pod people

John-Paul Flintoff on digital self-monitoring and the Quantified Self (QS):

I take my inspiration in this from Nancy Dougherty, a QSer in the US who wanted to be more mindful. She started tracking her smiles, by means of a couple of electrodes attached to her temples. Every real smile, causing the skin to crinkle around her eyes, lit up a set of Christmas tree lights that she wore on her head throughout the day. By this means she noticed that everyday office interactions were not merely task-oriented, but were also opportunities to ‘express joy together’. When my phone reminds me to meditate, I shall remember Dougherty, lighting up among her co-workers, and causing them to light up too.

QS doyens suggest that the next generation of gadgets and devices will proactively track users and analyse data, suggesting ways to alter routines in order to hit the metrics we set. For instance, if wearable devices notice that you are sitting down for too long, they might tell you to get up and stretch your legs. I’m not convinced this will work. Every day at 10pm, the Symple app on my iPhone continues to remind me to input data though I stopped using Symple weeks ago. The mere fact of having programmed a device at some point in the past to make certain suggestions to us in the present does not mean we will pay any attention. For similar reasons, QS enthusiasts say it’s better to monitor data manually than have devices that do all the work. When it’s automatic, they report, the significance of what is recorded often escapes them.

But what’s the value of quantifying yourself rather than having a machine do it if you’re simply replicating what a machine would do? A quantified self — knowing what it’s like to be a thing because you’ve turned yourself into one — is the New Gnosticism, a way of escaping the constraints of being an embodied self by becoming a detached observer of your body. Some people want to be machines, not even cyborgs. Cyborg life was but a way-station. We don’t want just to own gadgets, we want to be them.

Rob Hornung has argued that to pursue such a self is to seek “an escape from freedom”:

The true self, from this point of view, doesn’t precede the process of being encoded in social media; instead the real self — real in the sense of being influential — emerges through information processing (sharing, being shared, being on a social graph, having recommendations automated, being processed by algorithms, and so on). As information is processed and assimilated to the archive of self, it begins feeding into the algorithmic systems that report back to us the true nature of who we are. (Think: the quantified self, or imagine Pandora, only played out across the entire spectrum of social life.)

So what is real about ourselves depends not some internal ability to think or feel something but the ability to externalize it as processable data. We surrender the prerogative of claiming to be self-created and learn to love the self the data tells us we are. We let Google or Amazon or Facebook tell us what to do next, and then we tweet about it or put it on Tumblr.

Whether you turn the responsibility for living over to gadgets or strive to become them might amount to the same thing in the long run: an evacuation of selfhood, a replacement of personhood by something that looks similar but feels subtly, terribly different. Those of us who cling to the responsibilities and joys of selfhood could soon be surrounded by pod people. It’s time for us all to start thinking more and more seriously about Herrschaft und Knechtschaft.