Law in the Internet Society

The Quantified-Self Movement and Freedom of Thought

-- By RemicardSereme - 12 Janvier 2022

In this essay, I want to explore the link between the quantified-self movement and freedom of thought. This idea came to me after reading an article published in The Guardian entitled “Intimate data: can a person who tracks their steps, sleep, and food ever truly be free?”. I think that the answer isn’t as self-evident as the question implies. My idea is that self-tracking in itself isn’t necessarily incompatible with freedom of thought but that the current societal context of surveillance capitalism in which the quantified-self movement inscribes itself makes it particularly challenging for self-trackers to maintain freedom of thought.

I.The Quantified-Self Movement

*A. What is it?*

Adherents to this movement describe it as a way to attain “self-knowledge through numbers”. It was founded in 2007 by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly from Wired magazine. The quantified-self movement is rooted in the Californian tech scene and aims to explore “what new tools of self-tracking are good for”.

The underlying idea of the quantified-self is that by measuring and tracking, an individual can obtain information about their own behaviors, which in turn, will help them in their self-improvement journey, especially when it comes to health. It is a booming industry and tech companies have gotten the memo. More and more self-tracking tools are introduced in the market regularly, allowing individuals to track everything about themselves from heart rate to food intake or hours slept, and very soon the content of one’s stool.

*B. Why do people self-track?*

Self-tracking is alluring for several reasons:

- Intrinsic Value: Some people like the data collection process in itself without thinking about getting any utility or meaning out of it. It can be a way to quantify and have a sense of order in an existence that can be more often than not chaotic.

- Feedback: This component was advanced by a self-professed self-tracker and I found the idea very interesting. He argues that self-tracking can be a way to obtain “impartial feedback on our life performance”. We go through an education system where our performance is obsessively tracked and then get released into the world without a similar metric, apart from maybe yearly appraisal from our jobs. Without the metric of grades, feedback, it might become difficult to evaluate one’s existence. As we live in a world where success is closely linked to numbers - grades and then revenues - self-tracking can be a way to obtain those numbers allowing us to evaluate the success of our existence.

- Social gratification: People often feel compelled to share these data and present it as objective proof of their accomplishments, notably on social media so they can be congratulated and patted on the back. The aim of that is also to compare oneself to others through an objective metric and thus feel a sense of validation out of outperforming someone else.

- Motivation: It can also be a way to motivate oneself to attain a certain fixed goal because, by monitoring and tracking progress, it’s easier to know at which point you are in the process.

- Performance: In a capitalist society that defines human worth by their level of productivity, self-tracking can be used to enhance one’s performance in terms of productivity, and in turn, one’s sense of worth.

II. The Quantified-Self and Freedom of Thought

Throughout this course, we have referred to freedom of thought as human beings’ sovereignty over their own internal space in which they decide for themselves what is the purpose of the world, the meaning of existence and how they should live. In other words, it’s the ability to think and deliberate free of outside influence.

I think that self-tracking in itself isn’t incompatible with freedom of thought but can, in the contrary, be an expression of this freedom as it is often rooted in a desire to understand oneself and it can allow individuals to take concrete actions to become who they want to be on the basis of their conception of how they should live.

One main critique of the Quantified-Self movement is based on the privacy issues that can often come up with the tools used to self-track as the collected information is often sold to third parties who then use it to not only predict but also change the user’s behaviors. However, this isn’t necessarily a problem as it is possible to self-track without using the different marketed applications but rather by designing a system of data collection which has its back end on a personal server. It is not even necessary to use technological tools to collect data as we can also just write down the collected information in a notebook.

In my opinion, what really changes the paradigm is the fact that there is a strong push for data sharing within the Quantified-Self community. Therefore, even though a self-tracker doesn’t use tools which pose issues of privacy, they are often encouraged to share the collected data in the name of “data philanthropy”. Through surveillance capitalism, this data is used to influence their behavior and the very meaning of what is the optimized self. Indeed, we live in a world in which we are constantly bombarded with suggestions of what to look like, what to buy, who to be. This constant stream of information and suggestions makes it quasi-impossible to independently set the standard of the “optimized self”, it is fed to us.

We can take the example of self-tracking to lose weight. In western societies, health is often conflated with weight. Diet culture and Fatphobia is pervasive and to be healthy means to be thin. The diet industry is a billion dollar one which broadcasts constant advertisements encouraging weight loss to attain health and happiness. Therefore, someone who self-tracks to lose weight will often do so with the idea of becoming an optimized thin self to fit a societal standard of what is healthy without having had the possibility to explore within their own internal space what it means to be healthy.


It, therefore, seems to me that a person who tracks their steps, sleep and food can be free but only if this person does so in a context where he/she is able to use this data without outside influence, which is particularly difficult under surveillance capitalism.

Definitely an improvement. But now the "quantified self movement" disappears on inspection. People measure their lives. Not now, in a movement, but as a species. As the now more-or-less trivial conclusion shows, the next draft would start from a modified question.


Webs Webs

r4 - 02 Feb 2022 - 11:24:12 - EbenMoglen
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