Student Conference

Student Conference “Quantification, Knowledge, Media, and the Self”, University of Mannheim, 5 May, 2017


Research Group: On Theory of the Quantified Self

Michelle Kacavenda, Irina Michaud & Linda Sellerberg

Self-Tracking, self-surveillance, personal metrics or the quantified self refers to the practice of recording one’s activities, moods, health and bodily functions. In this presentation, we provide an overview of the concepts and ideas introduced by Nora Young, a Canadian broadcaster and writer, and Deborah Lupton, a centenary research professor at the University of Canberra. By focusing on Young’s The Virtual Self and Lupton’s The Quantified Self, we provide a general outlook on the theoretical background of the self-tracking practice. To start off, we have a closer look at the tool, that made it so easy to self-track: Web 2.0. Then we continue with the concepts of ambient awareness, the importance of the geoweb, the collective psyche, the definition of the digital doppelgänger and the creation of data maps. We go on by giving an overview of the five different self-tracking modes, the concept of data vitality and datafiction and touch upon the culture of embodiment. By introducing these basic theoretical theories and concepts of self-tracking, we lay the ground for the following practically-oriented presentations and also provide a critical outlook on selftracking, its advantages and risks.

Research Group: Case Studies

Mareike Fillsack, Janne Schönberger & Hannah Wieners

Our presentation shows how self-quantification is integrated in the daily life of individuals. Therefore, the chosen examples come from the three different areas – personal motives and forms of self-quantification, health and data and economical and institutional motives of self-quantification. In the first part, we present Stephen Wolfram creator of Mathematica and owner of one of the world’s largest collections of self-tracked data whose may seem trivial at first glance, it functions as the basis for further research and is thus extremely valuable. The second self-tracker is Christoph Koch, who self-tracked his life for six weeks and gain valuable insight into the advantages and disadvantages of individual self-tracking. Today, health institutions start to explore the advantages of a preventive medicine that no longer only reacts to illness but actively prevents these. To fully exploit the advantages, the individual is interconnected with health tracking gadgets, public health professionals and health advisors that together help to collect and interpret individual health data. Lastly, the presentation explores the use of self-tracking data in an economic environment as insurance companies increasingly offer policies based on self-tracking data of their customers. Auto insurance companies offer policies whose calculations are based to a certain degree on the driving behavior of the individual. Data like acceleration or speed are analyzed. Companies that develop navigation systems also rely on the self-tracking data of their customers and even sell the anonymized customer data to governments and other public institutions. As the presentation illustrated, many forms of self-tracking and self-quantification exist. Often, the data created by the customer on a voluntary basis is used for more purposes than pure self-interest. Most of the time, the use of the data is in line with the interest of the individual but sometimes institutions and companies pursue different intereststhan the individual.

Research Group: Groups of Advocates

Daisy Dunstan, Lisa Christian & Sophia Weiß

When the acclaimed self-tracker Jon Cousins tells the story about how he weighed his whiskers to find out about their connection to his mood, the reactions to his experiment are diverse – ranging from excitement to head-shaking. However, thousands of people are interested in experiments like this and get together in meetup groups to share their latest discoveries. This research project explores groups of advocates in the quantified self movement reaching from seemingly harmless self-trackers like Jon Cousins to those practicing extreme forms of self-quantification where even our human condition is questioned. Incorporating different perspectives on the development of the QS movement, the findings aim to raise awareness about how far self-quantification can be taken. The first step of thisinvestigation led to theQuantified Self Labswebsite founded by two pioneers in the field, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. Searching through the QS Labs’archives, one dominating trend became apparent: most of the self-quantifiers are concerned with the biology of the physical body. Thus, the second part of our research focused on what is called biohacking, which includes subgroups like DIY-biologists or grinders and deals with hacking the human biological system by applying IT technology. In extreme cases, members of this community also identify with transhumanism, believing that human evolution is merely at its beginning and that technology is the vehicle to further development. By presenting three different perspectives on the topic, our research illustrates that self-quantification methods can be a fertile field for radical organizations and the beliefs involved with self-tracking can take on an almost religious character.

Research Group: Interviews

Sanna Anselm & Marie-Luis Rothenberger

The quantification of the body can be traced back to the early 20th century with the Harris-Benedict-Equation. Within 100 years of research and technological advancement, (self-)quantification has begun to pervade everyday life and has developed into a contemporary social movement. Most studies in the field of self-quantification focus on self-tracking in regard to health, fitness and weight loss. Our project presents a personalized point of view on quantification and the effects on the self-tracking individuals in connection to social pressure entailed by the neoliberal self, which is the attempt to always be the best version of oneself, by concentrating on a personal weight loss story and retrieved data of a self-tracker from January 2014 to June 2015. In addition, we conducted a quantitative survey with 50 male and 50 female participants from our pool of peers as well as an interview with Wasilios Wamwakithis, a personal trainer and certified expert in nutrition and fitness. Although the personal weight loss story with its extensive data log and the expert interview already attest to the importance of self-quantification, more than 50% of the survey’s participants stated that they used self-tracking devices and consider them beneficial. Hence, our study showed that quantification is indeed an essential and effective method to control weight, and to improve health and other body related conditions. Interestingly, gender and age differences are clearly visible, with more women using self-tracking methods than men and 15-29 year-olds are the group with the most self-tracking usage. However, there are some limitations to the  quantification of personal data and in some instances,  self-tracking might even entail negative side-effects such as stress, discomfort and restriction of life quality for the individual.

Research Group: Self-Tracking and the Arts

Elizabeth Milne, Friederike Saelzler & Anna Sergi

Our presentation will examine the role the Quantified Self movement plays within the context of modern art and politics. Our research began by investigating why art is created and we identified several different functions of art. For this presentation the focus is on art as a means to chronicle life events and to critique social, political and cultural systems. Using examples of Quantified Self Art, we explore how artists are making use of data collected through the benefit of modern technologies such as mobile apps, GPS trackers, biometric monitors, etc., and how they are using modern technologies in the creation of their art. We also examine how Quantified Self Art is critiquing the North American and Western European neoliberal ideology. We conclude our findings with the realization that art and politics play a crucial role in the way the Quantified Self is perceived and presents itself. Furthermore, the presentation showcases the potential investigation of a large number of artworks with similar approaches.



Photo by Marie-Luis Rothenberger