Tue 05 April 2016
Abstract for a seminar on 'The Quantified Self and the Rise of Self-Tracking Culture' at Aarhus Insitute of Advanced Studies, June 15th 2016
The Quantified Self should be questioned on both counts; the quantification, and the idea of the self. Rather than "self-knowledge through numbers", as Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly would have it, I will argue that the rise of a self-tracking culture is leading to algorithmic colonialism. As a counter power, I propose an approach to wearables that draws on feminist critical empiricism.
The naive vision of the Quantified Self fractures as it is absorbed in to corporate and governmental assemblages. Individual goal setting is replaced by the productive force of predictive algorithms operating across a distributed apparatus. The false flag of individual wellbeing conceals the rise of preemptive environmental interventions.
While the narrative of self-tracking tries to mobilise its empiricism as an empowering form of medical research, the reliance on correlation over causation echoes the idolatry of data science; the substitution of patterns for meaning. At the same time, the elevation of an 'objective' view of the self inherits the problems latent within science itself, the disembodied view from above that Donna Haraway labels 'the God view'. The Quantified Self gets the worst of both worlds; the problems of not being science, and the problematic characteristics that science still has.
In practice, self-tracking at a social level doesn't produce insightful individuals but the kind of entity that Deleuze called 'dividuals'; aspects broken off, and separated for reassembly. The reassembly follows the form that Philip Agre described in the capture model; a modelling of lives that actually remodels them to be amenable to computational manipulation. This is an Othering of the self for extractive value creation, and a transfer of control to the distant metropolis of the data centre. In other words, an algorithmic colonialism.
The irony is that the Quantified Self could also mobilise a feminist critical empiricism, which Haraway couches as an argument for situated and embodied knowledges and an argument against various forms of unlocatable, and so irresponsible, knowledge claims. I will close by exploring the idea of a collective, reflective numeracy that replaces the Quantified Self with a convivial hybridity.