Review of Dawn Nafus (ed.), Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2016), 243 pages, paperback $27.00.
Reviewed by Phoebe Moore
Publisher website: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/quantified
We have, in the 21st century, moved into a new series of fascinations of biosensing, where our autonomic systems or an autonomic ‘self’, largely out of bounds for our own knowledge and understanding before now, are available. ‘Autonomic’ refers to the nervous system of a physiological self but the extent of our autonomic selves would not otherwise be knowable or known but through sensory tracking devices now available to us. Biosensing, biohacking, biometrics and biopower are all part of a contemporary movement of intimate and intensified measure and are all terms that Dawn Nafus’ collection Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life (2016, MIT Press) deals with. The book deals with questions of measurement and tracking with the use of sensory technology and methods. This review considers where this collection sits in the literature and theoretical debates.
biosensing, self-tracking, quantified self, biometrics, biopower
Diarising, quantification of activities and self-experimentation are not new obsessions. Sanctorious of Padua, in the 16th century, weighed himself before and after meals, weighed his meals and then weighed his excrement (Neuringer, 1981: 79). In 1664, when King Charles II was 34, the King ‘had the Curiosity of weighing himself, very frequently, to observe the severall Emanations of his Body, before and after sleep, Tennis, Riding abroad, Dinners and Suppers: and that he had found he weighed lesse after Tennis, by two pounds three ounces (but the King drinking two draughts of Liquor after play, made up his weight;) after Dinner, by four pounds and an halfe’ (Corden, 2013). Dali is said to have meticulously measured his excrement. Benjamin Franklin kept his moral compass in track quite explicitly through daily self-examination and keeping track of his actions in a little book which contained a ‘page for each of the virtues’, one of which was temperance, where the subheading stated ‘eat not to dullness: drink not to elevation’. A grid beneath listed the various types of violations one might commit in relation to the virtue along a timeline of days. Franklin would make a ‘little black spot’ for ‘every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day’. Buckminster Fuller was an avid self-tracker and gave himself the nickname ‘guinea pig b’. He kept a scrapbook diary about his day to day life and his ideas.
We have, in the 21st century, moved into a new era of biosensing fascinations, where getting to know our autonomic systems or an autonomic ‘self’, largely out of bounds for our own knowledge and understanding in the past, is now available. ‘Autonomic’ refers to the nervous system of a physiological self where the mind and body are less separable than mainstream Cartesian modernism assumes (Moore and Robinson, 2016). ‘Autonomic’ comes from the Greek, ‘auto’ or ‘self’ + ‘nomos’, or ‘law’ and means ‘self-governing’. The extent of our autonomic selves would not otherwise be knowable or known but through new technological sensory tracking devices that the self-trackers of the past could only have imagined. Through intensive and long-term measurement via wearable technologies, as has been revealed by ‘quantified self’ exploits, people have begun to track movements, activities, emotions and attitudes in a quest to gain more intimate knowledge about themselves, to control, modify, regulate and understand ourselves. Getting to know the most intimate aspect of the self is pursued through looking for long term patterns in our exercise, sleeping, steps and other movements, eating habits, body temperatures, exposure to the elements including sunshine and pollution. This fits with a range of other personalised pursuits which contribute to individualisation and even potentially to narcissism. Biosensing, biohacking, biometrics and the encompassing possibilities for relations of biopower are all part of a contemporary movement of intimate. Tales of intensified measure and self-knowledge form Dawn Nafus’ collection Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life (2016, MIT Press). The book deals predominantly with questions of measure or the ‘quantified’ with the use of sensory technology as well other methods.
Biosensory quantifying and tracking started in health circles with devices ranging from lapel cameras for Alzheimer’s patients to devices used to measure blood glucose for diabetes patients. Health and fitness advocates further developed such products to help athletes track and enhance performance. With the use of radio frequency identification (RFID), Bluetooth, triangulation algorithms and infrared sensors, a variety of wearable devices entered the market in the early 2000s including Nike Fuelband, Fitbit One, and Bodymedia Armband which guide people in finding our autonomic selves. But the autonomic self was now to be attainable through a mixture of physical, psychological, biometric, quantifiable, sometimes topographical attributes. In January 2013 the Pew Research Centre’s Internet and American Life Project Tracking for Health project showed that 69 per cent of adults track health indicators for themselves or others. ‘The battle for space on your body’ (Spence, 2013) was fully underway. Indeed, 2014 was said to be the ‘year of wearable technology’ (Spence, 2013) with the launch of Google Glass and with the flooding of products offering a range of personal enhancement and self-experimentation devices. In 2016, 1 in 5 Americans own a wearable fitness device and 56 per cent believe it will lengthen their lives (Pennic, 2016).
People are attracted to the longitudinal dimensions of quantified self data because it allows individuals to see patterns and trends in behaviour that can be linked to other life factors or circumstances. The data allows individuals to accumulate and interpret intimately subjective experiences. The ‘most quantified man on earth’, Chris Dancy, is one of the first to commit to micro-analysis of himself through first connecting himself to over five sensors per day. He started this project during a period of where he felt life pressures were getting on top of him. Mr Dancy was just as interested to know about the quality of the air around him as he was in knowing how much liquid he could drink before sleeping without having to get up to use the facilities, with how self-tracking could help him with weight loss. Over time, Dancy has used up to 700 sensors, devices, applications, and services to track, analyse, and optimize his life, his website tells us: from his calorie intake to his spiritual well-being. The sensors in his house measure his REM sleep, pulse, skin temperature and are placed even in his bedroom and bathroom to find correlations across aspects of his life. Dancy documents every activity at work in his Google Calendar, recording tweets, taking screenshots of all online activity so that he has a timeline of his entire work life. Dancy indicates on his website that quantification has allowed him to see connections of ‘otherwise invisible data, resulting in dramatic upgrades to his health, productivity, and quality of life’. Dancy became quite politicised after his experiences with self-tracking and actually states ‘if you can measure it, someone will, and that somebody should be you’ (Finley, 2013).
Nafus’ collection provides a series of studies on biosensing technologies in this contemporary sense and looks for relevant conversations ‘where they are’, rather than perhaps where academics might imagine they are. To capture real-life conversations, Nafus has recruited some research from outside the traditional ivory towers and herself works for the internet company Intel. The fusion between academic conventions to theorise and navel gaze on the one hand and research that is more committed to day to day practices, on the other, is inspiring because it facilitates communication between a new cadre of informed experts on a metrics driven cultural turn. The split between academic life and real-life however has been shrinking for some time as higher education has been considerably impacted by privatisation and pressure has mounted to make an impact on groups outside known epistemic communities. So, this book fits well with that trend in ‘everyday life’.
In terms of theoretical positioning, in the book’s introduction, Nafus muses that the availability of expansive big data is linked to the attractions of fitting the self into pre-set categories (that one believes one has created). This potentially becomes instrumental to a panoptical echo chamber where power is increasingly hard to identify but thus, is stronger. Foucault described biopower as a security that becomes centrifugal, a fictitious force that expands to include more and more activities and events including production and thought processes, psychology and human behaviours and biosensory tracking can be theorised along these lines. This is the ‘new surveillance’ Gary T. Marx began to talk about in the 1980s where watching can be carried out on anyone, anywhere and at any time, for no reason at all. The everyday, then, is particularly important for a discussion of quantification of selves and tracking. Self-quantification could be a way to recover from alienation in everyday life or a way to achieve authenticity and to resolve life’s contradictions. Situating arguments into the texts of Lefebvre and DeCerteau would have strengthened Nafus’s collection precisely because of the editor’s methodological choices to put empirical work at the heart of this exposition. In any case, the book is a nice addition to the literature on new techniques of personal measure including research on biometrics, function creep and power relations (Ajana, 2013; Pugliese, 2010); research on new techniques and justifications for surveillance Schneier, 2015; Marx, 2002); the quantified self and digital labour (Till, 2014; Moore, 2015; Moore and Robinson, 2016); self-tracking and big data (Crawford, Lingel and Karppi, 2015; Nafus and Sherman, 2014); motivation as related to self-tracking (Lupton, 2014; Ruckenstein, 2014) and others.
Nafus’s collection is split into three sections, firstly ‘Biosensing and Representation’, where Kragh-Furbo (et al) look at DNA based biosensing data practices; Sherman theorises data in an age of ‘digital reproduction’ placing concepts in the theorisations of Walter Benjamin; and then Day and Lury look at tracking as a ‘stitch in time’ (56) or recursive fractals whereby patterns of observation are complicated by the relations between observer and the observed. Finally, in this first section, one of the founders of the movement, Gary Wolf, outlines the beginnings of the Quantified Self movement and writes eloquently about the reverse engineering that self-tracking allows. He notes that approaching the future with intention allows people to feel in control of their destinies simultaneous to being constantly expectant for a return, in ‘anticipation of returning, like Hansel with his crumbs’ (72).
The next section delves in to the ‘Institutional Arrangements’ where quantifying the self is appropriately contextualised. Nissenbaum and Patterson look at biosensing and health privacy. This chapter addresses some of the ‘dark side’ (Moore and Piwek, 2016) of tracking that my own work has dealt with. Health and medical tracking have legal implications in the areas of privacy and data protection and these authors look at policy frameworks and the cultural context for these emerging practices in workplaces and elsewhere. Fiore-Gartland and Neff then look at the ‘political economy’ of the data accumulated in biosensing and asks to what extend DIY medicine is crucial for full democracies. Greenfield then presents her chapter ‘Deep data: Notes on the N of 1’ dealing with issues around self-tracking in the context of care for the self and others. Mehta returns to privacy issues in consumer health innovations and is concerned about the overlaps in the needs base of so-called ‘consumers’ and ‘patients’ and advocates issues of privacy in both categorisations.
‘Seeing Like a Builder’ then looks at experiments with open health and data sharing. The first chapter in this section is made up of a transcript of an interview Nafus held with Deborah Estrin who is a founder of Open mHealth. The interview reveals the difficulties in sharing data and tensions in interoperability. Then we see an empirical example outlined by March Böhlen where this ‘artist-engineer’ outlines a range of uses of biosensing in the public realm and notes cultural differences in the USA and Indonesia in how data is shared and used. Taylor then looks at the way data is a symptom of our relationships with machines and unpicks the practices of bike riding and Health Patch biosensory data collection to search for ways that data could communicate across platforms. Finally, Gregory and Bowker look at the ethics in data citizenship as relating to ‘belief and hope in altruism, reciprocity, and immanence’ (222). Given this fabulously optimistic conclusion, I wondered whether the book would have benefited in fact from even more real life stories of data sharing and collaborations in tracking communities.
This is a great book for people interested in digital health and self- and other-tracking (Moore, 2017fc) and contributes to a growing literature. It is a methodological triumph and I have suggested how texts can provide a basis for further theoretical interventions and extended ontological commitments. Researchers in biosensing as it progresses also need to take a deep look at emerging resistance, hacking or cheating in self-tracking stories. Other scholars have celebrated the potentials that technology offers for social protest (Castells, 2012; Gerbaudo, 2012) and collaborative practices (Bauwens, 2005; Benkler and Nissenbaum, 2006). However, lines of recuperation must be borne in mind. When geographer Christian Nold designed a practice of biometric mapping of the emotional effects of environments, he intended a Situationist-style subversion of abstract mapping, and greater social consciousness of the stress caused by busy roads. He was ‘shocked’ to find that corporations and states were enthusiastic to adopt his research, noting that ‘my device… had struck a particular 21st century zeitgeist’ (Nold, 2009: 4). This shows the difficulties of deploying biosensory tracking as counter-power. We are facing a struggle over encroaching subsumption of the possibilities for resistance to tracking and monitoring of everyday life. We have pointed out ‘refusing to share [data] is becoming a political act’ (Moore and Robinson, 2016: 2787). Nafus’s collection deals with these issues and provides an excellent platform for research in this area.
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Dr Phoebe Moore researches and publishes in the areas of technology, work and governance. Dr Moore works at the University of Middlesex, London in the Law and Politics department as a senior academic. She is an internationally known expert on the quantified self at work. She works with companies, trade unions and charities’ on the issues to do with digitalisation of work. She has been invited to give public talks for such organisations as Wellcome Trust, the Victoria and Albert museum and Nesta. Her email address is [email protected]