Kaiton Williams on the Weight of Things Lost

May 30, 2014

Yesterday we posted our first opening plenary talk from the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference. Today we are happy to post our second talk from the opening plenary session.

Kaiton Williams is PhD student at Cornell in the department of Information Science. Over the last few years he’s been interested in how people use technology to understand and create the stories of themselves. As we were exploring our 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference registrants to see what they were involved in we were immediately drawn to Kaiton’s paper from the 2013 CHI Personal Informatics Workshop, The Weight of Things Lost. We asked Kaiton to talk about his experience with self-tracking and the mental and social tension inherent in the numerical definition of life. Kaiton’s plenary talk is available below as is a transcript of the talk.

First, thank you all for welcoming me here. I do take it as a privilege to be here. This is a surreal, and a little bit frightening, experience for me. It feels in many ways like the end of a pilgrimage.

I’m a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University and over the last few years, I’ve been working to understand how we’re harnessing our devices, our applications and our algorithms to figure out just who, when, what, & why we are. I’m particularly interested in the ideologies and values that inform the things we discuss in rooms like this one, and go on to create and use.

I’m going to talk a little but about my experience with self-tracking and self-transformation and how it brought me here to this room, and then I’ll pose some ideas and questions on how we might use personal experiences like mine as a platform from which to influence the developing relationships between companies, markets, health, and our data.

And while my talk is fancily titled in your program as “The Weight of Things Lost,” I really could have gone with “All I Wanted Was a Flat Stomach and Six- Pack Abs” It was this, more than any high-minded investigation into technology, or a community, or our practices, that got me started and kept me going.

My story began about 28 months and over 1.3M calories ago. Like many tales, it began at Christmas. I was experimenting with a polaroid camera one day, and as I watched my picture develop, I realized how out of shape I had gotten. Even though I thought I was in control of my diet and getting enough exercise I had been slowly but steadily gaining weight without paying much attention. I looked, in my own estimation, terrible. Granted, as physical problems go, this was a minor calamity but I wanted to do something about it. But I realized that I didn’t know how exactly to go about it. I wasn’t sure what good goals where or even what I was capable of. And I definitely had little formal idea of how to manage my consumption to meet them.

2 ½ years later and this remains something that I consider with a fair amount of irony. I was among a group of researchers who had been critical of the persuasive and reductive logic that powered many of the popular diet control and tracking systems. But now I found myself in need of them.

This was the time and place of my first conflict. As a researcher now seeking to modify my body how could I participate in systems like these and still champion the resistance against them? Would I be taking them down from the inside?

Maybe after I got my 6 pack, washboard abs. THEN, then it would be down with the tyranny of rational digital systems and self-surveillance.

What I told myself was that I would be able to develop a personal, inside understanding that was tied to a real personal need. Surely this was better than just critical analysis lobbed in from the outside? So I swallowed my pride and looked for help. And, as it turned out, there were many apps for that.

In the months that followed I assembled & auditioned a shifting conglomerate of tracking apps, sensors, and databases. I scheduled full body density scans, blood panels, and metabolic breath tests. It didn’t take very long before I began to read my life through the prism of my tools and data. I had found new units of measure, new ways of marking my time, my mind, and my body. For 18 months, not a single day passed where I did not enter, in almost excruciating detail, what I had eaten and planned to eat. My tools were my oracles, and I consulted with them regularly.

Their effect was strong even though I knew intellectually that I was reacting to numbers, colors and graphs based on rough estimates, or provisional theories. I knew that, by describing my body as a precise system that would go out of sync based on small discrepancies, an industry benefited by positioning their tools and systems as indispensable and necessary guide in my life.

But once I began to see successes, I felt a strong sense of fidelity to my system; an ordained from Logos desire to keep the record true. And, over the months I steadily made my life more calculable by streamlining my diet to in turn streamline how I input data into my tools. I avoided complex recipes and prioritized foods that best fit the capabilities of my databases and sensors.

Halfway in, I spent the better part of one morning trying to figure out what happens to the calories in baking powder once baked into a cake. For that matter actually, I swore off cake.

Surprisingly though, I found a freedom & spiritual joy in this calculation and control, and ample room in its reduction. It was, reassurance itself. Together, my conglomerate and I had constructed a digital model of my self that I fully bought into and managed. I was managing myself, it seems now, by proxy.

I became worried about going it alone though. What would I do without my systems? How would I maintain the goals that I had developed and now hit? I think a lot about the transformation.

The numbers showing my weight and fitness level fill me with as much pleasure as fear. Can I maintain this state without help from my system? And even if I do cast these systems aside, would doing so really lead to any better engagement with my self? What happens if these tools are no longer supported, or if the people behind them make business or ethical decisions that I can no longer support?

And this is how I ended up here: to get your help in answering the questions.

I had begun this journey this to feel in better control of my self and to be healthy and fit. I definitely feel healthier but am I really in control? It is this last move, from personal questions to broader political ones, that concerns me the most— particularly when being healthy no longer seems to mean just avoiding being sick but continuously optimizing our selves. Self-tracking habits are becoming mainstream and I believe that how we are globally perceiving and contesting our possibilities is being reshaped through discussions and design decisions made at conferences like this one.

Our conversations are already embracing holistic ideas of well-being that stretch beyond the easily quantifiable, but we should also incorporate and question how our personhood and our work is increasingly being defined not just by ourselves, but by an array of others that includes entrepreneurs, governments, institutions and corporations that are all building on our desire to optimize our selves. If we understand that the work done in this community affects practices in the wider world, how can we begin to explicitly shape those relationships?

I think we can use our diverse store of personal knowledge to construct platforms for doing just that. Focusing on personal experience doesn’t have to be seen as a retreat from focusing on others, but instead can be a strong foundation from which to develop empathy for the experiences of others and to understand their implications for our joint lives.

And so to close, I’d like to pose these questions to you:

If our new abilities to measure and track our selves are forming the basis of what it means to be modern, healthy and connected, how can we use personal experiences like mine and the ones we’ll hear this weekend, to tackle not just the question of what does the collection and availability of data means for n=1/just me, but what it might mean for others? Particularly, others who might not be in the same circumstances, or might not have the same ability or availability to join this community? How do we incorporate the perspectives of the many who can’t participate here, are overlooked and marginalized, but whose lives will eventually be affected by practices that spiral out from ours?

Can we transform our wealth of personal and experiential data into a platform for improving our connection to those around us and to the broader world?

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