The Weight of Things Lost
diet and weight loss
Kaiton Williams is a PhD student at Cornell University 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. In this talk, he discusses his experience with self-tracking and the mental and social tension inherent in the numerical definition of life.
Excel | sensor
Good morning everyone. 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 like in many ways at the end of a pilgrimage.
I am a Ph.D. student at Cornell University in the information science Department, and over the last few years I’ve been working to understand how we are harnessing our devices, our applications, and our algorithms to figure out just who, when, what, and why we are. I’m particularly interested in the ideologies and values that inform the things that we discuss in rooms like this one, and then go on to create and use.
So I want to talk a little bit about my experiences with self-tracking and self-transformation and on how it brought me here. Then I will pose some ideas and questions on how we might use personal experiences like mine, as a platform which to influence the developing relationships between companies, markets, health, and our data. And while my talk is fancifully titled the weight of things lost, I really could have gone with all I wanted was a flat stomach and a six pack abs.
It was this any more than high-minded investigation into technology or community, or practices that drove my interests that got me started and kept me going.
My story began about 28 months ago and over 1.3 million calories ago. Like many tales it began at Christmas. I was experimenting with a Polaroid camera, and as I watched my picture develop I realised how out of shape I had gotten. Granted, other physical problems this is only a minor calamity, but I wanted to do something about it. But I realise that I didn’t exactly know exactly how to go about doing that. I wasn’t sure what good goals were, or even what I was capable of. And I definitely had little formal ideas of how to manage my consumption to meet these goals if I could make them.
Two and a half years later, this remains something that I consider with a fair amount of irony. At the time I was part of a group of researchers who had been very critical of the persuasive and reductive logic that powered many popular diet controls and tracking systems. But now I found myself in need of them. And this was the time and place of my first conflict.
As a research now seeking to modify my own body, how can I participate in systems like this and still champion the resistance against them. Would I be taking them down from the inside? Maybe after I got my six pack, then it would be down with the tyranny of rational reporting systems and self-surveillance.
What I taught myself was that I would be able to develop a personal inside rich understanding that was tied to a real personal need. Surely, I told myself. This was better than just critical analysis done from the outside and loved in, so I swallowed my pride and looked for help and as it turned out there was many aps for that.
In the months that followed, I put together and auditioned a shifting conglomerate of tracking apps, sensors, and databases. I scheduled full bodied density scans, blood panels, and metabolic breathing tests. It didn’t take very long before I began to read my life through the prism of my tools and my 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 past where I did not enter in almost excruciating detail, what I had eaten or planned to eat. My tools were my oracles and I consulted with them regularly.
Their effect on me were so strong, even though I knew intellectually that I was reacting to numbers, colors, and graphs that were based on rough estimates or provisional theories. I knew that by describing my body that this precise system would go out of sync based on small discrepancies. That and industry benefited on positioning their tools and systems as indispensable and necessary in my life.
But once I began to see success, I felt a strong sense of fidelity to my conglomerate of tools, and I would gain from desire to keep the record true. And over the months, I steadily made my life more calculable by streamlining my diet to in turn, streamlined to how I input data into my tools.
I avoided complex recipes, and I would prioritize food that would best fit the capabilities of my database and my sensors. Halfway end, I spent the better part of one morning trying to figure out what happens to the calories in baking powder once it is baked into a cake. For that matter actually, I swayed off cake.
Surprisingly though, I found a lot of freedom and spiritual joy in this calculation and control, and a lot of ample room in its reduction. It was reassurance itself, together my conglomerate and I had constructed a digital model of myself that I had fully bought into now and managed.
I was managing myself, it seems now by proxy. I became worried about going it alone, though. How would I do without my calorie tracker apps? How would I maintain the goals that I has now developed and now hit?
I think a lot about that transformation though, the numbers showing my weight and fitness level fill me now with as much pleasure as fair. Can I maintain this state without help from my system? And if I cast the systems aside, would doing so really lead to any better engagement with myself? I don’t know.
What happens if these tools are no longer supported and no longer work? What happens if the people behind them make business decisions or ethical decisions that I no longer support?
And this is how I ended up here, to get your help in and so ring these questions.
I have begun this journey to feel in better control of myself and to be healthy and fit. I definitely feel healthier, but I’m not sure if I’m really in control. It’s this last move from a personal question to a broader political one that concerns me the most. Particularly being healthy no longer just means avoiding being sick, it means continuously optimizing yourself.
Our self-tracking habits are becoming mainstream, and I believe that how we are globally perceiving and contesting our possibilities and our limits, are being reshaped through discussions and design decisions made at conferences like this one.
Our conversations are already embracing these holistic ideas of well-being that stretch beyond the easily quantifiable, but we should also incorporate and question how our personhood and work is being increasingly defined not just by ourselves, but by an array of others that include entrepreneurs, governments, institutions, and corporations that are all building on our desire to track and optimize ourselves.
If we understand the work done in this community affect 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 do this, to construct platforms for doing just that. Focusing on our personal experience doesn’t have to be seen as a retreat from focusing on others. But instead, it Be a strong foundation which to develop empathy for the experience of others, and to understand these implications for all of our joint lives.
So the close, I would like to pose these questions for you. If our new abilities to measure and track ourselves are forming the basis of what it means to be a modern, healthy and connected person. How can we use experiences like mine, and, like yours, and the ones who are here this weekend to tackle? Not just the question of what does the collection of availability mean for any core one, just me. But what might it 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 perspective of the many who can participate here, who are overlooked and marginalized, but whose lives will eventually be affected by the practices that spiraled from out of this conference?
How 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?