Book Summary/ Review: The Quantified Self

Brief Summary

In ‘The Quantified Self (2017) Deborah Lupton  presents a critical sociological analysis of self-tracking cultures. She applies a range of sociological perspectives in order to analyse the discourses, technologies, and power relations surrounding these cultures. She also explores the wider political and social implications of the increasing use of self-tracking (sometimes voluntary, sometimes not) in mainstream society.

Self Tracking =  ‘monitoring, measuring and recording elements of one’s body and life as a form of self-improvement and self-reflection’. Self-trackers commonly using digital technologies.

The Quantified Self is a term closely associated with self-tracking, it is actually a movement of individuals who champion the use of self-tracking to increase self-knowledge.

Structure/ general readability 

Chapter 1 defines key concepts,  outlines a brief history of self tracking, the scope of self-tracking practices (it’s not just Fit Bits!) and some very interesting examples of extreme self-trackers.

Chapter 2 outlines sociological perspectives and concepts we might use to analyse self-tracking cultures.

Chapter 3 explores the body and self in self-tracking cultures, applying the above perspectives more specifically to aspects of self-tracking

Chapter 4 explores how data are represented and the meanings self-trackers attach to this data

Chapter 5 looks at the wider political issues of privacy and security of data.

There is also a final reflections section.

While the books is ‘readable’ if you’ve got  a degree in sociology, it probably isn’t if you haven’t. Not really one for the lay person this one. However, given the complexity of the material, it does a good job of making quite heavy going stuff accessible.

The Most Interesting Bits (imo)

  • The increased use of self-tracking devices and ‘datafication’ means it might be useful to analyse individuals not as discrete actors but as part of a transhuman assemblage in which individuals/ software/ code/ and material devices are all networked and mutually influence each other.
  • Self-tracking takes place within the context of ‘data capitalism’ – commercial interests are constantly seeking to commodify the data generated by prosumers.
  • Self-tracking cultures champion a self who takes responsibility for their own well-being through collecting and using data to improve themselves.
  • The self-tracking self is an ideal neoliberal self – they don’t expect much from the state, and they don’t take into considering ‘structural’ factors (class etc) as barriers to self-optimization.
  • Following Foucault, biopower is the main mechanism of control in neo-liberal societies – control of bodies is achieved through surveillance (or ‘veillance’) with individuals taking responsibility for regulating their own actions because they know they are being watch. The self-tracking self fits in perfectly with this model of control, because it fully accepts the role of veillance (and sees it mostly as a positive thing).
  • While the ‘discourse’ of self-tracking is overwhelmingly positive, there are several potential downsides…. E.g. feeling frustrated when the stats take a down-trend, some people end up ‘living for the data’, not necessarily experiencing ‘life’ (stats are ‘more real’), potential harm for OCD people with self-tracking data; quantitative data reduces the complexity of human diversity to digits.
  • Lupton recognises five different ‘modes of self tracking’ to reflect the fact that it is not always voluntary… self-tracking might me pushed on people in authority (especially in sphere of crime control, health and education).
  • Self-tracking takes place within an economic and political context – code/ algorithms/ software/ hardware all limit what can be collected and how data can be presented, and favour certain types of metric over others.
  • Self-tracking and the data collected might be used to exclude people from certain activities (like with insurance)
  • Datafication changes the boundary between the public and the private and raises many questions about data usage rights as ‘small data’ becomes ‘big data’.

FINAL THOUGHTS

IMO self-tracking cultures and the use of digital technology to mediate social life are growing trends, and this book is extremely useful for anyone wanting some analytical tools to help dissect their significance!

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