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.
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.