Quantified Self as Soft Resistance

April 4, 2013


At the Quantified Self conference last year I attended a breakout session for scholars interested in QS as a research topic. There was an interesting range of fields represented, including medicine, anthropology, sociology, and public health. I’ve appreciated the criticism that the researchers bring. For instance, nearly all of the anthropologists are trained to see technologies of enumeration as tools of domination and control. That means that when they see us tracking ourselves, they wonder about whether the language of self-knowledge merely covers up for conformist obedience to corporate monitoring. They suspect we may be locking ourselves into our panoptical prisons. Their suspicions are sometimes soft pedaled out of politeness, but eventually they come out, and then the real conversation starts.

Recently, Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman, two anthropologists working at Intel Labs, have spent quite a lot of time talking with people they’ve met through the Quantified Self conferences and Meetups.  (Intel has been a Quantified Self sponsor and we are currently collaborating on a research project on how to improve the ways we can learn from our own data.) In the paper linked below, Nafus and Sherman discuss the relation between QS, narcissistic focus on individual improvement, consumerist gadget love, and what they call the “soft resistance” of real self-tracking practice.

This One Does Not Go Up To Eleven: The Quantified Self Movement as an Alternative Big Data Practice [PDF]

They’ve also described the direction of their work in this blog post.

The Quantified Self that we know has very little to do with trying to control other people’s body size or fetishizing technology. Indeed, people who use pen and paper are community leaders alongside professional data analysts.  As a social movement, QS maintains a big tent policy, such that the health care technology companies who do try to control other people’s body sizes also participate. But QS organizes its communities in ways that require people to participate as individuals with personal experiences, not as companies with a demo to sell.  This relentless focus on the self we suspect does have cultural roots in neoliberalism and the practices of responsibilization Giddens identified so long ago, but it also does important cultural work in the context of big data.


QSers self-track in an effort to re-assert dominion over their bodies by taking control of the data that many of us produce simply by being part of a digitally interconnected world.  When participants cycle through multiple devices, it is often not because they fetishize the technology, but because they have a more expansive, emergent notion of the self that does not settle easily into the assumptions built into any single measurement.  They do this using the technical tools available, but critically rather than blindly.  It is not radical to be sure, but a soft resistance, one that draws on and participates in the cultural resources available.

At the upcoming Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam on May 11/12, there will be another breakout session specifically for researchers who take QS as their topic, and I hope the critical dialog will continue.

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