Last weekend the 4th Conference on Quantified Self took place in Amsterdam. Quantified Self is a movement or direction of thought that summarizes many aspects of datarization of the live of people by themselves. The term “QS” was coined by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, who hosted the conference. Thus it cannot be denied that some roots of QS lie in the Bay-Area techno-optimistic libertarianism best represented by Wired. However a second root stems from people who started quantifying themselves to better deal with manifest health problems – be it polar disorder, insomnia or even Parkinson and cancer. In both aspects the own self acts as object and subject to first analyze and then shape itself. Both have to do with self-empowerment and acting on our human condition.
“For Quantified Self, ‘big data’ is more ‘near data’, data that surrounds us.”
Quantified Self can be viewed as taking action to reclaim the collection of personal data, not because of privacy but because of curiosity. Why not take the same approach that made Google, Amazon and the like so successful and use big data on yourself?
Since many QS-people use off-the-shelf gadgets, it is not only important to get full access to the data collected but also transparency on the algorithms that are implemented within. Like Gary Wolf pointed out, if two step-counters vary in their results, it tells us one thing: there is no common concept of ‘What is a step?’. These questions of algorithm ethics become more pressing as our daily life becomes more and more dependent on algorithms but we would usually not have a chance to see into that “black box” and the implicit value judgements that are programmed into it. (I just gave a talk on that specific topic at re:publica last Monday which I will post here later). I think that in no field the problems of algorithms taking ethic decisions becomes more obvious than when data deals immediately with yourself.
What self is there to be quantified?
What is the “me”? What is left, when we deconstruct what we are used to regard as “our self” into quanta? Is there a ghost in the shell? The idea of self-quantification implies an objective self that can be measured. With QS, the rather abstract outcomes of neuroscience or human genetics become tangible. The more we have quantitatively deconstructed us, the less is left for mind/body-dualism.
On est obligé d’ailleurs de confesser que la Perception et ce qui en dépend, est inexplicable par des raisons mécaniques.
G. W. Leibniz
As a Catholic, I was never fond that our Conscious Mind would just be a Mechanical Turk. As a mathematician, I feel deep satisfaction in seeing our world including my very own self becoming datarizable – Pythagoras was right, after all! This dialectic deconstruction of suspicious dualism and materialistic reductionism was discussed in three sessions I attended – Whitney Boesel’s “The missing trackers”, Sarah Watson’s “The self in data” and Natasha Schüll’s “Algorithmic Selfhood”.
“Quantifying yourself is like art: constructing a kind of expression.”
Many projects I saw at #qseu13 can be classified as art projects in their effort to find the right language to express the usually unexpresseble. But compared to most “classic” artists I know, the QS-apologetes are far less self-centered (sounds more contradictory than it is) and much more directed to in changing things by using data to find the sweetspot to set their levers.
What starts with counting your steps ends consequently in shaping yourself with technological means. Enhancing your bodily life with technology is the definition of becoming a Cyborg, as my friend Enno Park points out. Enno got Cochlea-implants to overcome his deafness. He now advocates for Cyborg rights – starting with his right to hack into his implants. Enno demands his right to tweak the technology that became part of his head.
Self-hacking will become as common as taking Aspirin to cure a headache. Even more: we will have to get literate in the quantification techniques to keep up with others that would anyway do it for us: biometric security systems, medical imaging and auto-diagnosis. To express ourselves with our data will become part of our communication culture as Social Media have today. So there will be not much of an alternative left for those who have doubts about quantifying themself. “The cost of abstention will drive people to QS.” as Whitney Boesel mentioned.