When we really become hybrid beings

December 16, 2019

Digital self-tracking has some clear-cut applications for specific groups. Most athletes would not stand a chance if they didn’t apply self-tracking to optimize their training schemes and improve their performance. And for certain people with health problems or chronic diseases, self-tracking is essential to the preservation of their health. But what about the rest of us? There are some great advantages to self-tracking, especially in terms of health, but for it to become valuable in the daily life of the ordinary user, two important challenges need to be overcome.  

Our observations

  • Some studies have shown that about one-third of users stop using an activity tracker within six months after purchase. The most commonly named reasons among the dropouts: no clear health benefits, irritating instead of motivating features and meaningless data representations.
  • However, according to Wired, these studies were mainly conducted in when the activity trackers were still quite one-dimensional, had terrible batteries, and most importantly, lacked sticky features. But the flagship wearables of the industry-leading companies are improving rapidly. Software and user experience are starting to get better, more data is aggregated from different sources, data visualizations are becoming more compelling and features more motivating.
  • In a clinical setting, neurofeedback is a therapy that uses real-time displays of brain activity, mostly through an electroencephalogram (EEG), to regulate and train different brain functions. This is used, for example, to improve the concentration of patients with attention deficit disorder (ADD).
  • Outside the hospital walls, hypnotherapy apps such as Mindset claim to use neurofeedback with a headphone picking up brain activity. However, scholars question the reliability of this method and even in a scientific setting, the results of neurofeedback are mixed.
  • Although the effects of neurofeedback are questionable, the interface is appealing and promising for self-tracking practices. Often, self-trackers collect data and this data is visually represented and communicated back to the user through a Graphical User Interface (GUI). With apps such as Mindset, the interface is more intuitive, as it works on verbal sensory feedback. The headphone tracks our brain activity and if it realizes our mind is wandering it will play a small tune, so we can refocus. The ultimate goal is to make our brain rewire and for us to automatically refocus before we have completely lost concentration.

Connecting the dots

As we have written before, self-tracking has become omnipresent. For professional athletes, wearables can be very helpful for improving performance and devices with automated sensors can be lifesaving for patients with heart conditions or diabetes. However, for the general audience, self-tracking is often not very spectacular in terms of self-knowledge or empowerment. For most of us, digital self-tracking is fairly one-dimensional and straightforward, we use meditation or sleep apps to improve productivity or sleep quality or wear an activity tracker to improve overall fitness. This status-quo of self-tracking contradicts the implicit beliefs of the self-tracking paradigm: that through the use of wearables we will get to know our inner self better than through our sensory experience and this will empower us in unforeseen ways.

Theoretically, self-knowledge and empowerment are the most important arguments for partaking in digital self-tracking. Technological devices and biosensors are able to expose the mysteries of the body and precisely this potential gain in self-knowledge can’t be detached from the perceived increase in control over ourselves. Knowledge is power, self-knowledge is empowerment. Data insights can be used to act upon it, and thereby change behavior.

This datafication of life presupposes the metrification of life and, in Western society, numbers have a certain authority and resonance. Consequently, self-tracking leads to the objectification and demystification of our bodies. Ultimately, the idea is that the body will become obedient to the reflexive calculations of the self, “dead” material for gradual improvement and mathematic optimization.

But what about the real world? If the self-tracking paradigm wants to live up to these high expectations and become valuable for the mainstream, it needs two overcome both a technological and a socio-cultural hurdle.

The technological challenge of self-tracking practices is to build multi-dimensional data assemblages of humans, integrated into preferably a limited number of platforms, and with a friendly and visually appealing user interface. This requires a multitude of sensors and the capacity to correlate raw data to actual problems or life goals. From that perspective, the challenge is mostly technical and, barring the privacy issues concerning sensitive health data, gathering and integrating more personal data into a single platform seems a solvable challenge for big tech companies.

However, whether self-trackers will succeed in mastering the body or end up slaves to their data assemblages, ultimately depends on something else: the way they “negotiate” with the collected data and make sense of it. Self-tracking doesn’t merely represent our body in a visually appealing way, data representations change our concepts of selfhood and embodiment as we become new hybrid beings.

Digital self-tracking causes a partial shift in bodily attentiveness from direct perception to external measurements. Broadly speaking, this happens in two different ways. The first entails a negotiation between a direct sensation and its digital counterpart. Take our heartrate, we feel our heart beating but at the same time observe a number on our watch. The second negotiation is more complex, because, as we stated earlier, trackers and sensors could also reveal things about ourselves which we are not able to sense directly. In a clinical setting, this is an everyday occurrence (e.g. MRI scan, ECG, blood tests, etc.). This second type of consideration will be an incredibly challenging task for individuals who desire to fully exploit the advantages of self-tracking. Data practices demand sense-making of the data and sense-making requires a complex interplay of bodily attentiveness, logical thinking, knowledge, and knowhow.  

Especially with regard to health and disease, we might overestimate our capacities to intervene in a way that’s beneficial to our health. In our society, notions of health and disease are mainly grounded in scientific knowledge and concepts and thus are complex phenomena, often characterized by multicausality. In this regard, 99% of us will most likely always remain laymen and might therefore end up doing ourselves more harm than good. Furthermore, scholars have shown that self-tracking might empower us, but might also have adverse effects. For example, research on sleep apps has shown these applications do more than give a neutral indication of sleep quality. There is a normative aspect hidden underneath the “neutral representation” (e.g. when the app tells people they’ve had low quality sleep, they start to behave accordingly and feel more tired during the day). Instead of empowerment, fixation and dependence on the sleep app are the results. As sociologist Deborah Lupton states, data has a capacity for betrayal.

We can think of several solutions and paths forward to prevent some of the above scenarios. A pragmaticapproach would be based on trial-and-error: when we don’t know what the reason is for the way we feel or behave, and we don’t ask why, we can change behavior patterns and simply observe whether we improve or not.

Another option might be to try distinguishing and subsequently limiting the consumer applications of self-tracking practices. Solving general health and well-being issues such as returning stomach complaints could be required to have a formal quality mark or an instantly automated referral to professionals. On the other hand,self-tracking devices might be perfectly able to assist us in daily endeavors, for example, helping us concentrateor stabilizing mood swings. In real life, however, this distinction will be hard to make.  

Hence, both options have their pitfalls, but they are pragmatic efforts to realize some of the high expectations of self-tracking without too many drawbacks. Only when that is achieved can self-tracking become really valuable for the ordinary user.


  • In the future, more tactile interfaces and interactivity between users and data could make self-tracking more in appealing and intuitive. Neurofeedback, voice tones, and haptic responses are possible feedback mechanisms that don’t require us to constantly “leave” the body by looking at numbers.
  • Wearables aren’t only useful for self-monitoring and self-optimization; their data mappings and visualizations also act as means for self-expression. They play a role in the narrative we tell ourselves and others. In this regard, in the future, data visualizations could become more important in social media and platforms facilitating such forms of conspicuous self-tracking would have a competitive edge.

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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