by Yeesheen Yang
How we come to know ourselves now
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Yeesheen Yang’s “Saving the Quantified Self” from our Winter 2014 issue.
My grandmother recently had a pacemaker implanted. Major surgery and its aftermath are frightening at any age, but for a ninety-three-year-old and her family it is a particularly scary tightrope to walk. Had her recovery been filmed for a montage in a family drama, there would have been reassuring doctors and smiling nurses with encouraging words as the liveliness returned to her eyes and activity to her arms and legs—but this wasn’t a movie. This was the information age. As we gathered around her hospital bed in the days after the procedure, I could tell that my grandmother was worried, and I was worried, too.
Then my mother slipped a small portable pulse oximeter over my grandmother’s finger to measure her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and blood oxygen saturation. We all tried it. The quick readout and the ensuing conversation about my grandmother’s thrice-daily ritual of checking her numbers were comforting. As her recovery progressed, a pedometer measured her daily walks, and this information was even more fortifying: 650 steps one day, 800 steps the next. It is satisfying to imagine her circling her tiny backyard, amid the small fruit trees and high stone walls, tracking her own progress. And it brings a smile to my face knowing that this fragile nonagenarian is so in sync with the zeitgeist.
In modern times, self-tracking like my grandmother is doing is how we’ve come to satisfy the exhortation to “know thyself.” In this conception of the self, we are not beings made in the image of our god, animals with intellect, or finely calibrated machines; we are fields of data. To know ourselves is to mine, map, and analyze that data and make adjustments where necessary. We quantify ourselves using pedometers, oximeters, stopwatches, obsessive journaling, and increasingly sophisticated technology to track every knowable piece of data that our bodies and our selves can spit out. These numbers can bring comfort, and they can bring real understanding, not just of REM cycles and caloric intake, but of what it means to be, precisely, us.
This concept—which we might call the algorithmic body, a body built from data—is gaining traction in Silicon Valley, where big names are attaching themselves to ideas, products, and services that aim to exploit all the data we are generating about our bodies for a range of goals. Some, like the wearable fitness tracker Fitbit or the genomic testing company 23andMe seek to arm users with the data they need to improve their health, vitality, and, possibly, longevity. Others, like Google cofounder Larry Page and his California Life Company (Calico), have something grander in mind: immortality. All of these ideas are rooted in the idea of a body that can be understood and even preserved through data—the Quantified Self.
Quantified Self—which is actually a company and a movement—was founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, two editors at Wired magazine. It promotes the idea that gathering quantifiable data about oneself and one’s life through practices of self-tracking allows us to know, rather than guess, how well we are living our lives. Am I really keeping under the caloric limits I need to meet in order to lose weight? How much time do I actually spend on Facebook in one day? How much time do I spend writing? Well-framed questions, together with the increasingly powerful self-monitoring tools, can transform the nebulous experience of life into hard data, allowing us to engage in informed and effective interventions. Self-trackers believe in “self-knowledge through numbers”—a phrase proclaimed in big type on the Quantified Self website.¹ Practitioners now meet in over one hundred cities around the globe, from New York to Milan, Mexico City, Chennai, and Helsinki, to share and reflect on the ways they are using numbers to understand and improve themselves.
Self-trackers are a well-educated, engaged, relatively affluent, and technically inclined demographic. They are deeply serious about this form of self-reflection.² Many are hobbyists, who use existing apps to capture self-data. Others are practitioners who build their own tools to share with or sell to the larger community. One presenter at a recent Quantified Self meetup in San Francisco talked about learning to reduce the duration of incidents when he felt upset during the day by logging alerts from his heart-rate monitor. The data allowed him to pinpoint his emotional triggers and assess the effectiveness of various coping strategies. He reported that he reduced the amount of time he spent upset by 23 percent over the course of his self-study.³
Commercially available wearable monitors are some of the simplest tools in the kit of the modern self-tracker, and they epitomize the emerging relationship between data, self-monitoring, and our sense of self. The rich data of tracking, real-time feedback, and the minute experiences of one’s body can blend together to generate a new, data-informed sense of one’s own body. Anthropologist Dawn Nafus suggests, in her work on self-tracking, that “one learns how to feel one’s body through the data.” Sociologists including Deborah Lupton suggest that the quantified data of self-tracking can lead to an enriched qualitative practice of self-reflection. Data becomes part of a process of telling oneself stories about one’s progress in life. Lupton argues that self-tracking is narrative and performative, a practice that produces and reflects upon who we are becoming: “I walk fourteen thousand steps each day; ergo, I am a walker.”4
I see something more here: an algorithmic body emerging from this ongoing project of building oneself up through data. The algorithmic body is established as the object of surveillance and monitoring for the purpose of intervention and it is the object of intervention as much as our physical bodies, and perhaps even more so someday. It is instructive that relating to, reflecting upon, and producing oneself today is performed through data. Data is the idiom of the biotechnological age and, increasingly, now the language of the self.
Throughout history, scientific trends have had a profound effect on perceptions of the self and body. In the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, a mechanistic rather than an algorithmic view of the body was on the rise. This understanding of the body flourished alongside the rapid proliferation of mechanical technologies in the form of industrial machinery, transportation, and medical knowledge. Notions of the body began to focus on issues of efficiency, fatigue, and the cycles of a closed system. Historian Anson Rabinbach traces the idea of the human motor—the body as machine—in relation to the articulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which specifies the rule of conservation of energy.
The algorithmic perspective has been influenced by increasing interest in big data and data mining, and it has been fueled by the rapid development in personal surveillance technology, which has over time built up big data about human bodies and human lives in the aggregate and individually. But at least one branch of the roots of the algorithmic body has a longer history, dating back to mid-century speculative work on longevity, transhumanism, the idea of transcending the human condition, and cryonics.
Image at top: Each colored block represents a GPS location visited by the artist over a ninety-day period in Making Tracks. Greater color saturation represents more frequent visits to that location. Courtesy Laurie Frick.
1 The Quantified Self website can be found here: http://quantifiedself.com.
2 Self trackers have their own history and legacy. Many note that before smartphones, there were pens and paper, which Benjamin Franklin used in his obsessive daily self-chronicling.
3 Paul LaFontaine’s writing on his self-study can be found here: http://quantselflafont.com/2014/07/13/improvement-results-in-upset-recovery/.
4 Deborah Lupton, “Beyond the Quantified Self: the Reflexive Self-Monitoring Self,” This Sociological Life, http://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/beyond-the-quantified-self-the-reflexive-monitoring-self/.