History & Media

International Conference: Laboring Bodies and the Quantified Self
Friday, 05 Oct 2018
Chair: Stefan Danter

Kristina Graff, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

12 Steps to an Optimized Self: Early Forms of Self-Monitoring in Self-Help of the 1920s/’30s

Self-help is a central device for quantifying and optimizing the self. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to assess one’s status quo and how to achieve ‘improved’ states of being. In its action-oriented/performative mode, self-help has the potential to function as a catalyst to introduce and consolidate new normative standards. Intrinsically American in its focus on personal reinvention and navigation of new environments, self-help goes back to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography in which he provided a list of virtues and used charts to track his own achievements.

My paper investigates self-help’s development as a tool for self-optimization by focusing on the 1920s and ‘30s. As I argue, it was during that time that self-help turned into
a form of mass culture and began to circulate self-monitoring instructions on a national scale. The early 20th century was also marked by a variety of changes that required major
adjustments from its citizens: a Fordist economic order followed by a Great Depression; increasing urbanization and secularization among them. Systematically implemented new
quantification tools (e.g. Gallup polls; psychological tests) made it possible to measure mal/adjustment to the new norms. After outlining how the changes of that era led to shifting conceptualizations of the self, I will conduct a close reading of prominent forms of self-help of the 1920s and ‘30s, including self-help books and advice columns. In the close readings, I place a particular focus on the optimization scripts and monitoring tools that the different sources provide and how they frame the body in relation to the emerging age of automatization and mass production.

Philipp Hauss

Instant Nerve-ana or The machine that meditates for you

The Biofeedback practice, which played a significant role in the American alternative health movement and Wellness subculture in the 1960s and 1970s, can definitely be identified as a historical precursor of what is now known as „Quantified self“. The presentation will thus elaborate on the rise of Biofeedback and the utopian and pragmatic potentials that made it so appealing for the cybernetically transformed yet stressed individual of the US postwar decades.

Biofeedback aimed at training the individual to become aware of and control body processes and reactions via media feedback. Biofeedback research was first established at the end of the 1950s by Joseph Kamiya (University of Chicago) and Barry Stermann (UCLA), both proving that brain waves could be actively influenced. Soon, Biofeedback-centers were set up all over the US and the growing supply of biofeedback-home-devices underlines the popularity.

The trainees were meant to experience the therapeutic dialogue as a technologically mediated monologue. Language – whose slips and shifts reveal an unconscious structure – was replaced by signals. Biofeedback even took the place of the Not-Yet-Articulated and outstripped verbal articulation. Where Id was, Ego becomes measurable.

Biofeedback training and biofeedback apparatuses played a central role in the conceptualization of the body as a feedback circuit within the Wellness movement, which started as a US public health concept in 1959. A first Wellness center opened in Californian Mill Valley in 1975. In these centers and programs vital data generated via biofeedback and questionnaire-aided introspection were collected and processed – from the late 1970s increasingly by means of computers and pc-user interfaces. So key features of contemporary self-measuring practices (e.g. measuring in a non-laboratory environment, translating bodily phenomenons into comparable data, computerized processing, exchange and comparison of data within a specific community) were already present and paved the path for today’s “Quantified self” movement.

Jennifer Hessler, UC Santa Barbara, California

Peoplemeter Technologies and the Biometric Turn in Audience Measurement

In the 1980s, changes in the US television industry, particularly the proliferation of cable channels, the competition between cable and broadcast for advertising dollars, and the turn toward targeted advertising, created demand for increasingly specific viewer demographic information. During the next couple of decades, a number of audience measurement companies, including Audits of Great Britain, Nielsen, Percy Co., and Arbitron raced to develop peoplemeter technologies—an era of competition which the press coined the peoplemeter wars. These technologies ranged from remote controls, to infrared body heat sensors, facial recognition technology, and wearable devices. They evoked surveillance-themed rhetoric in the popular press, inspiring criticisms of Big Brother behavior and privacy concerns. In this presentation, I use archival research, technology patents, and interviews with industry professionals, alongside surveillance theory to examine this range of experimental ratings technologies and their relationship to embodied audience labor.

First, I argue that the trajectory of peoplemeter technologies during this era was shaped by the television ratings industry’s inherent reliance on television viewers’ (problematic) participation in the task of being measured. The inconsistent cooperation of participants eventually resulted in a turn away from active peoplemeters, which rely heavily on viewer participation, and toward the pursuit of passive peoplemeter methods.

Second, I argue that peoplemeters marked a turn in audience measurement toward recognition of the body as the ultimate verifiability of audiencehood. Be it the struggle to get a child’s body to reliably push a remote-control button, controversy over using body heat or face scans to measure television engagement, or the challenge of getting participants to wear portable meters, the body was at the center of the struggle over cooperation that shaped the trajectory of peoplemeter technologies. Michel Foucault argues that the body serves as a “political technology” of capitalist production that “becomes a useful source only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.”1 Indeed, as the ratings companies experimented to develop more inventive passive metering technologies, the body became itself a technology: one that, if properly disciplined and utilized in the process of commodification, could make viewers more reliable consumers.

Andreas Hepp, Universität Bremen, Germany

A transnational spread of an idea: The engagement of the Quantified-Self movement as a pioneer community and the emergence of a ‘tracked society’

As it has come to be situated within media and communication research, political economy generally focuses on media organizations and state agencies as highly formalized corporate actors. But when it comes to the making of deep mediatization –that is an advanced stage of mediatization in which all elements of our social world are deeply related to media and their infrastructures – there is another kind of actor that matters, particularly in respect to processes of innovation: pioneer communities (Hepp, 2016). The ‘quantified self movement’ (Neff & Nafus, 2016), the ‘maker movement’ (Davies, 2017), or the ‘hack hackers’ movement (Lewis & Usher, 2014), are but three examples of up and coming pioneer communities.

‘Pioneers’ in this respect are less the ‘extraordinary inventors’ of certain technologies or business models heralded as ‘disruptive’ by innovation researchers, rather they can be seen as operating at the more quotidian heights of innovation. With this in mind and with reference to (digital) media we can distinguish two kinds of everyday pioneers: on the one hand, professional pioneers (pioneer journalists working in a professional domain, for example), and on the other, amateur pioneers. The distinction of these two kinds of pioneers is a relative one insofar as amateur pioneers can refine their pioneering domain in such a way that it becomes an area of professional engagement.

As noted above, at present we can identify three particularly significant media-related pioneer communities that relate to the notion of deep mediatization: the quantified self movement, the maker movement and the community of pioneer journalists. While to some extent related to each other, they differ through the orientation of their practices (the self, manufacturing, publicity), their imagined concepts of media-related collectivity and societal transformation, their events, and the reach of their published works (e.g. websites, journals, reports).

Based on the results of a more far-reaching project on pioneer communities being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), I want to focus my paper on the Quantified-Self movement as a group of pioneers that propelled what is now called ‘tracked society’. This movement has recently grabbed the attention of academic researchers, especially when it comes to individual practices of self-measuring. What is now commonly known as ‘self-tracking’ was once called ‘life-logging’ (Crawford, Lingel, & Karppi, 2015), a practice that began as an artistic and self-experimental comment on human-technology interaction. However, the term quantified self refers to a more specific and well-defined community: following a face-to-face meeting of around fifty people with a shared interest in the field in 2007, two Wired journalists – Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly – launched quantifiedself.com (Nafus & Sherman, 2014: 1787). Their website brings together producers as well as users of respective technologies and organizes conferences based around the possibilities of with self-tracking and practitioners’ experiences of the various technologies associated with it. Local groups are mainly organized as ‘meet-ups’ (meetup.com). Their identity-creating discourse is often driven besides others by (online) publications by Gary Wolf (2009; 2016). Since 2011, the quantified self movement has spread to Europe and has increasingly become related to the health industry (Nafus, 2016; Selke, 2016). In parallel, various industries have designed, produced, and marketed devices specifically related to health-related self-tracking. The ‘quantified self movement’ is driven by a pioneer community whose members share an interest in (media) technologies for practices of the self. When it comes to their ‘imagined concepts’ of societal transformation to a ‘tracked society’, data-focused productions of the self are thrust into the foreground, selves that are dedicated to a ‘new individualism’ that ‘involves concentrating on the self’ while maintaining ‘the exclusion of social groups, organisations or communities’ (Lupton, 2015: 183). While a focus on the self is correct as far as the overall orientation of the quantified self movement is concerned  — enigmatically expressed by its notion of ‘n of 1’ (Greenfield, 2016: 123), the gathering of vast amounts of quantified data with reference to one individual — we nevertheless have to bear in mind that at the core of this movement there remains a community that emphasizes the importance of collectivity and society through the adoption of individual self-measurement. With reference to the changing media environment as discussed, the quantified self movement relates to the possibilities afforded by datafication in an environment characterized by the omnipresence of digital media devices, substantiating the idea that self-quantification is, or can be, possible everywhere and all of the time.

The aim of my paper is to provide a critical analysis of the transnational spread of this pioneer community, that is to reconstruct the engagement of the quantified self movement from the Bay Area to Europe since 2009. The basis for this is a media ethnography in Europe and the US, using qualitative interviews, observations of key events and an analysis of online representations and key texts. To discuss this more in detail, I will argue as follows: First, I will reconstruct the historical developments of the transnational and transcultural quantified self community, the networks of its organisational elite as well as their further activities. On this basis I will consider the extent to which this pioneer community can be treated critically as collective actors of deep mediatization that technologically tries to implement certain implicit models of a ‘tracked society’. This analysis demonstrates a three step development of the quantified self movement, from an ‘anchor of tech journalism’
(2007 – 2009), over a ‘community of reasoning’
(2009 – 2015) to a ‘set of prototyping institutions’
(2015 – the present). This analysis demonstrates how far this pioneer community does not only possess a marked sense of mission for a ‘tracked society’; it also developed ideas of media-related change that can provide orientation for broader social discourses of self-measurement. In this process, the quantified self movement acts as an intermediary between the development and the appropriation of digital media technologies. This analysis permits us to grasp critically current deep mediatisation processes from the actor’s point of view.