Monday, July 23, 2012

The Data Revolution #2: Know Thyself

Why have consumers fallen in love with tracking their daily lives?

"Know thyself." The famous epigraph within the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was meant to warn those seeking guidance to look to themselves before interpreting the Greek god's prophecy of their future. But it may also explain the reason why self-tracking and the Quantified Self is becoming an emerging part of our culture. Human beings, quite simply, are obsessed with themselves, and our individual digital Data Maps might just hold the key to discovering our ideal, perfect selves...

"The Data Revolution Series" delves into the issues and intricacies of our increasingly data-driven lives, from tracking our everyday behaviour to contributing data points for the social good. Based on insights and commentary from technology journalist Nora Young's (@nora3000) first book, "The Virtual Self: How our Digital Lives are Altering the World Around Us", we'll take a look at the pros and cons of the changing data landscape. This second post in the series explores why human beings are enamoured with the idea of the Virtual Self.

Self Discovery and a New Understanding

This first aspect of self-tracking that makes it so alluring to us as human beings is the clarity that data brings to our understanding of ourselves, giving us a newfound sense of discovery as we learn new things about how we live. The data that we generate, Young writes, provides an "undeniably clear picture of how we behave. Maybe," she muses, "seeing my life expressed numerically would show me things that the subjective story I like to tell myself wouldn’t." What Young is getting at is that the Quantified Self makes visible information about ourselves that has been, up until now, invisible. Self-tracking is the idea of “creating a technology to track what is quicksilver and hidden about our lives and behaviours, and to make it visible.”

Our desire for clarity is connected to our desire for self-examination. Young cites Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who connects this idea with the philosophy of seventeenth century philosopher John Locke. It’s "the rise of a notion of the individual who makes a reflexive turn toward self-examination," he explains, the "disengaged subject." The punctual self, as Taylor puts it, is "a self that is ready to apply instrumental rationality to the goal of mastering the self." Carlos Rizo, one of the organizers of Quantified Self Toronto, compares self-tracking to a game, "a game we play with ourselves to learn about ourselves."

As Taylor hints, this game of self-discovery is really about self-mastery. In a way, Young muses, self-tracking is the act of "applying techniques to ourselves, procedures that are designed to craft a vision of the body, and of the self. It is part of the modern project to submit the self to study, to make the self a site of observation and scrutiny, but also to submit oneself to technology in order to meet a performative ideal."

A Culture of Accountability and Improvement

Secondly, there are two pillars of our current culture that make the Quantified Self extremely appealing. The first is our concept of the passing of time, and our desire to not waste it. Laurie McNeill, a scholar of the diary form at the University of British Columbia, says that as use of the clock and calendar became more commonplace in the eighteenth century, a sense of personal accounting naturally followed suit. "Once we became able to record time," she says, “we became interested in how we were using it. Once you have a self and a life that should be lived valuably, you need to account for it." Self-tracking feeds this need to track our use of time.

The second pillar of our current culture is our desire for self-improvement. The popularity of books like The Secret and movements like New Age are manifestations of this newfound obsession. Young calls it a "culture of relentless scheduling and our ideology of self-improvement." Self-tracking can help us change our behaviour for the better by offering us tangible insight into how to live better. People can now make deductions, based on personal statistics, about how to get better at everything we do, from our physical health to our spiritual well-being.

Many self-tracking programs have Feedback Loops that are built into them that are designed to pinpoint changes we can make in order to improve. Young used the example of Adidas' MiCoach app, which gives runners words of encouragement while they're running based on how they're doing. Triggers like these help to remind us, at the right time, how we can do things differently.

Leaving our Legacy

Finally, building a record of our Quantified Self feeds our desire to leave a legacy of our lives, and building up manifestations of our digital existence. Our “disembodied, distracted, digital life” can feel fleeting and inconsequential, Young explains. It creates the urge, and the feeling, to document the physical body, creating relevance and concrete evidence of the physical manifestation of our digital personas. "It is a way," she says, "of creating and reinforcing a self that has substance, history, and, most importantly, physicality."

The data we generate, Young muses, gives us a much needed sense of being permanence. "Today’s urge to document the self is an attempt not just to assert the self but also to ground the self, to tether it, to re-embody it, to give it heft and substance. Tracking the body, documenting where it is precisely in time and space, actually only makes sense in a culture of distracted disembodiment and bodily alienation. It is a way of saying 'Look, I exist! Here is my body, what I consumed, how I moved my body through space and time.'"

This attitude, in a way, is connected to our desire to leave evidence and artifacts for those that come after us to discover. We have, Young says, an “impulse to document ourselves, to create a digital track record. It’s a continual registering of presence, and is, in a sense, a way of being 'seen' by others. It’s the urge to create the self as a documented, persistent, even curated object." She writes, "The pattern of our data seems to carry an explanatory power, a sense that life isn’t random or arbitrary, that, over time, the trivial acts of our mundane daily life shape a picture of who we are. Human beings create narratives about who we are in order to communicate to ourselves, and to others, what matters to us."

We've seen how the self-tracking trend has emerged, and why the idea of the Quantified Self is so appealing. But what about everyone else? What does the Data Revolution mean for society as a whole? Make sure to catch the next post in "The Data Revolution Series"!

1 comment:

  1. The ¨E¨ of Delphi and the "know thyself"
    Read an interesting point of view concerning
    the ¨ E ¨ of Delphi:


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