Everybody is a self-tracker

October 29, 2019

Self-tracking practices are ubiquitous, but not every self-tracking activity is the same. For some, self-tracking only happens voluntarily and occasionally for fun, or unknowingly through devices bought for other reasons. People with a chronic disease, however, are often pushed to self-track for their own good. Others are even forced to undertake self-tracking activities, for example, by their health insurance provider. What can we learn from these different kinds of self-tracking and what is the most dominant type in today’s world?

Our observations

  • In his latest book The Inevitable (2018), Kevin Kelly claims[1] everybody will be a self-tracker. According to Kelly, self-tracking practices are indifferent to culture as they result from the internal logic of our worldwide technological environment. His rationale is the following: collecting data about ourselves has become easy and accessible. Sensors have become tiny and cheap and tracking usually doesn’t take more effort than clicking a button. Algorithms organize and map the collected data in profound and visually appealing ways. Last, applications provide clear-cut utilities with intuitive interfaces. Henceforth, self-monitoring will thus be inevitable and omnipresent for everybody.
  • In her book The Quantified Self[2] (2016), academic Deborah Lupton develops a typology of self-tracking activities. In doing so, she hopes the social and cultural issues related to specific modes of self-tracking don’t go unnoticed. Lupton distinguishes five self-tracking modes: private, communal, pushed, imposed and exploited. Her most important criteria are selfhood and freedom. She is mainly worried about the social issues related to coerced and exploited forms of self-tracking as they pose a great threat to freedom in our liberal society.
  • Recently, students at the Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma were forced to wear Fitbits to achieve top marks in health and education classes[3]. Part of their fitness grade was determined by the health activity logged by the wearable. Students had to average 10000 steps and perform 150 minutes of intense activity to be awarded full marks. This is an extreme example of the use of personal data by schools and universities to discipline and normalize the behavior of students.
  • Another social issue of self-tracking practices is the possible abuse of private health data by third parties. This year, several health apps were compromised[4] after it became known they were sharing sensitive health data with Facebook, which wanted to use it to improve its ad services. Health apps such as the ovulation tracker of Flo Health have been reported to use a Facebook-provided tool to share valuable data from the app directly with Facebook. The latter would use the data to match the information with real profiles and target ads for expecting mothers or new parents.

Connecting the dots

Kevin Kelly’s view of self-tracking as ubiquitous and inevitable runs the risk of making “self-tracking” a catch-all term. We then lose the subtle and important differences between self-trackers and their lifelogging activities. Lupton’s typology of self-tracking modes (private, communal, pushed, imposed and exploited) provides a useful alternative, allowing us to critically reflect on today’s world.

Private self-tracking refers to the mode of self-tracking which is completely voluntary. It is undertaken for personal reasons that often include goals such as better health, improved control over mood and sleep, higher work productivity or more efficient time planning. In its most extreme form, it is strictly private and personalized, making it hard to scale or transfer (e.g. members of the Quantified Self (QS) movement invented their own tracking devices, databases and algorithms).

The next mode is referred to as pushed self-tracking. In this case, self-tracking could still be a voluntary act, albeit undertaken in response to an external party. The initial motive for engaging is connected to another agent. The workplace and healthcare sector have become key sites of pushed self-tracking. Although pushed self-tracking is often perceived as a voluntary act, there frequently is a clear benefit to another party. Indeed, the most effective form of coercion is one in which repression isn’t perceived as such.

The third mode refers to communal self-tracking. While we often associate self-tracking with individualism or even narcissism, many self-trackers perceive themselves as part of a community. An important goal for them is to learn each other’s data and realize of collective goals (e.g. the national genome project[5] hopes to improve population health). We see this type of communal self-tracking being advocated with regard to smart cities, environmental activism, local development or sports niches.

The fourth mode is called imposed self-tracking. In this instance, self-tracking has lost any glimpse of voluntary behavior. Self-tracking devices are foisted on people and they are forced to monitor themselves. Companies might require employees to wear specific badges that record geo-location, sound, and physical movement. Employees are “advised” to follow certain self-tracking programs, which are connected to insurance premiums and exclude employees from health benefit programs if they don’t participate, not leaving them much choice.

The last mode is exploited self-tracking. This refers to a second iteration of personal data in addition to the basic utility for the primary users, in which the data is repurposed for the benefit of other parties. As there is significant commercial value to aggregated data, the reiteration of data has become a dominant design principle for companies in all sectors. For example, retailers offer customer loyalty programs with clear-cut personal benefits for consumers, while the implicit motive is the future monetization of the underlying data.

Based on this typology, we can elaborate on some current developments and trends we have discussed recently, namely the rise of mega-ecosystems[6] and decentralized solutions. Last week, we wrote about the age of digital mega-ecosystems. Societies are increasingly aware of the excesses of the centralized digital world (e.g. platform feudalism, surveillance capitalism, privacy scandals, etc.) and these are inherently linked to the exploited and imposed modes of self-tracking. In response, developers are building alternative digital ecosystems such as decentralized stacks, decentralized funding[7], open-source software[8] and data-pricing[9], to break down the walls of the monopolistic and centralized structure of ecosystems. These decentralized alternatives are not likely to substitute today’s platforms entirely and several may co-exist as they offer services their counterparts aren’t able to deliver.

What does this imply for the different self-tracking practices? Since the origination of the Quantified Self movement in 2007, we have seen a gradual shift from the private self-tracking mode to the pushed and imposed self-tracking modes. Generally speaking, we went from the IT nerd with his private database and gadgets to the omnipresent self-tracker with his affordable and intuitive wearables, delivered to him by big tech platforms. For Kevin Kelly, this is the inevitable internal logic of technology itself. At the same time, due to the significant commercial value of data, the communal self-tracking nature of the QS movement was quickly overshadowed by the exploited self-tracking mode. The commercial value of data has been mostly captured by private data silos, perfectly symbolized by big tech companies surpassing the 1000 billion market capitalization.

Nevertheless, in light of current developments and trends, these two dominant tendencies could now face a slight reversal. To begin with, Kevin Kelly only explains the internal logic of closed ecosystems. As a consequence of open and decentralized alternatives, we might observe a reversed trend in terms of freedom and coercion. In the most optimistic view, the mere availability of realistic alternatives already implies a substantial shift in terms of self-tracking modes from an imposed to a more voluntary nature of self-tracking. Furthermore, if data ownership moves from the center to the periphery of the network, we might also encounter a reversed tendency in terms of exploited self-tracking back to self-tracking embedded in communal practices. In that case, data won’t be repurposed commercially without permission or even awareness and control over and motives for data commodification will be transferred back to the community and the users.


Decentralized ecosystems could initiate reversed trends and regain some of the lost freedom of choice and counteract the private exploitation of personal data. However, there is always the possibility that decentralized ecosystems will give rise to new unforeseen forms of coercion and exploitation. An analogy can be found in the combating of inequality. The reallocation of wealth through progressive taxes might diminish economic inequality, but at the same time enlarge the importance of social and cultural capital. Economic inequality is then partly replaced by cultural inequality, visible, for example, in the currently escalating identity politics in Europe. Nevertheless, the decentral architecture and internal logic of the system at least facilitate more degrees of freedom and flexibility to naturally deal with unforeseen consequences of social and cultural developments.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
Read the article
3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
Read the article
4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Economist and philosopher Sebastiaan Crul writes articles on a wide range of topics, including rule of law in digital societies, the virtualization of the lifeworld and internet culture. He is currently working on his doctoral degree on the influence of digitalization on mental health and virtue ethics, having previously published dissertations on the philosophy of play and systemic risks in the finance industry.

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