Report on the AIAS Workshop: “The Quantified Self and The Rise of Self-Tracking Culture”

By: Rachael Kent (King's College London)

June 2016



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The Quantified Self and the Rise of Self-tracking Culture workshop was a one-day event organized by Btihaj Ajana at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies on 15 June 2016. The purpose of this workshop was to bring together scholars in the fields of self-tracking and the quantified self, surveillance and privacy, and data and social networks, to critically reflect on the impact of these practices upon everyday users. The event examined the ways in which self-tracking devices, platforms and associated practices are transforming how we understand our bodies, our health, and our human capacities through our relation to and acquisition of data. By addressing relevant philosophical, political, social, economic and cultural questions, the workshop sought to interrogate and challenge some of the assumptions and discourses relating to the Quantified Self movement and its motto, ‘Self Knowledge through Numbers’.


Session 1: Hybrid Subjectivity and the Gamification of Self

Paolo Ruffino (University of York)

Games to live with (and die for): speculations on Nike+

Paulo Ruffino’s paper explored the effects and influences that both the technology and his own behaviour had produced on each other whilst using the Nile Fuel wristband. Ruffino presents gamification as a seductive marketing strategy that incorporates game elements within a non-game context. Ruffino argues that such digital health devices and technologies enable a gamification of the self, in which we do not necessarily engage with such devices for health improvement or a specific purpose, but rather these devices are games to live with. Ruffino identified these technologies as enacting a bio-political form of control (Foucault 1980; Shrape 2014) that is both repressive and productive.

Ruffino discussed how engaging with these technologies enables a quantifiable relationship between space and time. As articulated within the Nike Fuel advert, life does not come with a convenient way of measuring movement and ‘movement means a better life’ (Nike Fuel Advertisement 2015). The Nike Fuel advert suggests there is no movement which cannot be quantified. Movement in this sense becomes representative of life. Ruffino summarises by identifying gamification as a practice which promises change and a mutual shift of exercise and movement, but it is arguable that the gamification and quantification does not directly influence change. The game never ends. The relationship we have with gamification devices is like kinship, its open to unpredictability. The cycle of gamification, feedback loops and movement, only comes to an end due to unexpected events, and not due to the game being completed. Completion is never possible.

Jill Walker Rettberg (University of Bergen, Norway)

‘The Machine as Confidante: How Quantified Self Apps Invite Us to Confide in Them’

Jill Walker Rettberg’s paper discussed the diary like aspect of self-tracking. Historically diaries have been written by people to understand themselves better, as a confessional practice. Now, technologies and devices of self-tracking can provide this role, with nudges prompting users to confide in them. Therein is a shift towards speaking with agency and developing kinship and a close relationship with these devices beyond simply self-tracking or acquiring data. Rettberg broadly conceptualizes how the technology we use changes how we see the world, and the ways in which things are presented affects this. Therefore, in relation to self-tracking devices, the representation of the information we track, and the feedback users receive affects how we perceive whichever ‘aspect’ of our lives we are tracking. In conclusion, Rettberg questions how much individuals or users are in charge of their phone or devices, and how these tools are not objective devices but our companions providing narratives to our human lives.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion focused on questions around agency, and how much do these technologies coexist, cohabit and evolve with the users. The subject comes into being by being visible. There was a general consensus that art experimentation had come before QS practice as an interesting and abstract way to critique self-tracking practices. Questions were proposed around when is a good time to stop self-tracking and how do we make the decision to step back from the repetitive act. How does self-quantification end? Intuition was identified as a driver to decide when to stop, as gamification and self-tracking can be a continuous cycle.


Session 2: The Quantified Self at Work

Chris Till, Leeds Beckett University

Working bodies: work, exercise and the valorization of productivity in neoliberalism

Chris Till’s current work explores the conceptual and ethical impact of self-tracking, and the relationship between exercise and capitalism. In this paper, he discussed the ‘wellness’ initiatives that businesses are encouraging their employees to adopt, and the aligning of exercise with work. Within these initiatives these applications are presented to the employees as a means to a particular kind of ‘healthy’ life, which Till argues is consistent with the demands of neoliberal capitalism. Therefore, the goals of these ‘wellness’ initiatives for employees are presented as improving health through ‘activity’; the body is seen as a tool of productivity. Till argues that work is becoming central to our lives, and self-tracking enables a ‘valorization of activity’, and the ‘reproduction of productive bodies’. So why do wellness programs exist? asks Till. He argues that the individualizing processes of self-improvement through tracking, internalizes the ‘entrepreneurial self’. This ‘entrepreneurial self’ is a key discourse within neoliberal capitalism; whereby the individual or employee is incited to become more competitive and driven, which is often framed through wellness initiatives as ‘empowering’ (Brockling, 2016). We can identify this enactment of neoliberal rationalities across many different facets of our lives, be it health, leisure, and work as Till outlines. What is particularly interesting about Till’s paper, however, is how businesses advocate and encourage users to engage within these regulatory frames, but present this body improvement through activity and productivity as being in their own best interests, as supported by the business-driven initiatives. In turn, Till argues, this draws an emotional engagement and relation between the employer and the employee, whereby the employer becomes a supportive figure and enabler in the health ‘improvement’ of its employees. Furthermore, engaging with these initiatives as a collective can enhance the emotional attachment to one’s colleagues, and further entrench the employee within the initiative practices. Till concludes by outlining how the ‘symbolic value’ of wellness initiatives is that of the ‘employer brand’, the business presents itself as caring and supportive to its employees in improving health and wellbeing. This is used as a tool to both attract people who may want to work for the company, but also for the retention of existing employees. In this regard, Lazzarato’s shift from control to disciplinary society is exemplified through the pervasive discourses of self-regulation and distanced control advocated through wellness initiatives by the employer, and embodied through the engagement and internalization of such disciplinary rationalities by the employee.

Phoebe Moore (Middlesex University, UK) and
Lukasz Piwek (University of Bath, UK)

The Quantified Workplace Experiment: Agility, Work and Employees’ Dashboard Experience

Phoebe Moore and Lukasz Piwek discussed their recent study the ‘Quantified Self Workplace Experiment’, which explores the influence of the ‘Agile’ method upon employee’s productivity. ‘Agile production was introduced in 1991 by software developers who’s Agile Manifesto focused on principles for more frequent, simplified, self-organized team-based development and delivery’. Their research focuses on a branch of a large real estate company whose ‘agile’ method integration includes an individualized employee dashboard whereby sensory technological and embedded time monitoring software demonstrate employees’ productivity, wellbeing, stress and ‘billability’. From surveys and interviews with the employees, Moore and Piwek argue that though the ‘agile method’ is presented as a necessary response to the complexity of constant changing work environments (location, contracts, hours etc.), the implementation of such devices and initiatives provides an intensification of work for the employees. The ‘entrepreneurial self’ is promoted as empowering, as argued within Chris Till’s previous paper, with the illusion of ‘bottomless breaks’ and self-management. Moore and Piwek identified, with an uptake of quantified-self devices in the workplace; there was actually a drop in productivity, and a rise in sickness and workplace absenteeism. The reality for the employee is an internal pressure to be continuously productive, in which the lines of work, leisure, productivity and professional commitment become blurred. Just under half of the participants were already tracking, but those who were not already tracking desired coaching and advice, especially for the technical problems that arose. Identifying what ‘productivity’ meant was one of the key issues for the employers. In their conclusions, Moore and Piwek discussed the challenges of rating ones self-productivity, and how this is too vague a concept. Parameters are needed in this regard to provide scale and ironically ‘quantification’, as individual’s concepts of wellbeing and productivity is inherently different.


AIAS Workshop


Panel Discussion

Btihaj Ajana began the panel discussion by identifying a particular figure and role that is emerging, that of the ‘ideal employee’. This figure is framed through their levels of engagement, participation, by being a team player and being connected through these quantified self and self-tracking devices advocated through these ‘wellness initiatives’. However, as Ajana pointed out, such a figure of an ‘ideal employee’ is actually hard to live up to. Furthermore, it is important to question how voluntary these schemes actually are for the employee. Chris Till identified the notion of flow in engaging employees with the schemes but also, how the relationship between the employee, their device or scheme, and their employer develops. This development narrative flows from a state of total engagement, and the different ways of enabling that are presented as idealistic and utopian ‘in the future’ goals. Nothing is concretely expected from the employee, but the flow of the practice and engagement with device or initiative is continuously ‘something to work towards’. On further investigation in Tills work, he expands upon how this cycle is never ending, the finish line never comes for the employee as businesses are not actually interested in the data, but it is more a marketing exercise, for the business to its employees (as he identified in his paper). Therefore, we recognize the role of data as not something that provides answers in any capacity for productivity, activity or improving health or wellbeing, but as a tool to push workers towards behaving within certain parameters, or providing individual self-management over certain aspects of their lives they feel will enhance their work life and professional performance. Whilst such parameters remain ambiguous.

Phoebe Moore identified the stigmatism that employees internalize once they or colleagues engage with these devices and schemes. The involvement can create new pressures, as employees feel they have to opt in, perpetuating ideals of a ‘wellness syndrome’; the healthiest employee is the ideal worker. This is arguably a contradiction in itself as the data is not often captured or analysed by businesses, and thus this actualization of self-management, Btihaj Ajana proposes, works by blurring boundaries between work and personal life.

Chris Till identifies how employers present this blurring in a positive light by legitimating physical exercise within working hours. Till further discusses the motivations behind uptake from a perspective of cheating; ‘you are only cheating yourself’ if you do not opt in or honestly track. Furthermore in the US, there is a financial incentive to undertake these schemes and that is to reduce health insurance premiums.

Lukasz Piwek argues that businesses encourage workers to undertake these practices but do not provide support. In fact, employees are often not even clear as to why they are participating in wellness schemes. Chris Till argues that these ‘activities’ and initiatives are framed as a responsive way to tackle ‘sedentary’ lifestyles. For businesses it is seen as being an ‘investor in people’.


Session 3: Mediatization, Representation and the Quantified Self

Rachael Kent (King’s College London, UK)

Digital Health Technologies and Self-Representation

Rachael Kent’s paper covered her Ph.D. project which is a part of a European Research Council funded project called Ego-Media ( The project broadly explores the influence of digital media on forms and practices of self-presentation. Kent’s thesis explores the effects of digital health technology and social media upon self-representations of health, and health identity. Kent’s research explores how such practices of self-representation within online communities (Facebook and Instagram), enable ways of experiencing and viewing one’s own body and health, in relation to others. Historically, representations were made by a set of people, for example curators or filmmakers, (Thumin, 2012). Kent argues that with social media we are becoming curators and subjects. Therefore, the research examines how platform features and affordances sculpt and shape personal health identity. These data representations of the self, help construct not only an online identity for the users but also a ‘health self’. Kent questions the extent to which surveillance of/by others influences practices of self-presentation.

In addition, Kent argues that self-tracking devices are not just about enlightenment through data. Instead, the information produced through these devices can change users’ behaviors and understandings of the body. As a result, this can shift definitions of what we deem as ‘healthy’. Kent concluded by asking whether the acquisition of data means better health outcomes or health optimization.

Joeb Høfdinghoff Grønborg (Aarhus University, Denmark)

Calibrating the body – the lived experience of people using fitness trackers

Joeb Høfdinghoff Grønborg’s paper is based on his PhD. research project which explores the lived experience of ‘recreational athletes’ using various fitness trackers. Grønborg identifies how tracking becomes interwoven with other lifestyle practices, such as music or clothes and explores the intersection of media and exercise from a user perspective, in particular people who use music to cope with unpleasant exercise experience. Grønborg situates exercise as a mediatized social and cultural field, and understands media as an important tool in the ‘muddy reality’ of exercise. Therefore, Grønborg’s research asks what do people do with media whilst undertaking physical activity, what do people do with these devices while they are running? Grønborg does not focus solely on self-tracking devices or applications, as his research identifies that athletes are using an array of media to support their physical activity, for example spotify playlists, podcasts and training applications. This calibration entails a human, technology and relational assemblage which, he argues, is embodied by the user during exercise. In his analysis, Grønborg focuses on Drew Leder’s (1984-5, 1990, 2016 (in press)) work around embodiment and pain, as well as Don Ihde’s (1990) perspectives upon human-technology relations to understand different ways of being in the world through exercise. He talks about ‘ecstatic embodiment’ (Leder, 1990) to analyze informants’ enjoyable engagement with exercise. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘intense embodiment’ (Allen-Collinson & Owton, 2014), which explains the ways in which informants have learned to enjoy pain and exhaustion whilst exercising. Grønborg argues that informants calibrate their bodies through media and tracking to make their exercise more bearable. Many of Grønborg’s informants outlined how they did not enjoy exercise as a practice; this calibration therefore, can be so rewarding that it can enable the user to overcome pain, or push themselves to reach new individual goals during exercise.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion began by highlighting the contradiction between the two papers, whilst recognizing the relevance and applicability of both arguments presented. On the one hand, people are sharing their physical data, with consideration to others, but on the other hand users want to be private and alone with their exercise, health practice and their data. It was suggested how different perspectives are relational to different types of users, or perhaps to the different practices being tracked, or even the different stages at which the individuals begin self-tracking.

Joeb Høfdinghoff Grønborg responded by asking the question if tracking can be seen as just a phase? For his participants, users have gone on a journey to get to the point of self-tracking, and for them it was seen as a very private practice with a very limited social network on the tracking apps. Grønborg acknowledged how users once comfortable with their tracking, and exercise regime, became happy to share that information. Rachael Kent similarly acknowledged that the sharing of health data, or tracking was dependent upon what kind of user you were looking at, what they were tracking and why. For example, users who were running, or dieting were only willing to share and publicize data once they had reached a certain speed, distance, or weight. Though their goal would always be unachievable and the cycle of optimization never ends, these users were happy to share once they had reached in their own minds optimal weight, or fitness as recordable by the device, or representational through the social network. There are therefore, different levels of exposure and self-censorship, which is managed by the user in representing their ‘idealised self’. Grønborg and Kent similarly discussed that there is a social etiquette, which often mitigated how much users shared of their personal goals. A key factor one being over-sharing which is heavily stigmatized.

Kent went on to argue how the gaze of others, within the real or imagined community can influence how much or what users share online. Privacy issues were covered, in terms of generational divides of sharing information. Kent outlined how the older generations were more willing to share health data from her research.

Lifestyle was identified as a key aspect being drawn into the health realm. When considering how this influences health practice Kent argued Instagram images of food, or lifestyle practices can be drawn into the realm of health self-representation. Kent suggests this creates health communities, and networks online outside of the traditional forums or running groups. For example, seeing other peoples lifestyle and health practices affects your own through a moralization of health, and guilt discourse of feeling one should be as healthy as another and adopting these practices seen by others within the online networks.

Grønborg raised methodological issues, by questioning how one does identify how these technologies are influencing users whilst they are using them, as the users are decontextualized from the practice itself. It is a challenge to identify the interwoven nature of exercise and media after the event. Many influences require reflections upon the commonsensical or mundane aspect of these practices. Kent agreed, that within interviews many users acknowledged that they often did not know why they were actually using these devices or sharing this data.

The panel concluded by discussing issues around trust. Kent argued that people are far more open to self-diagnose, track and adopt (to an extent) the medical gaze afforded by these devices, rather than go to a GP. There is still an authority and status ascribed to the medical profession, but with the availability of tracking devices and self-diagnosis tools, information (and misinformation) online, turning to the medical profession (and in the UK the NHS), is now often the last port of call. This ensures lay people are now becoming lay experts in the management of their health.


AIAS Workshop


Session 4: Making sense of the Quantified Self data

Dorthe Brogård Kristensen (University of Southern Denmark)

“The self as a laboratory”: optimization and self-tracking practices in daily life

Dorthe Brogård Kristensen’s paper explored the quantified-self discourse of human ‘optimization’ as a ‘mode’ of living, and a strategy for making the most of life. Kristensen identifies optimization as a ‘laboratory of the self’ in which the potentiality of the body is continuously enacted and framed through the need to have a progressive life, through constant movement. This discourse asks the user to continually ask, what did you do, how and what did you learn? But what kind of self is this? Kristensen outlines that the self can be understood through enactment, experience and entanglement with the device, responding to the data and negotiating values and effect. This getting to know oneself, is achieved through mechanized objectivity, (if we can consider computation objective). Data becomes a mirror and a reflection of the ‘real self’, an unbroken chain and articulation of self-discipline. Kristensen argues this can provide an intensification of the senses. If we see the body as a subject, we learn through sensitivity and awareness. Alternatively if we see the body as an object and a machine, we can provide a resistance to the regime. However, Kristensen outlines that what you track over time changes, and therefore, does this change how we view our body through focusing on different aspects at different times in our lives. Does the use of technology actually resonate with what I aspire to become? Kristensen asks?

Kristensen concludes by asking the poignant question: does the data, or process of self-tracking destroy the natural experience of what I am doing? Kristensen highlights facets which may take away from the natural experience. For example responding to the data is time consuming and overloading. It requires interpretation and sometimes coaching. Therefore, Kristensen argues that to understand the effect of optimization or self-tracking we need to negotiate values and effect, and identify a process or phase that serves to calibrate knowledge about oneself. To conclude, Kristensen proposes a move from optimization of ‘hard’ to more ‘soft’ values, from a focus upon productivity and efficiency to life quality and being.

Keith Spiller (Open University, UK)

Data value: ambivalences toward privacy in the collection and use of Quantified Self personal data

Keith Spiller discusses the value (if any) of data, and the ambivalent viewpoints of privacy debates. Spiller outlines various reasons for engagement with self-tracking, such as betterment and improvement, self-hacking, economic and neoliberal models of incentivizing, and responsibilisation. Spiller usefully highlights the different types of users of self-tracking, firstly those engaging for health reasons, guinea pigs, for improvement or optimization, techno-driven users, and lastly those who are simply curious. Spiller uses the boundary metaphor to identify issues around what enforces or may influence privacy management, which include culture and background, gender, motivational issues, context, and risk benefit ratios (Patronia, 2002). Here we can identify the trade-offs that users accept for invasions of their privacy and acceptance of data mining.

Spiller continues on to discuss the reasons for users who do not hold much concern over privacy issues. For these users, the openness of sharing everything represents a memory tool, both to be able to access all content, but also for the ‘greater good’. This view assumes, however, that data means knowledge and lack of privacy means access, which is clearly questionable from many of the key arguments outlined in all of the papers in the workshop. In understanding privacy management, Spiller reminds us that the value is in the immediate. Once content is shared, it is in the public domain and there is limited control over later enforced privacy rights. Spiller concludes by recognizing that of all data, health and financial information is the most carefully shared or exposed, and that regardless of the saturation, growth and uptake of devices, the emphasis and value will always be on data.

Panel Discussion

The panel discussion began with questions around what privacy is? Is there such a thing as privacy, and is the individual a private being? Is this a new kind of self that is evolving with the uptake of these devices and platforms? When we try to conceptualize the role of data, it is important to understand the quality of data capture and its limitations and discrepancies, sometimes perpetuated through how we interpret it. Other such questions arose as, what is the role of data, and why are we trying to discover ourselves in the world through quantified-self devices?

Btihaj Ajana returned to the idea of the body as a laboratory, and discusses our relationship to machines as co-creation; we collaborate and work together with them. Does it matter if you’re ‘finding’ yourself whilst you’re being data-mined? Lukasz Piwek suggested an impossibility of removing personal information from data. The rapidity of data capture and mining has surpassed our ability to control it. We now need to catch up. Bithaj Ajana noted how digital natives tend to be less concerned about privacy. As mentioned in earlier papers, there is a trade off and acceptance of a loss of privacy to use the often-free platforms and devices. Digital migrants however, Ajana suggests, are more concerned about privacy in their adaptation to these practices. She also noted function creep and data repurposing as an area of contention within the wider privacy debates.

Keith Spiller concluded the discussion by suggesting that the value of data is in bundling, organizing and putting all your data together. Therefore, the value will arise through compatibility with our different forms of data, in ensuring that all can be placed together to form a whole picture of one’s data double, or representation. Issues will arise therefore if all data cannot be cohesively combined in a digestible, manageable and coherent space. What implications does this have upon how we see and understand the world through data?


AIAS Workshop



In her concluding remarks, Btihaj Ajana summarized the key points addressed throughout the workshop, including issues of relationality and ‘being-with’ technology, the neoliberal dynamics of self-tracking at the workplace, the effects of self-tracking practices on self-representation and mediatization, and the importance or obsolescence of privacy and its related values. The workshop identified how self-quantification and tracking practices are not simply about self-knowledge, self-betterment, or the optimization of health and the body. Ajana also stressed that these practices are not neutral or linear but hold within them political, social, cultural, economic and phenomenological influences that need to be carefully considered and scrutinized as we continue to live with and engage with these technologies and the fast spreading practices of self-tracking.