The picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

A philosophic debate on ‘Self tracking cultures and the emergence of hybrid humans’ part of Being Human Festival, University of Liverpool December 10th 2015
A group of professors in  law, sociologists and communication scientists came together to discuss and debate about self tracking cultures and the emergence of hybrid humans.
The intake of the debate was inspired on Deborah Lupton – The Quantified Self, 2012

As we covered different angles within this debate, I will try to recap them in this article.

Quantified Self or Personal Informatics we understand that people are gathering all sorts of data about themselves for different purposes and aims. Today Quantified Self is not an obscure domain anymore, it comes into different sectors such as the workplace, healthcare to name a few. Self tracking in itself is not a new phenomenon. People have being down this all the time, they track finances, the books they read, the films they go to. And setting goals for ourselves is something very popular during the Christmas and new year period. Today we have technology which facilitates all this and makes it maybe easier to track our lives and interests, but also very detailed. Our data is presented in data visualizations and frequency tables, we create data doubles so to speak, a digital data profile. In doing so we use different devices/wearable’s and apps and there are a lot of questions arising now all this gets more diffused in a population.

Some immediate thoughts, but not limited to this.

First, we leave a trace of data behind for ‘ourselves’ but also for ‘others’
Second, what do we learn from gathering our data?
Third, what is behind the data?
Fourth, who owns the data that we are gathering?
Fifth, what happens with the data?

A digital trace for ourselves but also for ‘others’

While self-tracking ourselves we leave a trace of data behind. We leave data behind on the servers from the companies that deliver the devices or the mobile apps. Some of the self-trackers also share their data on Social Networks such as Facebook or other. At moments we also want to create context, so we use photos Instagram or other photo applications, so we kind of create a digital online diary in the cloud. We can generate a construction of the self, a presentation of the self. Which presentation do we want to give?

This data can be interpreted in different ways and provoke different emotions with the user. What do we want to achieve with this data? Do we want to create a better self? If so, what does that mean? Are we striving for a certain role model, a role model that is maybe a hidden standard in the app or device we use? Will this data, presenting ourselves, make us happier and create a sense of well being? Will it confront us with someone who we don’t want to be?

Control and surveillance

As mentioned before, we leave a trace of data behind for ‘others’. Research shows that some personalities like the control aspect these devices create, depending on what is tracked. Other personalities get stressed out by this control. There is a duality within the self-tracking activity, furthermore there is this surveillance aspect. The data stored on private servers, mainly in the US and not under European legislation, where privacy for example is a different regulation. What happens with the data and who owns the data?

While Personal Informatics is entering different domains these questions get more important. Take the workplace for example where companies measure interactions between employees in a meeting. Who is leading and who Is quiet. The measurement of certain behavior of people could be interesting to learn more about certain behavior in a certain situation within a workplace, but if people get accountable for their behavior through self-tracking in so much detail with facts and figures to where does this lead?  Will this become part of the evaluation process of an employee?

Is this not also the dream of every insurance company? If you don’t move the minimum 30 minutes per day, and you don’t burn X calories a day, your insurance will get higher because there is no change in your behavior? Are we going to a ‘Digital Health Capitalism, where health is the next commodity in all its aspects?

Behavior design within Personal Informatics?

All the devices and its software have an aim; they are developed to let the user do something. Most of them have Behavior Design aspect in it. It will trigger you or nudge you to start or to create new habits and routines. In itself this is a good aspect. To a certain extent people need nudges to do something more or better. But as with all new technology we as a user need to learn how to go about these new technologies and learn how to use them that it is a proper way for the involved user. We can change our lifestyles for the better, but also here there is this duality again, we can get obsessed about the data or change ourselves so much it is not sustainable and not matching with our original personality, hidden processes get ingrained in our everyday life. We then need to think is this what we want? Do we want to create the ideal body? Thinking about the hidden standards that might behind the thought of these apps, considering most of them are developed in the US California it might be an ideal body that is not an ideal body in another culture? And doing so what if we fail? Will this impact our self-esteem? Will we get worried because we set the goals to high for ourselves and don’t achieve. These algorithms are not emphatic nor compassionate and can be very blunt in that perspective.