At one Quantified Self event, Dave offered a particularly striking comparison between automobiles and bodies, one, he says, his father, a car aficionado, failed to fully appreciate to his own peril. His father’s failure, Dave explained, drove his own interest in digital self-monitoring. His father loved cars and, according to Dave, spent more time in the garage than with his own son. When he became older, he discovered blood in his stool, went for a colonoscopy, but never made use of the information. Eventually he died of colon cancer. ‘He understood the car in a way he never understood his body,’ Dave lamented. ‘He had such a dissociated experience with his own body … and I thought, my god, how is it that we can have sensors and devices in our cars to understand how this thing works and when it will break down, but we have so few things that we know about our body?’”
My dissertation and forthcoming manuscript focus on the promises and failures of digital connections. This work draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork with developers of wearable computing who participate in the international forum called the Quantified Self (QS).
Pundits and critical scholars tend to interpret QS in one of two ways: as a digital trend with worrisome social effects or as a “community” of digital enthusiasts who are operating on the margins of neoliberal health policies (see Lupton, Deborah. The Quantified Self. Polity Press, 2016 and Nafus, Dawn and Neff Gina. Self-Tracking. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016). The passage I quote from page 99 of my dissertation, above, features commentary a QS participant that on the surface exemplifies this take that QS is a community of digital enthusiasts.
This popular and academic framing, however, remains disconnected from the realities of digital entrepreneurialism and the role QS has played within it. I propose to viewed QS as an “interface” in Branden Hookway’s sense (see Hookway 2014). As an interface, QS is not only a screen that brazenly puts contemporary digital enthusiasm on display. It’s a prism that constructs as it refracts digital knowledge and offers alternate perspectives on the dynamics that power wearables entrepreneurialism.
I found that QS primarily attracted digital professionals like Dave who, since the forum’s inception in 2007, have taken on the bulk of the labor associated with organizing and managing QS as an enthusiast community. In these settings technologists do not just approach QS as a cultural found object. They enfold QS into narratives of digital representation that obscure from view the way they vary their positions on data depending on context and audience and how they knowingly operate in the gaps in knowledge, in the spaces between certainty and truth (see Grinberg 2021).
I also evaluate the way the language of enthusiasm that shapes QS as a community disguises the transactional nature of this forum. For technologists navigating an increasingly flexible and insecure work environment, QS offers vital opportunities for networking, reputation-building, and credentialing. In this capacity, QS also acts as one of a growing cadre of contemporary mechanisms that continues to press worker sociality and desire into service of tech-capitalism. Ultimately, this project focuses attention on the way seemingly masculinized innovation that is moved by rational actors is in fact shaped by feminized free and affective labor. While the digital connections and forms of community QS represents are reputed to be enduring and strong, the ties it fosters are revealed as fleeting and strained.
Yuliya Grinberg. 2019. Sensored: The Quantified Self, Self-Tracking, and the Limits of Digital Transparency, 2019, Columbia University. PhD dissertation. https://anthropology.columbia.edu/content/self-tracking-digital-transparency