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Tracking Humanity

Last tended May 12, 2020

Tracking Humanity: The Quantified Self Movement

The introduction and first chapter of my mediocre undergraduate thesis about the Quantified Self movement, cyborg anthropology, technological embodiment, and Western Cosmology.

Written between 2012/2013 for a BA in Cultural Anthropology.

Some of my opinions, and many elements of the self-tracking community have changed since this was written. Yet I'm still thinking along many of the same threads, and exploring parallel ideas.

It's relevant to the rest of my work, but should be taken with a large grain of salt 🙃


The Quantified Self movement is concerned with exactly what you might expect – quantifying the self.

Aligning their identity with units of measurement and numerical data, they seek a self-knowledge that will lead to the improvement of both the individual, and implicitly, the greater society – the supposed ultimate goal of progressing humanity forward.

The ideology of the Quantified Self movement is important to us because it is not only theirs, in many ways it is our own.

Based in ideas native to the Western world that have now reigned for centuries, their curious conceptions about the body and self are ones we share.

Understanding the historical emergence, beliefs, concerns, and interests of this community will teach us about ourselves as much as it does about them.

Beginning with an exploration of the historical foundations of the West, my theory builds off the work of Marshall Sahlins in bringing attention to how we have a very particularly constructed idea of the “self,” as a need-driven and imperfect being living within a dualistically divided body and mind.

Seeking to fix our supposed imperfections, we cultivated the dominance of science and medicine over our natural bodies by beginning to understand our physical form within the metaphor of machinery.

While the Quantified Self movement in many ways ascribes to these beliefs, and is clearly built upon these foundations of imbuing objective, empirical and quantifiable data with legitimacy, they also challenge and seek to revolutionise the modern institutions of science and biomedicine.

Primarily concerned with the generalised knowledge that the two impose upon individual bodies, the Quantified Self ideology believes each singular person should be able to determine their own personal truths and treatments, leading them to establish and advocate for the joint concepts of personal science and personalised medicine.

I discuss how the technological devices pervasively used within the Quantified Self community are leading them to new experiences of embodiment.

This technological embodiment redefines the boundaries of the self.

It engages us in debates over animated agency, emotional intimacy, and holistically interdependent and interconnected systems. It challenges many of our default anthropocentric attitudes towards the world.

These emerging relationships with technology are indicative of those going on within our greater society. Quantified Selfers should be considered the frontier of those fully embracing these new embodiments.

They construct new identities and ways of being through technology, especially through the medium of data.

Massive troves of immaterial online information become representations of selves in the public sphere, as well as potential channels for manipulation and domination on a socio-political level.

Though many have read the data-collection practices of the Quantified Self community as solely self-surveillance, we find they are actually choosing to generate and control their own information rather than wait for greater social and political forces to do it for them.

We are now all implicated in acts of self-quantification and the rise of data-selves by nature of being digitally connected.

A state which raises a plethora of political and personal complications for us to navigate.

If we are already intertwined in a system of data surveillance, self-trackers may be the ones turning the system into a source of identity, positive meaning and empowerment.

Though they are politically resistant in the field of data surveillance, their underlying ideologies still inherently tie them to fulfilling the needs of a capitalist economy.

They strive to be optimal citizens: organised, productive, timely, fit, and responsible, giving off the social perception of a well-ordered and lived life.

This pursuit is driven by a conviction in the natural goodness of capitalism that resembles religious belief, yet one that fails to result in the transcendent state implicitly promised.

The existence of the Quantified Self movement, a collection of individuals seeking to improve and upgrade themselves in order to manage the unreasonably demanding requirements of the capitalist economy using the same ideological base that brought it into being, should lead us to critically question what they mean by seeking “improvement” in the interests of “progress.”

We should ask what we they progressing towards and whether it truly serves their own interests.

Throughout this critical exploration, and despite the occasional bold conclusion, I do not mean to “other” the Quantified Selfers.

When taken in cultural context, their practices and beliefs are reasonable and rational. The ways we enact these same beliefs are simply more familiar to us – we have been performing them for so long they do not seem alien or absurd to our eyes.

Amassing, meticulously graphing, and developing formulas based on the data points of a morning routine puts these convictions into such a stark light that we react with shock, and often quickly move to ridicule those who practice it.

Out of a lack of empathetic understanding (and perhaps some confusion and fear), many have defaulted to portraying Quantified Selfers as a misguided, fringe population numerically desecrating the sanctity of the human self.

My research explores and challenges both this inaccurate portrayal of the community, as well as the notion that we have a sacred pre-defined “human nature” in need of defending.

The movement is not what many take it as.

They are often holistically humanistic rather than reductively mechanical, diverse rather than monolithic, evolving and dynamic rather than static, and critically questioning rather than passively complying.

Above all other qualities, I found the Quantified Self movement to be defined by a diversity and complexity of opinions.

Members expressed wide varieties of dynamic, evolving ideas and contradictory ideologies. To study, think, and write about the movement as a whole concept and bound community was a challenging and confusing task on numerous occasions.

Despite these rifts and differences, the Quantified Self community indeed shares fundamental and core beliefs about the value of self- improvement through quantified self-knowledge, providing them with enough common ground to engage in building a meaningful social world.

Chapter One - An Introduction to the Quantified Self

Heart rate: 67bpm.
Blood pressure: 110/74.
Blood-oxygenation: 97%.
Weight: 126.3lbs.
Hours of sleep: 7.23.
Quality of sleep: 83%.
REM cycles: 5.

Caffeine intake: 126mg.
Steps taken: 2,405.
Calories expended: 809.
Emails received: 54.
Emails sent: 13.
Motivation level: 4.
Stress level: 7.3.

Location: the world of the Quantified Self – the self understood and expressed through numbers, data, and quantified statistics.

Summed up by their tagline “self-knowledge through numbers,” the concept of the “Quantified Self” encompasses a both a cultural ideology and a community of people – who congregate both online and offline – that ascribe to it (Quantified Self 2013).

This distinction between the Quantified Self movement or phenomenon, and the Quantified Self community is an important one.

There is an understanding of a greater “movement” taking place on a social level, believed to be a historical force in itself, with some trackers even calling it “our millennium’s renaissance” (Top Coder Inc 2012).

The movement is driven by specific and historically-located ideas and beliefs guiding this technologically-oriented approach to self-tracking. With it comes an international community whose members self- identify and connect through self-tracking.


What members of this community hold in common is the practice of self-tracking: they collect and store data and information about particular aspects of their life and self.

This practice revolves around designing projects that target specific variables. The kind of things that people choose to track is seemingly infinite – ranging from the common areas of sleep, time, physical exercise, and food intake, to the more creative variable of monitoring of Twitter activity, shower temperatures, snoring, and perceived quality of social conversations (Quantified Self 2013).

It is a running joke within the community that any aspect of life you can imagine being tracked, probably is being tracked a Quantified Selfer somewhere in the world.

Keeping tabs on the self is nothing terribly new: Benjamin Franklin is one historical figure known to have written of his adherence to thirteen key values each day (Dembosky 2011). There now exists an iPhone application where you too can track Franklin’s thirteen prescribed virtues over the course of your day.

Self-trackers often like to harken back to such historical individuals, attempting to convey the message that surveying the self in pursuit of improvement has been a noble and worthwhile activity for hundreds of years (Kelly 2012b).

The practice seems to have been an especially prevalent theme in the history of Western culture, appearing everywhere from religious virtues to nationalistic demands of responsible citizenship.

Appreciating the influence of these historically-based ideas on the current Quantified Self movement is central to understanding how and why it has emerged.

In many ways that is part of the real significance of this movement: self-tracking has long been a part of ourselves and our cultures.

It is a practice that all of us can relate to, and engage with in small ways – one that is not only growing rapidly, but also shifting forms.

Advancements in technology have now infinitely expanded the realm of self-tracking – making the practice exponentially easier compared to the old pen-and-paper method. From body monitors to smartphone applications, we are now enabling a new age of the measured self.

History and Founding

The Quantified Self movement does not begin or end with any single individual or set of people.

Instead of being “founded,” its origin story is told as a natural emergence out of the way human interaction with technology is already taking shape.

It would be more accurate to say certain leaders emerged who encouraged and facilitated the rise of the culture, shaping the phenomenon by giving it a name and a central digital space where they could communicate, organise, and establish their identity.

These leaders were Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly who set up – the website acting as the online hub of the movement.

The two were journalists already invested in exploring the social and personal meanings behind technology when they met as co-workers at the forward-thinking magazine Wired in 2007.

One an editor and one a writer, they began to collaborate over their shared interest in a technologically-driven trend both had noticed gaining ground among their social circles in the bay area of California; “people subjecting themselves to regimes of quantitative measurement and self-tracking that went far beyond the ordinary” (Wolf 2010b).

They attribute the rise of these habits to four factors:

  • The growing ubiquity of personal mobile devices – allowing people to carry powerful computing capacities around in their pockets
  • Advances in the quality, affordability and miniaturisation of electronic body sensors and tracking tools
  • Social media’s normalisation of perpetually sharing intimate information; and the rise of “the digital cloud”
  • The massive increase in capacity of online data hosting and storage, making its collection seem immaterially infinite. (Wolf 2010a; Kelly 2011)

By 2008, the community had grown enough for Kelly and Wolf to feel they needed to establish a supportive limited liability company: Quantified Self Labs (Quantified Self 2013).

Acting as an organisational support, the structure of the company is simple. There are no full time employees and they have a stated goal of “not making organising QS feel like work” (Butterfield 2012:16).

The community aims to promote an egalitarian and democratic power structure by downplaying officiality and hierarchy.

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Maggie Appleton © 2021