Rational Objections to Self-Tracking

May 10, 2010

My recent story about self-tracking in the New York Times magazine attracted many thoughtful comments. I found myself especially interested in the critical comments, some of which had an underlying tone of anguish. For instance, “BT” in Ohio wrote:

How many of the “problems” in ourselves and our lives that these new
machines will track for us is caused by other machines whose original
intent was to make our lives more productive?

Indeed, we already
possess two pieces of technology (free of charge – no manual included)
which allow us to collect, record and analyze data about ourselves —
our brain and our emotions.

Let us not forget, for god’s sake,
that we are human beings and not machines! (Apologies to any machines
reading this)

There were many, many others along these lines. Some were insulting. “People who self-track are boring and ignorant,” was a common theme. But others, like BT’s, expressed a clear and well articulated worry that self-tracking is a threat to our values and our humanity.

Another commenter, Ivan Greenberg, wrote this:

This article needs a broader context. Scholars write that we now live
in a “Surveillance Society” and the efforts to use personal data by
government, business, and individuals is a reflection of this change.
It seems pathetic to “spy” on ourselves in the manner depicted in this
article.

A commenter named David worried that the accumulation of data about the past is crowding out experience of the present:

I’ve got to tell you … this article makes me sad, sad, sad. These
unfortunate people spend so much time with computers they have begun
thinking about their own person as a machine. They treat their life
like a product of rigid programming without any sort of free will or
ability to forget the forgettable past.

These people are behaving
very much like the hoarders who cannot throw anything away so their
houses soon become so cluttered with trash that it is a health hazard to
everyone.

Though many of us will find these comments overstated (a normal quality in web comments),  each contains a rational objection to self-tracking. Will self-tracking lead us to uncritically embrace new tools that will have unintended consequences? Will it make us more vulnerable to being spied on and manipulated? And how will we remember to forget?

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