When talking about modern trends I favour looking to historical ones – I try to resist the idea that this modern media landscape is totally revolutionary, rather than accelerated. For the Quantified Self movement, you can look at them as an evolution of the historical practice of journaling. But (and there’s always a but) the shift represented by the movement is away from a subjective account of a series of events to efforts to objectively measure information.
There’s a lot of connected components of the Quantified self, mind you. One of the more dystopian elements is the ‘food replacement’ Soylent. Soylent ostensibly seeks to homogenise your nutrition input by replacing your need to eat food by instead giving you a paste that’s comparable to a thickshake, pale off-white, that you just consume in predetermined packets, and it’ll give you ‘everything you need.’
Now, I don’t seek to be down on Soylent as a property per se but I would suggest that literally anyone with a Media studies degree would suggest naming it something else.
Self-analysis is one of the most challenging parts of human life. As human endeavours move away from subsistence existence, we have usually turned to the improvement of our quality of life. One of the challenges we’ve faced as we study people is that self-improvement requires us to have an idea of how well we do things in the first place, and we’re very bad at estimating our own ability. The Quantified Self movement follows from that, trying to find some way to anchor our actions in as objective a context as we possibly can.
Many of the questions about Quantified Self are somewhat non-questions. Is it good for everyone to embrace this lifestyle? Probably not. Most people suffer anxiety and second-guess themselves when they consider themselves to be under surveillance, and the Quantified Self lifestyle involves setting up a number of little personal surveillance devices. Can the technology model everything in our lives? Well, probably not, but that’s a question that can be addressed by changing the technology. The idea that technology will never be capable of obtaining data from an experience we design it for is a little odd. What if this data is outsourced, and used by third parties? Should we define the ownership of a footprint? These questions are not so much arguments against the Quantified Self as much as they are considerations for recognising that it exists.
On the other hand, some people may be able to use their Twitter activity to anchor events in their life to their history when they look back on them – to the point where some people convert their Twitter Feed to a journal – and that’s a similar form of quantification – providing a precise date stamp for when you were emotionally driven enough to say that thing about that one time that one person did that thing.
My personal position on things like Quantified Self was to discard them as upper-class or middle-class high-tech toys that serve little to no purpose beyond giving someone a data set to treat as Very Important. The kind of people who ten years ago had big chunky pedometers and would boast to you every day about their step count. This personal, subjective experience coloured this entire generation of Important TED Talks and New Fashionable Technological Devices in a way that dissolved my interest in the product. I found the tech interesting (“how can it know”) but once I understood that, the practical applications of the devices quickly went away.
Then I listened to people who weren’t me.
I listened to a diabetic talk about how it’d make his life better to track his sugar intake. I learned that a friend of mine is so bad at tracking hydration levels, they follow a twitter robot designed to remind them to regularly drink. I learned that a doctor I respect used his smartwatch to keep him from being sedentiary for long periods. Tech that isn’t for me isn’t tech nobody should bother with.
Still, there are some interesting side effects of infrastructural technology. One thing I’ve noticed is that some folk, like myself, can’t get along with a personal device on the wrist. There’s this whole generation that grew up without wrist-watches, and any device designed to fill the same spot doesn’t quite make some sort of direct, personal sense.
I’ve run into a fair few Twitter employees over the years and almost all of them existed in some sort of minimal test case Twitter network
— Melissa ␇ ⭐️ (@0xabad1dea) 6 February 2016
On a very personal level, I’m lucky enough to have been friends with people who explored work with Twitter directly, and have had dealings with the heads of other social media networks. There’s a recurrent theme when these anecdotes come up: The people in charge don’t really use their own service.