, by watching her Twitter feed: she’s @phenatypical.

Front page of the Guardian from here; panoptic prison sketch from here

[i]Think about that…and then, in addition, think about all the things your phone number is used to index. How many times have you encountered “phone number” as a required field when trying to buy something online? Ever signed up for any of those “rewards” programs at various stores, which link your phone number to your address, to what you’ve bought, and to the numbers of any credit cards you’ve used to make purchases? And now that we’ve brought some credit card numbers into this, let’s stop to think about everything than can be indexed with those. Let’s think about Acxiom Corporation sitting out there in Arkansas (to name just one), and wonder whether the FBI will send them a court order or simply a purchase order. Do you feel uncomfortable yet? Because, wow: these days the only person with whom I regularly have voice conversations over the phone is my mother, and I always give fake numbers to “rewards” programs, but I still feel uncomfortable.

[ii] As a Bostonian, I can almost imagine a small chance that this is part of some new wave of intensified surveillance in response to the Boston Marathon bombings and the crazy week that followed them…but that’s probably optimistic. This phone records thing probably isn’t that new.

Hello, reader! In two weeks, In Their Words returns to its regular Nathan-scheduled programming. 

Before the YouTube comments section was disabled on Thursday, it was bombarded with remarks referencing Nazis, ‘troglodytes’ and ‘racial genocide’

Big Data fundamentalism — the idea with larger data sets, we get closer to objective truth

a political protest is a strategic game with multiple actors including a state which often wants to shut them down

the government failed to show the letters and the blanket non-disclosure policy ‘serve the compelling need of national security’

‘The New Digital Age’ is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary

We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer

Put everything together and what you have is a deep cultural clash between the value system on which Amazon runs and the value system behind fandom.

6 lines of JavaScript that write Doctor Who plots indistinguishable from the current series

Despite a deserved reputation for progressiveness, the tech sector is highly exclusionary to those who don’t fit the geek stereotype” 

The only thing that might say more about ourselves than the things we trade, is how we trade them.

In the name of the colony, drones / fertilize the queen with laser-guided missiles / and hyphenated identities

It’s equal parts truth & falsehood, ideology & art; it’s trauma, & the untidy recovery that comes after.

We watched as Kenya burned, as our compatriots tore each other apart; we took to the internet and interrogated our responsibilities as artists and writers.

neurocentrism—the view that human behavior can be best explained by looking solely or primarily at the brain

Unlike Pavlov’s Dog, however, my responses to the same stimuli were always variable, shifting with situational meanings.

visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives

Some people see Jesus in their toast but you know the only faces in that mix of frankenfood grains and commercial preservatives are Insulin Sensitivity Man and his sidekick, Hormonal Disruption Boy.”

So maybe I hate this goddamn band because I hate my goddamn self

Whitney Erin Boesel has just discovered that autocorrect wants to change her last name to “boneless.” She is also @phenatypical on Twitter. 







(all of this week’s images are from this great collection—check it out!)


Hello, reader! I’m guest-curating In Their Words this week while Nathan is away.

I would love nothing more than to leave this stuff behind and never look at it again …But leaving Facebook wouldn’t solve the problem

Even more puzzling is who Microsoft appears to think their market is: People with large TVs and large living rooms

Here the person is the ‘driver’ or decision maker about her mobility

To recap, men’s stories are valued and their struggles are supported. Women’s stories are worthless and are derided

I found that being a woman put me at one remove from the general society of programmers

Rich products, like rich people, have histories; poor products only have pasts” 

What we need from you, sir, is to provide a very vital account in which the funds will be transferred

it would be illegal and unethical for 23andme to provide medical advice. They provide instead simply data, which science and technology studies scholars know is never simple

This #FeministFail portrays female strength as ironic and unexpected, exciting in its performative enactment by sexualized bodies

in a mismanaged jail, the strong are more likely to prey on the weak. That might not make it onto hehasnochill’s Instagram feed, but it’s happening in Baltimore

the real issue is not sex, but misogyny and a violation of trust

Despite taking these privacy-protective actions, teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-parties (such as businesses or advertisers) accessing their data

Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble

I don’t know if I am gonna be safe from other people. Because, I lost my privacy

I am on verge of breaking up with @Google over privacy overrides

We must prohibit any discussion or description of the event in print or video, through electronic media or through Internet-based technologies

a convenience for party hosts & DJs who want to hear their favorite songs w/o regard for authenticity or quality

QS is a kind of secular ritual. To be meaningful, it can’t be carried out on our behalf by gadgets

Silicon Valley’s habit of acting outside or above capitalism as an essential part of their business model is the essence of anti-capitalism-capitalism

It was easy to spot the quantrepreneurs among the ordinary self-trackers

I do not have the solution to this: distrusting power is a start, but we need to develop our own language of technology to counter this

Like everything coming out of Portland, the anti-fluoridation movement there is infused with the locally-sourced and organic

Note how the future is represented in the present tense

I think she will feel right at home

Whitney Erin Boesel [@phenatypicalposts lots and lots of links on Twitter.





There's A LOT more to (self-)tracking than Quantified Self
There’s A LOT more to (self-)tracking than Quantified Self

When people ask me what it is that I’m studying for my PhD research, my answer usually begins with, “Have you ever heard of the group Quantified Self?” I ask this question because, if the person says yes, it’s a lot easier for me to explain my project (which is looking at different forms of mood tracking, primarily within the context of Quantified Self). But sometimes asking this return question makes my explanation more difficult, too, because a lot of people have heard the word “quantified” cozy up to the word “self” in ways that make them feel angry, uncomfortable, or threatened. They don’t at all like what those four syllables sometimes seem to represent, and with good reason: the idea of a “quantified self” can stir images of big data, data mining, surveillance, loss of privacy, loss of agency, mindless fetishization of technology, even utter dehumanization.

But this is not the Quantified Self that I have come to know.

As I so often remind people, there’s a lot more to self-tracking than just Quantified Self; these days, there’s a lot more to “quantified self” (lowercase) than just Quantified Self (title case), too[i]. One thing that seems to get lost in all this is that, while Quantified Self may be at the forefront of some new methods of self-tracking, it did not initiate the growing popular interest in self-tracking; rather, Quantified Self came to exist because people were already self-tracking, and some of those people were interested in discussing their self-tracking experiences with others. While Quantified Self does undoubtedly help spread interest in self-tracking (just as increasing interest in self-tracking helps drive the growth of Quantified Self), I think the group’s more significant cultural impact has been to make the very concept of self-tracking more visible—and in so doing, to make tracking-in-general more visible. It is this last function, of making more visible a particularly disconcerting thing that usually fades into the background (e.g. being tracked by others), that I think is at the heart of some people’s deep discomfort when I say “Quantified Self” out loud.

Yet, in losing track of the distinctions between Quantified Self (title case) and “quantified self,” or between Quantified Self and self-tracking generally, we also lose track of what I increasingly believe is most noteworthy about Quantified Self: its reflexivity. “QSers” don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally. Over the last two years, I’ve watched reflexive engagement with self-tracking become an increasingly important part of Quantified Self culture (which is something I find very exciting). In fact, I argue that Quantified Self’s most central object of concern has slowly shifted from the tools people use to track, to the data those tools and other self-tracking practices generate, to self-tracking practices as meaningful ends onto themselves, to developing “reflective capacities” not just through self-tracking practices, but in regard to self-tracking practices. Whether or not one sees Quantified Self as a harbinger of Data Doom, the group is also working to ask questions and to develop practices that could help to resist the very doom that the words “quantified self” sometimes seem to signify.

September, 2008: the very first QS meetup (Image credit: Kevin Kelly)
September, 2008: the very first QS meetup (Image credit: Kevin Kelly)

Though Gary Wolf (@agaricus) and Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly) founded the group in 2007, I first became aware of Quantified Self (that’s capital Q, capital S) sometime in the spring of 2010, when I was studying direct-to-consumer genetic testing, “citizen science,” and the DIY Bio movement as part of my work on what I’ve termed biomedicalization 2.0. For a while thereafter, whenever I heard “quantified” and “self” together, it was usually someone talking or writing about Quantified Self. But in early 2012, I started hearing the term all over the place, and I observed it being applied in an increasingly broad array of contexts that had little to do either with Quantified Self or with what I saw going on within the Quantified Self community. This really hit home in April of 2012, when a venture capitalist named Tim Chang wrote a three-part series on “Quantified Self” for TechCrunch. Although Chang was ostensibly writing about the same group I’d been observing, he’d drawn some markedly different conclusions. As he said in an interview, “This notion of quantified self is not just about health and wellness. It’s about your consumer habits all throughout your day, from what sites you surf, what you buy, to what you like to brag about on your Facebook and Twitter.”

Chang’s quote demonstrates why it’s important to differentiate between “quantified self” (lowercase) and Quantified Self (title case)—because wow, they are different beasts. Granted, Quantified Self has adopted what anthropologists Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman aptly describe as a “big tent policy,” and there were certainly folks who thought Chang’s characterization was spot-on. My own reaction, however, was an incredulous, “Wait, what?” Or, as then-Director of Quantified Self Alexandra Carmichael said, “‘QS is about gamification and shopping’? Where can I vomit….” If I’d had any doubt, Chang’s interview was a clear sign that the term “Quantified Self” had escaped into the lexicon and, as “quantified self,” taken on a life of its own.

Yet if the way “quantified self” is used no longer necessarily has much to do with Quantified Self, it is not just because use of the term has expanded; it is also because Quantified Self itself has changed and evolved over four international conferences and almost five years of local meetups (so much so, in fact, that some in the QS community now wonder if the name “Quantified Self” still describes the group accurately). In 2007, for instance, when Kelly asked, “What is the Quantified Self,” his answer stated (in part),

We are on a quest to collect as many personal tools that will assist us in quantifiable measurement of ourselves. We welcome tools that help us see and understand bodies and minds so that we can figure out what humans are here for.

When Wolf asked again in 2011 (just before the first Quantified Self conference), “What is The Quantified Self,” his (much longer) answer described Quantified Self as a “users group,” and stated,

These new [tracking] tools were being developed for many different reasons, but all of them had something in common: they added a computational dimension to ordinary existence.  Some of this was coming from “outside,” as marketers and planners tried to find new ways to understand and influence us. But some of it was coming from “inside” as our friends and acquaintances tried to learn new things about themselves. […]

Users groups, when they succeed, are wonderful things; informal but deeply engaged learning communities operating outside the normal channels of academic and commercial authority. Here at the Quantified Self, we want to know what these new tools of self-tracking are good for, and we want to create an environment where this question can be explored on a human level.

Already, even before the first international conference, the focus of Quantified Self was shifting from “collecting self-tracking tools to help ask big questions” to “asking big questions about our self-tracking tools and what we do with them.”

Poster from the first Quantified Self conference (Image credit: Dave Asprey)
Poster from Quantified Self 2011 (Image credit: Dave Asprey)

Earlier this month, there were a number of us at Quantified Self Europe 2013 who had also attended one or both of the US-based Quantified Self conferences in 2011 and 2012; some of our group had also attended the first Quantified Self Europe conference in the fall of 2011 (which I unfortunately did not). As Wolf had said in his opening welcome speech, Quantified Self Europe was indeed notably different from either of the US-based Quantified Self conferences I’d attended, and discussing the differences I observed with other QS conference veterans was one of the highlights of #QSEU13 for me. What were the differences? Most notably, everyone I spoke with agreed that the European conference feels much less “startup-y” than does the US conference—yet this is not because no start-up people come to it. When Wolf asked how many people in the plenary room were developing an app (or some other commercial product) that “depends on open data,” for instance, I was surprised to see somewhere between 30-40% of the conference raise their hands. (If you want to know what the “startup-y” part of the Quantified Self community looks like, here’s a recent example.)

If people from start-ups were less visible (as such) at Quantified Self Europe 2013, academics seemed to be more so. This may partially have been due to a (possible) higher concentration of us: at Palo Alto’s Quantified Self 2012 last fall (618 attendees total), the breakout session I helped lead for academics, researchers, and people interested in research about Quantified Self had about 28 participants (4.5%), whereas the informal breakfast session I hosted before the second day of Amsterdam’s Quantified Self Europe 2013 this spring (285 attendees total) had 23 people join despite the 8:00am start time (8.1%). It felt different to be an academic at Quantified Self Europe, too: While I’ve always felt comfortable and welcome within the Quantified Self community (so much so that this feeling was Reason #2 for picking my dissertation project, right after, “Oh wow, mood tracking is fascinating”), I’d never felt so appreciated as a social scientist before, at any conference or in any context at all—and I really don’t think that sensation was just me having a two-day moment. Across disciplines, across professions, and across reasons for being at the conference, there was no shortage of people excited to debate hard questions about (for example) what a “self” is and how it might come into being. Cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll led a breakout session called “Reflections on Algorithmic Selfhood,” and the discussion was so good that 90% of the (packed) room stayed more than 15 minutes past the session’s end to keep talking. While there were a number of people I recognized as other academics in that room, there were a number of non-academics, too.

Some of the biggest differences, however, became apparent when I compared Quantified Self Europe 2013 to Mountain View’s Quantified Self 2011, the very first Quantified Self conference. In Mountain View, medical doctors and insurance company representatives were a highly visible contingent; many of them were at the conference to look for apps or other tools that they could bring into their practices and businesses. By the end of Quantified Self Europe 2013, however, I could still count on one hand the number of times I’d heard anyone say the word “compliance.” Some of this was undoubtedly due to the huge structural, political, and economic differences between most European healthcare systems and the US healthcare system, but my observation made me stop and realize that I hadn’t met any insurance company representatives last fall in Palo Alto, either,  and nor had I seen a significant physician presence at Quantified Self 2012. I saw a doctor give a presentation about how mindfulness had improved his relationships with his patients, talked for a bit with one of the doctors I’d met at Quantified Self 2011, and remember at least one medical researcher in my breakout session, but that was about it.

Sacha Chua's rendition of Eric Boyd's report on QS 2011 (Image credit: Sacha Chua)
Sacha Chua’s rendition of Eric Boyd’s report on QS 2011 (Image credit: Sacha Chua)

Obviously these are just my own experiences at these three conferences, and I’m sure other conference attendees’ mileage did indeed vary. At the same time, other multi-conference attendees at Quantified Self Europe 2013 corroborated my observations. As one said, “In 2011, [medical doctors and insurance company representatives] had to be there”; especially with all the press leading up to that first conference, “QS was seen as the next big thing.” He agreed, however, that it now seemed as though many of that group had quietly disappeared, perhaps because they’d realized that a bunch of people “operating outside the normal channels of authority” were unlikely to teach them much about getting patients to follow orders. After all, if Quantified Self had a motto, it would be, “Do what works for you”; the overarching theme of QS Show & Tell presentations is not, “Here’s what you should do,” but rather, “Here’s what worked for me.”[ii] To those of us who pay attention, it is abundantly clear: the ethos of Quantified Self is curiosity, not compliance.

Similarly, some of the main themes that I saw running through discussions at Quantified Self 2011 were issues of how to design n=1 experiments that are more scientific; how to learn (or teach people) to do more statistically rigorous analyses of self-tracking data; and how self-trackers might pool data from their n=1 experiments to do larger research studies, all of which are concerns related to making Quantified Self practices fit more readily into the molds of institutional science and biomedicine. By Quantified Self 2012, however, the focus had shifted: as I wrote at the time, the overarching theme of that conference was mindfulness. Many people still wanted to make objective (“objective”) sense of their self-tracking data, of course. But overall, I saw more discussions about “how I feel my self-tracking practice has affected me” than about “here’s what I’ve proven with my self-tracking data.” Problems of “proving” things to medical providers remained very real for some individual QSers, but at the macro level, Quantified Self had moved on to do “what works for me”; it no longer seemed hungry for institutional science’s approval. This trend held at Quantified Self Europe 2013, but something else was becoming more visible as well: namely, the extent to which Quantified Self has become reflexive about itself as much as about self-tracking. At Quantified Self 2011, Kelly had asked, “Who owns your face if you go out in public?”; at Quantified Self Europe 2013, Wolf asked, “How do you say, ‘Please don’t life-log me?’” On the conference main stage, Quantified Self was now taking up the issue of how doing “what’s right for you” can affect the people around you, too.

Gary Wolf (L) and Kevin Kelly (R) at QS 2012. (Image credit: Marc Smith)
Gary Wolf (L) and Kevin Kelly (R) at QS 2012. (Image credit: Marc Smith)

Of course, I don’t yet know how many of the differences I see across my three Quantified Self conference experiences are due to “when”—aka, due to cultural changes taking place within the Quantified Self community as it continues to grow and evolve—versus due to “where” (cultural differences among and between the attendance catchment areas of Silicon Valley and Amsterdam)[iii]. I also don’t yet know a number of other things, such as the extent to which the international Quantified Self conferences reflect what goes on in the local meetup groups; the extent to which the international Quantified Self conferences influence what goes on in the local meetup groups; or whether there might be some local meetup groups that have no relationship to the conferences at all. In some ways, it may even make sense to treat the conferences as a “local meetup group” in their own right, because the substantially higher cost of attending any given one of them (especially if travel is involved) undoubtedly impacts who is and is not present to participate[iv]. If QSers are, on the whole, a privileged group—and they are—then many Quantified Self conference attendees are among the most privileged of the privileged. As I go forward with my fieldwork and get to know more of the local meetup groups, it will be interesting to see how much the Quantified Self conference “scene” either does or does not resemble which of the local meetup groups. (Right now I can tell you that the San Francisco meetup group feels pretty similar to the Bay Area conferences, but that probably doesn’t surprise anyone.)

At the same time, my gut feeling right now is that the Quantified Self conferences are shaping the way Quantified Self is developing—both as a community and as a cultural phenomenon. The conferences are certainly the most visible Quantified Self events, and there are now more than a few meetup groups that were started by people who returned home from a Quantified Self conference inspired to become local organizers. There’s also the unique way that a Quantified Self conference is put together: rather than build conference programs from submitted papers or abstracts, organizers assemble each “carefully curated unconference” by researching and then reaching out to registered attendees. Organizers click on every Twitter or personal webpage link that attendees provide during registration, in order to get a sense of who is coming and what they care about; organizers then get in contact with individual attendees to find out more about what those people are doing, and to ask attendees who have given memorable Show & Tell talks at local meetup groups if they’d like to reprise those talks. While the smaller sessions aren’t recorded by conference organizers, the sessions in the plenary hall are video recorded and later posted online. In this way, a Quantified Self conference is a lot like a biofeedback session for the Quantified Self community: it reflects aspects of what the group is doing now in order to help shape what it does in the future.

Hacking a HeartSpark pendant (Image & hack credit: Rainy Cat)
Hacking a HeartSpark pendant (Image & hack credit: Rainy Cat)

If I’m right about my biofeedback analogy, then I think the increasing emphasis on critical engagement and reflexivity that I see at the Quantified Self conferences is a very positive sign. True to stereotype, many QSers do still love their gadgets—but at its core, Quantified Self is about neither “sell[ing] this technology to ourselves” nor accepting technology uncritically; if Quantified Self could make questioning a Fitbit’s definition of “step” as popular as using a Fitbit, for example, I for one think that would be a great thing. As Wolf pointed out in his welcome speech for Quantified Self Europe 2013, there’s a difference between being Silicon-Valley style “reckless” and being “brave” when it comes to new technologies. And as Quantified Self turns more and more toward the latter, it may help us learn not only how to live with new technologies, but also how to shape their development—and how to resist them.


Whitney Erin Boesel considered titling this post, “Who’s Afraid of Quantified Self?” …but then she didn’t. She’s also @phenatypical on Twitter.

[i] One thing that certainly doesn’t help the confusion is that, when a popular press piece about “quantified self” includes the term “quantified self” in the title, “quantified self” (lowercase) also ends up appearing in title case. I now fairly often see “Quantified Self” in a headline with little-to-no mention of Quantified Self in the article body.

[ii] “Here’s what worked for me” vs. “Here’s what you should do” seems (to me) to be one of the main things that distinguishes the Quantified Self community from the “life hacking” community, although the two do sometimes have significant overlap. Even when I’ve seen more “life hackery” presentations at Quantified Self events, however, the message has tended to stop short of “you should do this” (more “this is the best way”), and the people around me have still seemed to view the presentations within the same “take it or leave it” framework.

[iii] I’m very, very excited to return to this question at Quantified Self 2013 in the Bay Area this fall, and to see which of the more recent changes I observed at Quantified Self Europe 2013 remain—as those that do remain are likely due to ongoing intra-community shifts rather than to cultural differences between various international subsets of Quantified Self community members.

[iv] Quantified Self does “give out a lot of scholarships to PhD students or people in financial need,” which can defray the cost of registering for a Quantified Self conference (usually: a few hundred dollars). For attendees who don’t live in the Bay Area (or Amsterdam), however, the cost of travel and accommodation remains non-trivial.


Photo credit: Rajiv Mehta
Photo credit: Rajiv Mehta

I’ve spent the last span of days trying to figure out what I want to say (first) about Quantified Self Europe 2013 (#qseu13), which took place in Amsterdam on 11 and 12 May. The conference spanned a truly amazing pair of days, both of which I spent furiously live-tweeting and paper-scribbling field notes as my jet-lagged brain threatened simultaneously to implode and to explode (in the best of all possible ways) on both an intellectual and a personal level. The Twitter-length post is easy: “Wow, #qseu13 was so awesome!” A few chapter-length essays would be easy as well, given enough time. A blog post, though…blog-length is hard.

For the sake of continuity, I’ll start this first post by picking up where I left off last week. On the first day of this year’s Quantified Self Europe, I hosted a breakout session [pdf] called, “The Missing Trackers,” in which I posed questions about who might be missing from the Quantified Self community, what we might learn about the Quantified Self community by looking at who’s missing from it, and whether those absences might be a problem. Certainly there is a range of fairly obvious (and even banal) reasons that most people are not part of Quantified Self: perhaps they are not doing any self-tracking, or are not even interested in self-tracking; perhaps they do not think about their self-tracking as “self-tracking” per se; perhaps they have no desire to discuss their self-tracking practices with other people, or with people they don’t already know; perhaps they have simply never heard of this thing called “Quantified Self.” But do any of these absences say anything about Quantified Self itself?

My own thinking, however, was running along more Bourdieusian lines: Who might be eager to discuss their self-tracking experiences with other self-trackers, yet not feel welcome within the social milieu of Quantified Self? My goal was to lead the group toward a discussion of how some people might not feel comfortable in the Quantified Self community not because of any overt discrimination on the part of Quantified Self, but because their race, gender, social class, level of (formal) education, amount of income, comfort with new technologies, or general lifestyle marked them as different from the majority of other Quantified Self community members. At the macro level, Quantified Self likes to think of itself as being welcoming to newcomers, so I hoped to ask my session what current community members might do to be more welcoming of interested self-trackers who might have different levels of cultural capital [pdf].

This is not exactly the discussion that happened, however. While some session participants readily linked my questions to long-standing problems of race- and gender inclusivity within tech culture generally, others were unwilling (or unable) to push past examining the question of “Who’s not a part of Quantified Self” at the individual level. This group in particular remained focused on the non-trackers, and the reasons they offered for the non-trackers’ absences were largely matters of individual preference or personality (things which are more “social” than “individual” to a sociologist, but I digress). In the end, shifting our focus back toward the Quantified Self community, and the level of our analysis back to social groups, was a bigger task than I could pull off in an hour.

Photo credit: Iskander Smit
Photo credit: Iskander Smit

At the same time, I do think the discussion was worthwhile even though it wasn’t the discussion I’d intended. To my way of seeing it, a breakout session is a collaborative effort between the session leader and the session participants; while I saw it as my responsibility to help nurture good conversation by reigning in tangential comments and making sure there was space for everyone so inclined to speak (skills I’ll admit I’m still developing), I think clinging too rigidly to my intended outline would have been a mistake. Forcing my vision of the session onto the group also might have foreclosed one of the more interesting (to me) lines of inquiry that came up, which was basically an inversion of my original question: Who is in the Quantified Self community?

To me, the answer to this question had been self-evident: If you’re going to one of the Quantified Self Meetup groups, or coming to Quantified Self conferences, or engaged with the Quantified Self Forum as either a reader or as someone who posts, then you’re a member of (what I think of as) the Quantified Self community. Not everyone in my session was so sure, however. One man asked earnestly, “Am I a member of the community?” To me, the answer was obviously “yes”; he was taking part in my session at Quantified Self Europe, after all. But he wasn’t as certain: Quantified Self Europe was his first participation in Quantified Self and, though he was interested in self-tracking, he’d only decided to come to the conference when he saw “committed to being inclusive” on the registration page. Even though he fit the profile of an archetypal Quantified Self member in many ways, he saw himself as an outsider, and it had taken something he could read as an explicit welcome to make him feel comfortable attending. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this possibility—that people whom I see as being clearly within “the Quantified Self community” might not see themselves as such—had actually never occurred to me; I was far more familiar with uncertain membership in the opposite direction, namely with folks who want to draw the membership lines of “Quantified Self” around any and all people doing any kind of self-tracking anywhere, whether those people have any knowledge of Quantified Self or not. (Interestingly, I see this over-attribution of membership more often from people who have nothing to do with Quantified Self than from people who have any connection to or involvement with the group.)

The question of how to define or demarcate the Quantified Self community ended up resurfacing in other sessions I attended, and in some of the conversations I had with other conference attendees as well. Who is and isn’t a part of Quantified Self, and what distinguishes those who are a part of the community from those who aren’t? Of equal importance, how have the answers to that question changed since Quantified Self began in 2007, or even since the first Quantified Self conference in San Jose in the spring of 2011? (Interestingly, one question I didn’t see taken up was that of who gets to answer the previous two questions.) One person in my session felt that “Quantified Self” is about quantitative self-tracking only, and was frustrated both by talk of narratives and sense-making and by Meetup group “Show & Tell” presentations that include anything other than data analysis; he felt that Quantified Self was losing its focus, and going too far afield. Conversely, another person in my session suggested that the term “Show & Tell” for Meetup group presentations, and perhaps even the name “Quantified Self” itself, were no longer accurate; while these terms might have been apt descriptors when the first Meetup group started in Kevin Kelly’s living room, this session attendee argued that Quantified Self has moved beyond its comparatively narrow initial focus (which he felt was a good thing).

Photo credit: Rain Rabbit
Photo credit: Rain Rabbit

Other conversations focused on what might be considered the “grey areas” of membership within the Quantified Self community. People who market self-tracking tools they initially designed for themselves were clearly in, but what about the non-trackers who attend Quantified Self events in order to market their companies’ apps and devices to a potentially lucrative target audience? What about the doctors and insurance company representatives who attend in the hope of discovering something they can use to increase “compliance” among their patients? What about the increasing number of academics who are taking up Quantified Self as a research topic? On the one hand, Quantified Self has generally been open (even welcoming) to academics[i]; the general attitude I observed during my breakout session for academics and researchers at Quantified Self 2012 in Palo Alto last fall seemed to be, “Hey, if you want to study us, that’s cool, so long as you share your findings; if we think they’re useful, we’ll integrate them into our practices.” On the other hand, some of the attendees I spoke to at Quantified Self Europe last weekend had observed some of the academics present using the word “they” rather than “we” in reference to the Quantified Self community; another commented to me upon leaving a social-scientist led breakout session that he felt he’d been “used for someone’s research project.” Even an academic researcher who is also a self-tracker mentioned his recent observation that he code switches between “we” and “they” when talking about Quantified Self, depending on his audience.

I’ll explore my observations about the shifting culture of Quantified Self overall (and some of my thoughts about possible contributing factors) in a future post, as there’s a lot to say there. For now, I think the best answer to the question of what distinguishes the Quantified Self community from the larger group of “people who do some sort of self-tracking” came from conference attendee and presenter Robin Barooah (@rbarooah), who suggested (both in a breakout session we both attended and in conversation following) that QSers are people who are interested not only in doing self-tracking, but also in thinking about the process and practice of “tracking” itself. For example, many people might purchase a Fitbit because they are interested in tracking their physical activity; other people are interested in selling you a Fitbit. Yet only some of each camp will be interested in thinking about new and different ways to use a Fitbit, or what else a Fitbit’s counted steps might tell them about their lives, or how using a Fitbit changes their experiences of being in the world, or what it means to use a Fitbit in the first place. For some unknown portion of this latter subset group, Quantified Self has become a community and an intellectual home.

*          *          *          *          *

Photo credit: Rain Rabbit
Photo credit: Rain Rabbit

This theme of who is and isn’t part of Quantified Self also raised interesting questions for me personally. If someone had asked, I would have said that, yes, I do identify as a member of the Quantified Self community, though more because I’m present at the conferences (and some of the Meetups) and am taking part in some of the broader conversations about what it all means than because I’m doing any self-tracking myself. At the same time, “Are you tracking anything?” is a very common question at a Quantified Self event, and it’s one that has always made me feel a bit awkward. Until this weekend, I thought my awkwardness came from the fact that, no, I’m not actually tracking anything, even though “make a list of the most important mood tracking apps and use each one for at least a couple of months” has been on my to-do list for some time; I thought I felt uncomfortable because the question exposed me for being a slacker of a researcher. If this is going to be my focus area, I really ought to be self-tracking!

It hit me over the weekend, however, that I’m absolutely doing self-tracking. I may not be tracking in a highly formalized or quantitative sort of way, but I do indeed self-track, and some of my self-tracking projects have been going on for 10 or even 20 years (or longer, if you count what I could pull out of an almost-lifetime of various self-documentation practices). I have no good explanation (for instance) for why I’ve so often used the example that, “Any woman who can answer ‘First date of last menstrual period?’ is doing some kind of formal- or informal self-tracking,” without realizing that this example applies to me, too. Perhaps it’s that, since I’m not trying to conceive, the basic task of keeping tabs on my own body strikes me as unremarkably normal and not worth mentioning, whereas most of the (self-identified) self-trackers I talk to at Quantified Self events seem to have projects or specific questions or formalized procedures for recording their data. Whatever my latent conceptualization of “a self-tracking project” might be, my own practice of noting menstrual cycle patterns didn’t seem to qualify.

Yet I have other personal examples of self-tracking, too, one of which falls very clearly under the common Quantified Self theme of, “I have a chronic health problem and, in an effort to get some kind of a grip on the situation, I’m recording something about what my body does over time.” Maybe it never occurred to me that this is self-tracking because most self-tracking narratives within Quantified Self are bound up with narratives of finding or expressing agency, and I mainly note things that I experience as happening to me rather than things I experience choosing or doing. Maybe it’s because I only make notes when these things happen, rather than at regular time intervals like hours, days, or weeks; maybe it’s because my notation is mostly in words, rather than numerical values. Maybe it’s that, until comparatively recently, all this notation had neither led to any discovery nor reflected any positive change. Nonetheless, there it was staring back at me: more than a decade of my own self-tracking (albeit with a few years’ gap in the middle). Why had it never occurred to me to think of myself as a self-tracker, even after spending two years in the Quantified Self milieu?

Photo credit: Rajiv Mehta
Photo credit: Rajiv Mehta

I realized, finally, that the reason “Are you tracking anything?” has made me feel awkward isn’t only because I think my answer is “no”; it’s also because, on some level, I was already aware that my answer is “yes.” As an ordinary person alone at home (or in my relationships with a few close others), I am self-tracking; as an academic and a researcher, I am not self-tracking (and I feel like that’s negligent of me). My public self may not (yet) be self-tracking, but my private self is—which means that “Are you tracking anything?” therefore represents some pretty major context collapse, all wrapped up in a commonplace and seemingly innocuous question. “Are you tracking anything?” makes me glitch less so because I don’t know whether I’m self-tracking or whether my self-tracking projects “qualify” as such, and more so because I’m not certain how much of my personal/private self I want to allow into my professional/public identity performance.

Honestly, even blatantly implying Yes, I have a menstrual cycle in a professional/public context (as I just did, above) is past my comfort level, despite the fact that this is something most people would assume about me given my gender presentation and apparent age. Though I readily claim my identity “as a woman” in professional/public spaces, and though being a woman certainly has a lot to do with embodiment (as does any gendered identity), the embodied aspects of my own identity and selfhood are things I’ve preferred to acknowledge or discuss only in more personal/private contexts. To talk about any of my existing self-tracking projects at a Quantified Self event, then, is to bring my embodiment more to the forefront of my professional/public identity—and not just my embodiment, but aspects of it that relate to my body’s biological sex (menstrual cycle) or to its vulnerabilities (chronic health problem) at that. As someone whose professional/public identity is based so heavily on what I can do with my brain, calling more attention in a professional/public context to the fact that I even have a physical body[ii] is bad enough; the idea of pointing out to people (whom I want to take me seriously!) that sometimes my body breaks, and also that it has girl parts, is really pretty scary. While I’m sure there are women who are as comfortable (or more comfortable) with calling more attention to their physical bodies in professional/public contexts as they are in personal/private contexts, right now I don’t happen to be one of them. For me, launching into a discussion of my existing self-tracking projects would basically be like coming to a conference in my underwear.

Photo credit: Rain Rabbit
Photo credit: Rain Rabbit

None of this should have been news to me. Last fall, for instance, I was having a conversation about gender ratios within the Quantified Self community, and I suggested that part of the reason there were fewer women than men doing Show & Tell presentations (as well as fewer women involved overall) could be that, for many marginalized groups, “visibility is a trap.” While plenty of women have given great Show & Tell talks (both at various local Meetups and at conferences), the fact that more men than women have chosen to do Show & Tell presentations is not insignificant. More recently, I even made the point that increased visibility has a greater potential negative impact for women—using myself as an example—while on a panel Saturday evening. Still, it wasn’t until I was scribbling down notes following Dorien Zandbergen (@dorienz) and Zane Kripe’s (@zanekripe) Sunday morning breakout session on “Encountering the Quantified Other” that I really put it all together with respect to myself.

As I wrote on a post-it note during an exercise in that session, “Maybe someday, when I’m brave enough, I’ll do a Show and Tell talk about what I’ve figured out.” As I’ll add now, maybe someday, when our society is more just, it will be less risky for me to do so.


Whitney Erin Boesel is usually pretty active on Twitter, though she is far more so when livetweeting a conference. You can catch the rest of her adventures over the 2013 conference season (or have occasions to use hashtag muting) by following @phenatypical.

All images from the Quantified Self Europe 2013 photo pool on Flickr. 

[i] I’ll come back to this point in my future post about the shifting culture of Quantified Self overall, but it merits saying here as well: I was blown away at Quantified Self Europe by how much I felt my presence and perspective as a social scientist were respected and valued. People actually came up to thank me for things I’d said in various sessions, or to tell me that something I’d pointed out had made them see an issue in a new way. Perhaps this is normal or expected for other folks, but as far as my own range of “sociologist at tech-related conference” experiences go, it was pretty new and extraordinary—and it hints at part of what I think distinguishes Quantified Self from Silicon Valley tech culture most generally.

[ii] Not that I mean to promote the Cartesian mind/body dualism or anything (you know what I mean here, right?)

track-yourselfLet’s play a guessing game: How far do you have to read before you can guess what I’m describing?

To begin, it’s both an organization and a group of people. It’s quite large; over a million people participate. They don’t all participate together, though; rather, they meet up regularly in much smaller groups, in cities all over the world. Participants are almost all doing some kind of self-tracking, which usually includes things about their bodies, their activities, what they eat, and sometimes how they feel. When the smaller groups get together, meetings include both presentations and time for participants to get advice from each other about their self-tracking projects.

If you’re a regular reader of Cyborgology (or someone I’ve talked to about my dissertation project), you might think I’m talking about Quantified Self—and that would not be an unreasonable guess. But in this case, the group I’ve described isn’t Quantified Self; it’s Weight Watchers International. Started in 1963, Weight Watchers now boasts 1.3 million members who get together in 45,000 cities spread across more than 30 countries. At minimum, all Weight Watchers participants are tracking their weight; most also track their physical activity and what they eat using a points system (though Weight Watchers does offer a “no food tracking” plan), and many members track other variables such as body measurements or how full they feel after different meals.

ww-qsIt would seem that Weight Watchers could make a good case for being “the original self-tracking meetup group,” and yet I’ve neither seen nor heard of anyone presenting their Weight Watchers data at a Quantified Self show-and-tell (if you have, please let me know). The closest I can come is a flier I picked up at the 2012 Quantified Self Conference in Palo Alto, CA last fall (#QS12), which was promoting a doctor’s “office hours session” (informal small group presentation/discussion) on what he calls “Manly Dieting.” I could spent a whole post going on about the phrase “manly dieting,” but for now I’ll just say this: The fact that “manly dieting” needs to be specified-as-such indicates that “dieting,” generally, is more commonly associated with women, and I’m starting to think there might be a connection between the gendering of “dieting” as “female” and the fact that I haven’t personally seen a lot of straight-up “dieting for weight loss” presentations within Quantified Self.

Another topic I’ve neither seen nor heard of at a Quantified Self show-and-tell (and again, please let me know if you have!) is fertility tracking. This was first brought to my attention by a woman I met at #QS12, who was tracking her ovulation and menstruation as a fertility patient trying to conceive—but who was attending #QS12 for professional purposes as an observer, not as someone engaged in self-tracking. A conversation with danah boyd (@zephoria) drove the point home further still: as she writes here, both “dieting” and “fertility tracking” are very much gendered “feminine,” which contributed to why she resisted those practices even as she “got obsessive” about tracking both what she was eating and some of her hormone cycling. boyd thinks the feminine gendering of “dieting” and “fertility tracking” plays a role not only in her own initial resistance to such practices, but also in their seeming absence from Quantified Self—and I’m strongly inclined to agree.

So…what’s going on with gender, the gendering of various self-tracking practices, and Quantified Self? It’s not that there are no women in Quantified Self. Although there’s no concrete data on Quantified Self membership overall, Ernesto Ramirez (@eramirez) helpfully pointed me toward a demographic survey of the New York (city) QS Meetup group, which found itself to be 67% men and 33% women. That’s not an even gender balance, but it does suggest that women are a strong minority. Yet, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that only women might be interested in practices gendered as “feminine,” nor should we assume that women would automatically be interested in practices gendered as “feminine”; as boyd aptly demonstrates, sometimes women strongly resist feminized practices!


Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be leading a breakout session at Quantified Self Europe 2013 (#QSEU13) called “The Missing Trackers.” As I often tell people when I’m explaining my dissertation research, Quantified Self may be at the forefront of a new wave of self-tracking; yet, as far as self-tracking generally goes, Quantified Self is just the tip of the iceberg. Doctors (for instance) have been asking patients to self-track variables like blood pressure, blood sugar, and even mood since well before Quantified Self started in 2007; while one of the things I find most interesting about Quantified Self is the number of people who are doing what I call self-directed self-tracking (aka, self-tracking they’re doing because of their own interests, not because someone else asked them to do so), plenty of those practices predate Quantified Self as well. (Example: when they redid the walls in their kitchen, my parents saved a strip of horrible orange-yellow-green wallpaper from next to the doorway, where my younger brother and I had eagerly recorded our increasing heights as children.) And of course, let’s not forget that not all self-tracking is quantitative, even within Quantified Self.

Given all of this, who’s probably self-tracking but not doing so as a part of Quantified Self? What can we learn about Quantified Self and the people who are a part of it by noting what kinds of people aren’t a part of it? What about who attends QS Show & Tell sessions vs who presents at them? Are these absences or differences in participation problems, or merely things that are? If they are problems, what can or should be done about them?

Check back next week, and I’ll let you know how #QSEU13 answers these questions.


Whitney Erin Boesel is presently in Amsterdam for #QSEU13, but she’s still on Twitter when she can find an unlocked wireless signal; she’s @phenatypical.

Tracking map image from here; QS Nederland image from here.

Does this phone make me seem like...less of a man?
Does this phone make me seem like…less of a man?

When did mobile phones go from being symbols of status and power to being “emasculating”? Probably around the time they became easier to access than toilets are.

Sergey Brin, of course, would likely say that emasculation arrived with the touchscreen smartphone—when using a mobile phone became a matter of “standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass” while looking down, instead of flexing one’s bicep to bark orders into a massive handset while staring straight ahead (or glaring at a subordinate). Real men don’t “stand around”; real men do stuff! Real men punch buttons with authority, and take decisive action! PJ Rey (@pjrey) and I may have argued that we express agency through our smartphones, but “rubbing”? Touching? That’s, like, girl stuff. Eeeeeeew.

Tongue-in-cheek riff aside, there’s more to Brin’s smartphone insecurity than may be apparent on the (glassy) surface. Brin sees his smartphone as “emasculating” not just because he has to stand still and touch it, and not just because “even girls” could use it, but also because his smartphone no longer signifies him as a member of the power elite. Conceptualizations of masculinity are inextricable from conceptualizations of power, and Brin’s privileged status comes to him from social class and professional identity as much as from gender. Cell phones were symbols of masculine power when only wealthy businessmen had them, but now that literally billions of people own them, the cell phone’s ability to signify status has given three beeps and vanished like a dropped call.


Think back (if you’re old enough) to when very few people had cell phones, back when they were huge and expensive. When you picture someone using one of those cumbersome early cell phones, whom do you picture? Is it a white guy in a suit, maybe wearing a Rolex and 1980s sunglasses? Yeah, I thought so. When they first came out, cell phones—like pretty much every brand new, expensive technology—were status markers. A cell phone said, “I am wealthy, I am powerful, and I am so important that people must be able to reach me even when I am away from my home or office.”

Cell phones got smaller of course, and less expensive, and more common. Elites were saved, however, by the arrival of the touchscreen smartphone. Though not as pricey as the first cellular phones, the first iPhones were still expensive and hard to get; even with a $499 price point and a mandatory two-year contract with AT&T, people stood in line at Apple stores for hours to get their hands on one. The iPhone became an instant status symbol in 2007—but fast-forward to 2013, and what now? There’s roughly a zillion different touchscreen smartphone models on the market. The iPhone itself is available on all four major US carriers (without unlocking); from three feet away, a brand new $849 iPhone 5 is pretty much indistinguishable from a used $90 iPhone 4. Once an exciting status symbol, even the touchscreen smartphone has become plebeian and mundane.

You still respect me…right?

Here’s a thing that happens: elites (and people in general) like status symbols, but when status symbols become too easy to obtain and thus lose their status-signifying power, elites begin to dislike those things—and to look for new status symbols to replace them. The indie music joke is that “nothing is any good if other people like it”; the Status Symbol Corollary is that nothing is any good if (the wrong kinds of) other people have it. Take Facebook, for example: When you had to be at an elite school to join Facebook, a Facebook profile was a status symbol; once the proles (and their mothers!) joined Facebook, not being on Facebook became the status marker. Before Facebook, it was MySpace: as danah boyd (@zephoria) has shown [pdf], white middle- and upper-class kids left in droves once their working class and non-white peers had a significant presence on MySpace. I’ve argued that something similar started to happen with Twitter, too, when the early adopter elite clamored to fork over $50 to join And now, something similar is set to happen with smartphones: Google Glass is the new iPhone.

I thought about titling this post, “Google Glass: The Beginning of White Flight from Smartphones,” but instead I’m going to propose a new term, status flight, to describe what happens when elites abandon a status symbol that’s lost its signifying power after becoming too quotidian and ubiquitous. This isn’t to say there aren’t some real “white flight”-type elements here; accessing the Internet via mobile phone is more common for Black and Latina/o users than for white users, for instance, and it’s no coincidence that the first Glass-related Tumblr I saw was White Men Wearing Google Glass. (There’s now a Black Men Wearing Google Glass Tumblr too, though as I write this, it features only one picture of one man; White Men Wearing Google Glass presently has 27 pictures, though Sergey Brin appears more than once.) At the same time, I worry about extending boyd’s “white flight” metaphor too far; I also want to capture the simultaneous race, gender, and class dynamics that feed into this phenomenon. While class dynamics are a part of what boyd describes in her paper, this seemed to be lost on some readers of my piece—so though I’m ambivalent about using a new term, I thought I’d test this one out. Status flight therefore describes when people of higher status (in this case, privileged white technophile men) dissociate themselves from something that has become too closely associated with people of lower status (in this case, pretty much everyone else).

Oh no! My phone is emasculating me!

There are plenty of people out there, I’m sure, who will see the digirati’s enthusiasm for Google Glass as plain old Brand New Gadget Fetishization, nothing more. But technology isn’t neutral, and neither is its fetishization; Google Glass is no exception. One of the first issues raised in response to Google Glass was (unsurprisingly) that of privacy, for users and non-users alike—and it’s the privacy risks to people other than the Glass user that are particularly telling. It’s even harder to tell if someone is taking a picture of you with Google Glass, for instance, than it is to tell if someone is taking a picture of you with a smartphone; Google Glass also has “the ability to record video of the people, places, and events around you, at all times.” While some have argued that this push further toward a surveillance state will actually be empowering, the facts are that increased visibility can be disempowering for marginalized groups, especially when that visibility is on dominant groups’ terms. As I’ve explained before, this is something Google consistently fails to understand.

That Brin has gendered Glass as “male” is neither a surprise nor a coincidence. Consider that interest in Google Glass is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from men; consider that the victims of “creepshots” or “revenge porn” are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) women. Consider the expanded affordances for surreptitious documentation that Google Glass provides. Now (re)consider Google Glass as the device that restores the smartphone user’s diminished masculine power…and just sit with that for a minute. Whether it’s the medical gaze, the masculine gaze, or the panoptic gaze, the gaze is synonymous with power—and he who has Google Glass need never look away.

Obviously there are and will be women Glass users, and obviously lots of men will own Glass without using the device to do anything degrading to women; I should hope all of that would go without saying. But while I’ve been trying to avoid using “creepy” as shorthand for “technology + power + WTF,” I’m sorry: When Brin says smartphones are “emasculating,” and that Google Glass is the answer, the gendered dimensions of status flight to Google Glass do strike me as seriously and significantly creepy.


EDIT (4 May 2013): I need to clarify here that I am introducing “status flight” as a new term, not as a new concept; it is hardly a new concept! A large number of sociologists, cultural theorists, & others have done important work in this area, and my intention is certainly not to overwrite or to supplant any of that (or to claim that work as my own). Rather, my goal here is to see if and how using a new term to talk about these issues might affect the conversations that follow.

(16 May 2013): I removed a link from the body of this post after several people alerted me to the fact that the site hosting the essay I’d linked also featured highly objectionable content. Since a link is arguably promotion, I do not want to promote the views the rest of that site was expressing.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) tweets regularly from her touchscreen smartphone, but it doesn’t make her feel like any less of a man.

“Wall Street” still from here; cell phone timeline image from here; Gorbachev on phone from here; Brad Pitt phone image from here.