Quantified Self is a passionate political “movement” without concrete demands. That should sound familiar
On a July evening at the Microsoft New England Research & Design building in Cambridge, Mass., (appropriately known as the NERD Center), there’s a long table laid with garden salad, raw vegetables and dip, and cold cuts. Carbs are mostly absent, and there is neither beer nor wine. Through the plate glass beyond, you can see small sloops and catboats sailing the lower basin of the Charles River. The low sun gleams off brownstone windows on Boston’s opposite riverbank and lights up the gold dome of the Massachusetts State House. There are about a hundred people here, but they’re not taking in the vista; they’re not even taking in the hummus. They—we—have taken our seats in a nearby conference room for “Show&Tell” talks at a Quantified Self Boston meet-up.
TNI Vol. 22: Self-Help is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours today.Show&Tells are the heart of Quantified Self. They are the events at which members of local Quantified Self communities—QSers—give short presentations about their self-tracking projects and field questions from the audience. The format is informal, though many speakers in the three cities where I’ve attended Show&Tells have had slides. The narratives are based around answering these questions: “What did you do? How did you do it? And what did you learn?”
On this particular night, two of the four men speaking not only presented on accomplishing significant weight loss, but also discussed their experiences using the Weight Watchers app. This was surprising, as in my research I had neither seen nor heard about a Show&Tell talk that used Weight Watchers data—odd given the groups’ similar methods (Weight Watchers might be considered the original quantified self-tracking meet-up group, and there are far more Weight Watchers members in the world than there are QSers). In a photo- and graph-filled presentation, the first man told of how he’d once been in good shape but had settled into a routine that involved more takeout and less exercise after he moved to a house between two pizza places. Fifty pounds later, he realized he had a problem. As a result, he purchased a wi-fi scale to track his weight, started running (and tracking his runs), and—there it was—started tracking his food intake with the Weight Watchers app. More surprising than seeing that Weight Watchers logo, however, was what happened in the question-and-answer session. A man asked, “Okay, you have lots of data. But what was your subjective experience? How do you feel?”
Wait, someone just asked about feelings? In response to a weight-loss presentation? Isn’t QS all about data? What just happened?
“What just happened” didn’t mirror either of the most common stereotypes about Quantified Self, but it did reflect the most basic motivation of nearly every QSer. Why do QSers track? To hear hype-fomenters tell it, QSers are either (a) brave pioneers who are both resisting the tyranny of institutional knowledge and revolutionizing the future of health-care through their data-driven self-empowerment, or (b) fiendish, delusional narcissists obsessed with numerical navel-gazing to the detriment of their ability to accept “the facts” or to experience “the real world.” Either straw man will lure readers, but most QSers resemble neither.
Like everyone else, QSers just want to feel better—or maybe even feel good. “Feeling good” might be a bodily state, a state of mind, or a sated curiosity; its attendant aspirational future could be distant (as when the goal is to extend life or to amass longitudinal data “just in case”), or fairly proximate (as when the goal is to lose weight, to become more mindful, or to identify a food sensitivity). That QSers use self-tracking to pursue desired states of being is not especially remarkable: People with diabetes, hypertension, or bipolar disorder (to name just a few) have for decades been asked to self-track; anyone who has ever counted calories to gain or lose weight has self-tracked; every woman or girl who knows the date of her last menstrual period is self-tracking (regardless of whether she records the date outside her own head). We are all self-trackers in some respect.
What distinguishes QSers isn’t why they track, or even that they track, but their enthusiasm for thinking and talking about tracking itself. Quantified Self is not so much narcissism, but nerdery.
Of course, while nerds of a feather may flock together, some nerds do have showier plumage. Not all the ways QSers (or non-QSers) track are outwardly apparent. The most visible practices involve “passive tracking” devices, which are sensor gadgets that record or transmit data constantly without direct input from their users. Such devices—examples include Jawbone UP and BodyMedia FIT (a wristband and an armband, respectively, that monitor activity); BodyMonitor (an armband that monitors heart rate and skin conductance); Melon and Muse (headbands that monitor brainwaves)—are both the newest and the most commercialized way people self-track. If I strap one of these things to my wrist, arm, or forehead, I am signaling clearly—whether inside or outside a Quantified Self meet-up—that I am a self-tracker.
A smaller passive tracking device (like the popular activity monitor Fitbit) can mark me as a self-tracker, too, if I clip it to my clothing rather than slip it into my pocket. There is also an ever-expanding array of smartphone apps for both passive- and active self-tracking purposes, and if I use any of those, you might notice me tapping at them on my phone; you also might think I’m just texting, like every other nearby person with a smartphone. If I track using a spreadsheet on my computer, a notebook next to my bed, or an archive of paper scrapbooks, however, I look like anyone else—and until I give a Show&Tell talk, you might not know I’m tracking anything at all. In fact, the most common question at a Quantified Self meet-up (after, “What’s your name?”) is “What are you tracking?” We ask this because, most of the time, there’s no other way to tell.
Still, there is much more to Quantified Self than what you can install on your smartphone or strap to your appendage of choice. “Gadgets” and “data” and even “quantification” are each only part of the Quantified Self story—though you’d likely never know that without being there on the ground.
Founded by Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007, the Quantified Self began as a website and grew rapidly into a self-trackers’ community. The first Show&Tell, with about 30 attendees, took place at Kelly’s Bay Area home in September 2008. By March 2011, there were Show&Tell groups in 20 cities worldwide; now there are QS meet-ups in 99 cities, with at least one group on every continent, save Antarctica. There are also two international QS conferences, QS Europe and QS Global.
The viral spread of Quantified Self is in part due to its organizational structure—or lack thereof. Quantified Self has trademarked neither “Quantified Self” nor “Show&Tell.” While the QS website hosts an FAQ on “How to Start Your Own QS Show&Tell” (which would now more often be called a meet-up group), no permission from Quantified Self is necessary to do so. In fact, it’s not particularly clear whom you would ask if you wanted permission. While Wolf and Kelly founded Quantified Self, and Wolf and QS Labs program director Ernesto Ramirez co-curate the Quantified Self Conferences, Quantified Self is more a decentralized network of self-organized groups than a formal institution.
To say QS is growing rapidly would be an understatement—though exactly how rapidly is hard to say, since Quantified Self, paradoxically, is itself unquantified.
Beyond a collection of links to local groups’ Meetup.com pages on the Quantified Self website, no one is keeping track of participation in Quantified Self writ large. Even attendance numbers for the Quantified Self Conferences aren’t readily available, though the conferences reliably sell out (despite their pricey registration fees). With no clear demarcation of Quantified Self’s membership, no formal statement of what Quantified Self is or should be, and no one claiming to speak for Quantified Self as a unified whole, public portrayals of Quantified Self vary widely; Quantified Self is, in many ways, in the eye of the beholder. With its high level of visibility and its name now a cliché, Quantified Self is all too readily caricatured, by journalists and academics alike. Quantified Self often stands as proxy for everything we fear about living in a world full of “data.”
People seem to love to hate Quantified Self—often with little to no idea of what Quantified Self actually is. Evgeny Morozov, for example, famously railed against the group in his 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here; yet, as he admitted in an interview with anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll for Public Books, he’s never been to a Quantified Self event of any sort. “There’s no way I’m going to spend time with them,” he told her. “I can’t stand them!”
Morozov, like so many other writers—and like me, until a few years ago—has based his assessment of Quantified Self on media coverage of the group, rather than on direct observation (or, god forbid, in-depth participation). Because so many journalists seek out the high-profile minority of QSers who can readily dispense bombastic proclamations, Quantified Self stereotypes become self-amplifying. And what’s worse is that such proclamations are usually published without any meaningful examination. For instance: More often than not, anyone who claims Quantified Self is a “movement” is probably trying to sell you a self-tracking product. When such quantrepreneurs ask, “How do we get more people to track,” they are not recruiting revolutionaries in the fight for a self-determined future; they want free labor for whatever “big data” ventures they hope will line their pockets. Unsurprisingly, this mythological “movement” version of Quantified Self lines up neatly with the popular caricature of QSers as post-privacy power users covered in sensors that upload their every waking (and sleeping) moment into “the cloud.”
What you’d never know from most Quantified Self coverage, however, is that fanatical futurism is only part of the picture—and it’s not even the main event. Quantified Self has what anthropologists Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman have called a “big tent policy,” and sure enough: climb over the swarm of startups and health-care companies and you’ll find technology resisters and privacy advocates, patients and parents, everyone from life-loggers to life hackers. A Quantified Self conference, it turns out, is not 400 horsemen of the coming Datapocalypse.
I first became involved with Quantified Self in the spring of 2011, as part of my previous research on DIYbio (“do it yourself” biology) and citizen science groups. In the fall of that same year, I also became involved with another “movement” famous for having a big tent approach. Although one was born in a Pacifica living room and the other born in a Manhattan park, these two “movements” have more in common than you might initially think.
I was working as a teaching assistant (I am a graduate student) and living in Santa Cruz, California, when Occupy Wall Street began. To say I wanted to be there would be an understatement. After a few weeks, having finally cobbled together enough frequent-flier miles to get on a red-eye to JFK, I boarded in San Jose with 63 ungraded student papers in hand and no idea if there would still be an Occupy Wall Street by the time I arrived. At takeoff, NYPD was planning to clear Zuccotti Park the next morning for “cleaning”; upon landing, I heard that more than 3,000 people had arrived before dawn to defend the encampment. Bloomberg and Brookfield had both backed down; even the rain had stopped. The mood that morning was one of triumph and relief, exhaustion and exhilaration.
Arriving in lower Manhattan after having been up all night myself, I walked down the Liberty Street sidewalk, which was lined by a diverse array of Occupiers holding a profoundly diverse array of messages on handwritten cardboard signs. In this small sample was support for education, job creation, veterans’ rights, tax reform, drug-policy reform, the prosecution of Wall Street criminals, and social justice (and also capitalism); protesters were against police brutality, big banks, economic injustice, joblessness, the bailout, “the one percent,” the Citizens United decision, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, student-loan debt, global climate change, foreclosures, and fracking (and also capitalism). Some signs quoted famous people, and some shared stories of struggling within “the 99%.” Other signs simply made statements: “People over Profit”; “We clean up after ourselves”; “Jesus is not a Republican.” The scene may have been part village, part carnival, and part picket line, but Occupy Wall Street was all DIY: Make your own message, and make your own meaning.
Later, back in Santa Cruz (and somehow with all 63 papers graded), I saw that a debate had sprung up on my department mailing list about whether Occupy was worth any attention as “a movement.” I didn’t know the literature on social movements, but I did know what I’d seen: Occupy’s amorphousness was both an inevitable reflection of a society in which radical individualism has triumphed over all and an interesting attempt to avoid the thorny issues of representation that had plagued social movements of the past. Occupy might not have looked like a formally structured movement, but it was still worth our time as sociologists. It was an exciting experiment, not a failure.
OWS was trying to exist simultaneously both as a collective expression of frustration and as thousands of individuals speaking only for themselves, I wrote to my department. Where previous movements had been movements for something, OWS was simply against. This kept it open to pretty much anyone against any aspect of the status quo and allowed for it to avoid specifying which grievances should be given primacy. Certainly Occupy had flaws, both as a movement and as an aspiring Utopia. One such flaw was that, because no one could speak “for Occupy,” anyone could speak “for Occupy”—and say anything they want. But was failing to conform to an established template for social movements one of Occupy’s flaws? I wasn’t sure I agreed.
Two years later, Quantified Self is basically the Occupy of science and medicine. More and more, Quantified Self reminds me of the protesters and signs on Liberty Street: The QS community is a bunch of people who, unhappy with the possibilities afforded them by traditional institutions, authorities, and epistemologies, have come together to tell their own stories and do their own things.
There are, of course, significant differences between the two: QS will almost certainly never be the target of state suppression and police brutality, and it has founders and organizers rather than general assemblies. Though anyone is welcome at a Quantified Self meet-up, Occupy was more racially and economically diverse. It’s also highly unlikely that QS will ever spark protest marches and port shutdowns rather than TED talks.
Nonetheless, QS, like Occupy before it, represents a decentralized challenge to traditional authority that is trying to be everything to everyone while still speaking for no one. Whereas feminists famously declared a generation ago that “the personal is political”—a shorthand call to collectivism, recognizing the struggles individual women face are tied systems of oppression that cannot be fought individually—Occupy made the political personalizable. It had politics, but no unified message other than, perhaps, “shit is fucked up and bullshit.” Occupy was more like Twitter or Tumblr taken to the streets—a platform where you could express your personal discontent alongside a multitude of others expressing their personal discontent. It refused to release an overarching list of demands, unwilling to lose some of “us” by becoming a more coherent Us.
At present, Quantified Self is similarly amorphous. The Show&Tell format deliberately focuses on personal stories: what I did, how I did it, what I learned. The “start your own Show&Tell” FAQ follows a similar format: Here’s what we’ve done, but if you want to call yourself “Quantified Self” and do something else, that’s fine too. Quantification might be central, but self-determination is paramount. For a while, making “the self” the center of Quantified Self seemed to pre-empt conflict between QSers; if no one speaks for anyone else, then no one has anyone to argue with.
As the hype has grown, however, and as more people (and corporations) flock to QS, the big tent is starting to strain at the seams. Some QSers resent quantrepreneurs taking up Show&Tell space with thinly veiled sales pitches; quantrepreneurs snap back that there would be no Quantified Self if not for tech companies, their devices, and their sponsorship. Academic researchers decry QS’s lack of formal methodology and call for peer review; they see QS as a feral science badly in need of domestication and discipline, inefficient and insufficiently rigorous as it stands. QSers, however, say, “No thanks,” and go back to their projects; they’re in it to help themselves, not to intervene in knowledge production writ large. Self-experimenters bemoan the presence of life-loggers who gather (often nonquantitative) data about their lives with no particular goal in mind. Startups tout apps and devices that track more things with less user effort, yet some QSers insist that the data itself is beside the point—that only the process of gathering data alone is the best way one can learn anything meaningful.
It is tempting to say that Quantified Self is losing control of the self-tracking movement, but to see a “movement” at all is a mistake. To call QS a movement is to buy into a marketing ploy. What remains after we subtract “movement” is a trend, a meme, a growing interest—which Quantified Self is a symptom of rather than a cause. Before QS, people of all sorts had been self-tracking, if often informally, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Benjamin Franklin famously designed charts to track his progress with respect to thirteen virtues, and in The Care of the Self, Foucault traces a mandate to turn inward and “cultivate” one’s self back through antiquity. Self-tracking not only predates digital devices; it also predates paper.
That said, Quantified Self and self-tracking are now in a reciprocal relationship, each fueling and feeding the other. As before, people come to Quantified Self because they are interested in self-tracking, but now the group’s visibility is helping popularize and normalize self-tracking generally—as well as to advertise self-tracking products—even for people who will never seek out a Quantified Self meet-up. In this way, the group aids and abets the corporations seeking to capitalize on its culture, even as both Quantified Self and QSers practice what Nafus and Sherman term “soft resistance.” QSers may use passive tracking devices, but they use them for their own purposes and in their own ways, making the data they generate harder to aggregate into a Big Data goldmine. Similarly, QSers privilege their own interpretations of such data over the interpretations offered by the devices’ software. (There are lots of QS in-jokes about what a Fitbit does and does not count as “a step.”) This makes QSers harder to discipline or control in the ways device companies might like. If there’s one thing a community with such strong roots in maker culture is not good at, it’s obediently following directions and obliging designers’ intentions: To thine own self be true.
Quantified Self is, however, coming to recognize its complicity in recruiting more free labor for Big Data regimes. In his closing remarks for the first QS Global conference in 2011, Kevin Kelly asked the crowd, “Who owns your face if you go out in public?” The question was a provocation, part of Kelly’s argument that privacy had become outmoded. By QS Europe 2013, however, Wolf was leading conference attendees in a day-long experiment to examine how QSers’ self-tracking projects might impact others—with the goal of establishing norms for saying, “Please don’t life-log me.” And Kelly’s closing remarks for QS Global 2013 were surprisingly subdued, including his admission that “the world that we don’t want may come through the success of the Quantified Self we do want.”
A huge database of QS data might yield liberatory medical or scientific breakthroughs in the future, but so too might it yield tools of domination for the very state- and corporate actors whose surveillance was worrying QSers today. In Kelly’s presentation, “QS” and “Facebook/NSA” were not the same thing, but neither were they unrelated. In each pursuing their own individual freedom, it was possible QSers and other self-trackers would fuel our collective oppression.
Two years after Occupy, it’s hard to say whether it “succeeded” or “failed.” I’ve heard people say, “Occupy changed the conversation” so many times that I no longer know what it means. Occupy slips through evaluative frameworks just as it evaded formal definition. Still, we met one another in that park, in those encampments, and in the networks we formed to move information between and beyond them. The encampments are gone, as are the spectacle, the hype, and most of the people. But smaller pieces remain—and while groups like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes, Occupy the SEC, and Strike Debt! are more like decentralized nonprofit organizations than movements, they are taking concrete action and having demonstrable impact.
While the Department of Homeland Security won’t be coming to break up Show&Tell talks anytime soon, QS may be reaching an Occupy-like level of instability-through-diversity: In Massachusetts, the startups and quantrepreneurs have said a friendly goodbye to Quantified Self Boston and started the Self-Tracking Consortium for their industry events; San Francisco, Boston, and New York now have QSXX meet-up groups, for women-identified self-trackers only.
At both QS Conferences this year, I heard disgruntled “n=1 experiment” enthusiasts talk about starting a separate self-experimenters’ group (because as far as they’re concerned, people who are self-tracking without doing scientific experiments are doing it wrong). As the hype swells, the tent threatens to burst.
Yet an explosion might not be the worst thing for Quantified Self. Subtract the sensational stories about sensor-wearers, the tech companies with their hungry databases, and the Movement™, and what remains at the heart of Quantified Self is a mode, a technique. What remains is people sitting together, speaking and asking questions about what they track, and why they track, and what it means to track in the first place. Quantified Self invites you to join the conversation, but it is not trying to change “the conversation.” It won’t tell you that you should or shouldn’t track, that you should or shouldn’t share your data, or that you should or shouldn’t be concerned about privacy.
Individual QSers have opinions, of course, but Quantified Self does not tell you what your sign should say, or how you should make your sign, or even that you have to hold a sign at all. Quantified Self invites you to question what you have been told—whether by your doctor, your tracking device, or your own assumptions—and to speak for yourself.
The self-tracking craze will continue to spread, with or without Quantified Self. And in many respects, the damage from that craze was done well before it began: Employers and insurance companies can incentivize Fitbit purchases to count side-steps around issues like “food deserts” and “unwalkable neighborhoods,” but painting neoliberalism with a gloss of numbers doesn’t make it new. In this respect, shiny self-tracking apps and gadgets are simply the new bottled water—a single-serving “solution” to a much larger collective problem. Institutions push tracking devices to encourage surveillable activity, not “movements.”TNI Vol. 22: Self-Help is out now. Subscribe now for $2 and get yours today.
But that’s why we need groups like Quantified Self. There will be no shortage of corporations or state agencies eager to harvest the zeros and ones we seem to exhale with our every breath. To push back against them may well take a movement, but Quantified Self isn’t it. What Quantified Self is, however, is something more stable than a movement. It’s something that will persist: a community and a network that will continue to reflect on how tracking and being tracked affects our lives, long after the hype bubble bursts.
In so doing, Quantified Self—like Occupy before it—will help lay the groundwork for action and resistance to come. It’s not a movement but a store of potential energy.