Deborah Lupton, The Quantified Self (Cambridge: Polity Press 2016) 183 pp. £15.99 Pb, £50.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781509500598
Deborah Lupton’s timely sociological survey of the latest trends in technologically assisted self-tracking cultures focuses on both voluntary and coercive forms of personalized data gathering. In contrast to older forms of collecting and reflecting on information about oneself - keeping a diary or collecting letters and other ephemera of daily life - digital self-tracking intensifies these practices in 'specifically goal-oriented' ways to improve physical and mental health, relationships, and productivity (2). With tens of thousands of apps and hundreds of gadgets available, self-tracking helps users visualize fitness and health data (including diet, weight, heartbeat, quality of sleep, mood, and genetic information) and connect with like-minded people. Other apps track one’s computer use, quality of social interactions, travel experiences, money-spending habits, or energy consumption at home. Lupton is particularly interested in the power relations that are being consolidated by the recent proliferation of self-optimization regimes and questions the assumed neutrality of data as well as the growing authority of algorithmic predictions. Contextualizing Western Anglophone self-tracking cultures as embedded within social, economic, political, and technological processes, Lupton cautions that wearable and environmental data-gathering technologies (such as phones, watches, clothing, and ‘smart’ home devices as part of the so-called ‘internet of things’) often blur the distinction between public and private information, erode individual privacy, and give rise to new questions about mass surveillance, governments’ role in protecting citizens from identify theft, and what happens when technology fails to deliver on its promises.
The book’s five chapters tackle self-tracking as a sociocultural phenomenon from various interconnected angles. Chapter One provides a brief history of 'lifelogging,' the creation of a personal archive about one’s life, and early wearables, before turning to current devices, software, and technological trends, as well as to what market research reveals about self-trackers. The second chapter offers several theoretical approaches to self-tracking, including Latour’s actor-network theory, Foucaut’s concept of biopower, and new work in critical data studies. Lupton further formulates self-tracking’s implications for concepts of selfhood and embodiment, privacy and surveillance of and through data (or, ‘dataveillance’), the neoliberal state and ‘knowing capitalism.’ The book’s final three chapters are dedicated to discrete problems outlined in the overview, such as how self-trackers conceptualize the body and the self (Chapter Three), the cultural impact of the increasing quantification of the body and the simultaneous materialization of data (Chapter Four), and the exploitation of personal data by second and third parties (Chapter Five). The book ends with the section 'Final Reflections,' in which Lupton outlines avenues for future research.
Lupton’s central argument is that data has rapidly acquired its own social life: it influences one’s behavior, sense of self, relationships, and, ominously, one’s biographical and career opportunities. As users become nodes in a wider network of information, internet organizations, and state institutions, algorithms that interpret personal data 'are beginning to have determining effects on people’s lives' (44). As Lupton notes, users of self-tracking devices are interpellated as self-responsible, self-monitoring, productive, efficient, and competitively individualistic citizens engaged in an ethical project of self-optimization. The resulting new form of user engagement is called 'prosumption,' that is, users’ voluntary production and consumption of free content which is aggregated and then sold in bulk to advertisers. Bulk data also may become liable to exploitation by less benign actors. Further, the line between voluntary data production and coerced data collection is becoming increasingly blurred, Lupton warns. This blurring serves the interests of companies, institutions, and governments since today’s citizen consumers appear to fully internalize the values of these entities and voluntarily enact them in their everyday self-tracking behavior.
Consequently, Lupton shows, developers, governments, data-mining companies, and criminal hackers regularly access users’ intimate information and exploit it to manage, govern, or coerce entire populations. Here, Lupton uses the term ‘knowing capitalism’ to refer to the generation and commodification of massive quantities of data about individuals’ private selves. The term also refers to the current cultural preference for accelerated innovation and disruption of older economic forms. For example, employers now regularly ‘nudge,’ if not force, employees via reward-and-incentive programs to install fitness apps and then monitor employees’ progress in the effort to promote workplace health and well-being. Subjects of workplace or health monitoring usually do not have access to all of the collected data, do not know where it is stored, and cannot control how information about them is interpreted. Already, companies have created massive data archives without granting access to individual content generators and without accounting for how that data will be processed and with whom it is shared. Lupton joins other critics who have warned that 'a new "digital divide" is emerging' in which a few institutions control data while the majority of people cannot access it (129).
Moreover, as Lupton incisively argues, many developers and early adopters 'show little recognition of or interest in the fact that the self is always inevitably sited within social, cultural and political contexts' (140). Instead, self-tracking assumes a certain kind of autonomous, economically privileged, and socially well-integrated subject, and ignores the effects of poverty, racism, sexism, homo- and transphobia, disability, or other determinants of subjective experiences. As is the case with technological innovation over the past three decades, self-tracking discourses and practices cater to the values and preferences of its 'white, well-paid, heterosexual' designers - most of them men - and thereby elide the diversity of human experience. Lupton’s analyses of the masculinist underpinnings of self-tracking technologies, particularly the distrust of bodily signals, feelings, and non-numerical information, are convincing and provide a wealth of pressing questions for future investigations.
Lupton’s book is an excellent primer for readers interested in data surveillance, self-tracking cultures, and the increasing push to metricize aspects of personal experience that were previously not considered in statistical terms. The book relies on research undertaken in 2015 and it might soon become outdated due to the rapid transformation of the technologies and social cultures it describes. Already in 2017, technological innovations and legal responses have created facts where Lupton outlines possible trends. Nevertheless, Lupton’s insight that no one alive today is exempt from becoming subjected to digitization lends her project great immediate urgency.
Doreen Thierauf, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill