Theorizing the Quantified Self

Postgraduate Conference

Life Writing in the Digital Age: Quantification, Optimization, and the Self

29 Sep, 2017

Theorizing the Quantified Self

Chair: Juliane Strätz

Unlock your human potential

Personal Genomics, Self-Optimization and Life Writing

For a long time the genome was seen as the “code of life,” a blueprint, recipe for who we are – the ultimate form of life writing, written not in text but in sequences of molecules. While in biology this form of genetic determinism has been renounced in favor of a more complex view, in popular culture and imagination a simplified version of the genome still seems to persist. The completion of the Human Genome Project – the highly publicized attempt to crack “the book of life” – and the following advances in sequencing technology, set the groundwork for what is now known as personal genomics, a 21st century molecular version of the “Quantified Self.” In personal genomics, DNA tests are marketed directly to consumers that promise insights about heredity and ancestry, disease carrier status and health risks, as well as fitness and nutrition dispositions. Such lifestyle genetic tests promise a more profound knowledge of one´s own biology and self and can be used as guidelines for “responsible” choices. Companies like MyInnerGo or DNAfit – from whose tagline the title for this paper is borrowed – offer exactly that: They process the consumers´ DNA and provide them with detailed information about what diets they should stick to, which kinds of sports they are predisposed for, or how well they recover from exercise. Such tests cannot just change the way people think about themselves by reducing their bodies to sets of genetic data, but also offer new avenues of self-optimization (in line with the ideas of the “Quantified Self” movement). Using the aforementioned examples, this paper will analyze how personal genomics changes the way consumers narrate their biological identity and predispositions and how they use their newly gained insights to shape and modify their bodies.

Mirjam Grewe-Salfeld, M.A. Universität Potsdam,

‘Likes’ and the ‘Wicked Problem’

An Ecocritical Reading of Stories in the Social Media, Self-Quantification and Gamification

“What is wrong with us?” Naomi Klein asks in This Changes Everything that facing the threats of climate change, “large parts of humanity are, quite consciously, continuing down the same road” (15). Ecocritics have repeatedly pointed out that this depends on the way climate change has been communicated as well as on the fact that it is a ‘wicked problem’, a complex problem that has many (interconnected) causes. Psychological theories of emotional, temporal, spatial and uncertainty distance explain why we act more promptly on behalf of ‘dangers’ that seem more imminent than climate change and of people we encounter in our daily lives than of the workers who make our products. ‘Storytelling’, e.g. different forms of ‘life writing’, in the social media, often by NGOs, is being used to reduce these distances, and self-tracking can help people to reduce their footprint. Much of the ‘storytelling’ that surrounds people in consumer societies, however, serves to keep the discourses that perpetuate overconsumption and connected with it neocolonial exploitation and climate change going. Large amounts of money are invested in advertising, for instance through influencers’ ‘life and consumption stories’ or targeted advertising on facebook, seen within the stream of friends’ ‘real life’ stories. In focusing merely on the perfection of the self, disconnected from others and the planet, many forms of self-tracking also further a looking away from climate change and neocolonialism. Beginning with a brief delineation of my theoretical approach, this paper will present exemplary analyses of the cognitive effects of both kinds of ‘storytelling’ – those that keep humanity emotionally and intellectually hooked on the destructive patterns of overconsumption, self-centred-optimization and exploitation as well as those that subvert these, inspire prosocial and more sustainable behaviour and emphasize the interconnectedness of selves. As last year has shown, our ‘likes’ are a very political act.

Dr. Sarah Säckel, University of Stuttgart,

Deus ex Data

Forgive me Data because I have sinned

Quantified Self movement has transformed itself into a new kind of datadriven religion in which the body is related as weak and sick and where data allows to
reach the purest body optimization that will finally lead us to the best ourselves. Self trackers gather into communities in which to expose their sins (…I drink too much coffee, I smoke tobacco, I haven’t been running…) and in which the ultimately aim is the redemption and the overcome of the unperfected body into a re-new self. Therefore, we are facing a new era in which the paradigm of deus ex machina has been co-modify into deus ex data. Biometric devices, massive algorithms knows the ultimately truth about ourselves and help us to reach the greek dogma of Know Thyself (gnothi seauton) in the era of the data-centric view. “Answers will come if you get enough data” said a participant during the last Global Conference. The pursuit of health, happiness and empowerment is conducted by the data that our body generates. Quantified Self promises to fulfil theses aspirations. However, is it possible to conceive the body through its metricization? The aim of this paper is to expose the current practises of body optimisation through self-tracking and how through different practises like speculative design can help us to rethink the place of the body in this future optimization, paying special attention to the project presented at QSGlobal 2017 “Prototype for Interactive Underwear” and that can be visited here

Alicia de Manuel Lozano, PhD student at Philosophy Department Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona,