The growing obsession with self-tracking and the use of wearable technology to improve our health may also affect our sense of identity, according to digital media researcher Sophie Uesson.
With the rapid rise of the Quantified Self movement over the past few years, more and more people are collecting more and more data about themselves. Whether it’s your steps, miles, heartbeats, calories, weight, blood sugar, sleep patterns, dreams or mood you want to log – there’s no shortage of wearable gadgets and mobile apps to aid your quest for a healthier and more productive life.
According to a 2013 report by market research firm ABI, an estimated 485 million wearable computing devices will be released annually by 2018, and 61 percent of the market is currently attributed to sport or activity trackers. It’s a growing market that used to be exclusive for digital natives, but with the innovation of wristbands, smart watches and devices by tech market leaders such as Apple, Samsung and Google, the market is slowly becoming mainstream.
Pondering what implications ‘lifelogging’ might have on health norms and body ideals, Sophie Uesson decided to research this topic for her Master’s thesis in digital media at Goldsmiths University of London: To Live is to Keep Track: Self-tracking and the Price of Finding the True Self.
TECHNOLOGIST What is it about self-tracking and health monitoring that fascinates you?
SOPHIE UESSON I find it interesting that a phenomenon which has existed since the Greek epoch is suddenly reborn and automatised in a new technological shape, creating a market with big potentials. This phenomenon used to be measured and analysed by the human mind but is now ‘taken care of’ by devices which automatically categorise and compare people with set standards. What interests me is how, if so, the process of automatisation affects how we see ourselves as human beings and what type of power and norms that are produced and reproduced through this.
TECHNOLOGIST So how does constant self-tracking affect our sense of identity?
SOPHIE UESSON I’m neither a psychologist, nor a health expert but I find two aspects of health tracking which may affect our sense of identity. There is the social sharing aspect, where you constantly share your success with friends and others in your social networks, thus showing of your own ‘healthy identity’ and comparing it with your network. The other aspect is the contest against yourself and the feeling of a never ending improvement of your own identity. An example of this may be an improved result in time or length during your weekly run – there could always be improvement in your result and you could always change your identity in that way.
TECHNOLOGIST You argue that, in the context of self-tracking, the body may be seen as a machine where certain parts may be exchanged or optimised, and in this human-machine setting, the human is often forgotten. How?
SOPHIE UESSON What I mean is that the discussion of futurism, singularity and transhumanism evolves around technology and makes a clear cut between human and technology instead of seeing them as one entity in symbiosis. When exploring biotech and biomedia you can’t really define where human/technology begins. Is a bionic hand technology or human for instance?
TECHNOLOGIST You’ve also had some personal experience with self-tracking. Did this influence your decision to research the topic?
SOPHIE UESSON It sure did. In my early research phase I started using Moves in order to track my steps and movement around London. At first it was just for fun but I slowly realised that I started to become concerned about counting my steps and fell into ‘the health prescription’ of reaching 10.000 steps a day. This made me reflect on other health prescriptions around us and how they affect people’s everyday life.
TECHNOLOGIST What type of wearable technology do you think will have the biggest impact on health?
SOPHIE UESSON I believe that wearable tech will have its biggest impact within medicine/e-health. Insulin pumps have existed for more than two decades and other tracking devices are being invented as we speak; for example a remote-controlled contraceptive implant. It will be interesting to see what role the GP will have in the future and how this type of information may be stored.
TECHNOLOGIST Then there’s the issue of who owns and controls the data. Will we be able to protect our ‘true self’ from being exploited by corporations and governments?
SOPHIE UESSON Without sounding too dystopian; is there such thing as a true self or is the ‘true self’ a reflection of how governments and corporations want us to be? I am somewhat split in the data question as one part of me believes in transparent data and the other part is cynical about surveillance and power. The reaction I want from people reading my thesis is to reflect on how they talk and think about technology, surveillance and power. We are the corporations and governments, as much as they are us.
by Lillian Sando