Things I learned this morning, and where from

In her report from the QS conference in 2012, Whitney Erin Boesel talks about how different types of knowledge become privileged through QS-style self-monitoring. Larry Smarr (also mentioned in Luke Dormehl’s chapter on QS, p7) measured himself and discovered from the data that he was unwell when he actually felt fine.

“Doctors should be asking, ‘What are your numbers?’ not ‘How do you feel?’” Smarr said. “The idea that you can feel what is going on with you is so epistemologically incorrect.”

However, there is also a sense that QS data gathering leads to a greater awareness – or even mindfulness. Some examples are mentioned in the article, but the key quote is from a fellow conference attendee who claims that the major benefits of QS came from the awareness rather than poring over the data in and of itself. (I’m reminded of again here.)

Another panel mentioned how self-tracking had actually improved a particular respondent’s intuition/awareness of her ovulation, but that the technology used to measure this (predictor sticks) often contradicted her. Later ultra-sounds proved her to be correct.

Her problem then was not that technology (the stick) had weakened her intuition, but that technology “interfered with [her] ability to communicate with the clinic.” Put simply, the stick spoke more loudly than she could—and as a result, the quantified self-knowledge she produced by using the stick disempowered rather than empowered her in her relationship with the clinicians.

The conclusion here is that qualitative or observational data is seen as less trustworthy or valuable than quantitative or machine-acquired data. If, as Andrejevic suggests, we consider that the truth is out there in the data because representations are unreliable, then does this mean we are unwilling to trust our own intuition/awareness/mindfulness for the same reasons?

I’m wondering whether this is to do with a kind of instability inherent in a conception of self that’s constructed around disciplinary models set up by the state or by corporations. If we construct our subjectivities through consumerism, or through the acquisition and broadcasting of cultural capital, then these subjectivities are built around sets of representations in a symbolic system that Andrejevic, following Zizek, suggests is under threat from a demise of the efficiency of those symbols. We construct our selves from representations we know to be contestable, flawed, untrue; perhaps this is why we prefer to believe machinic data gathering systems rather than ourselves.

Boesel discusses some of the mechanics behind parts of this in her piece on Spotification. Her crankiness about not being able to share her listening history is really cleverly analysed here. Labelling this as “documentary frustration”, she describes it as:

like Jurgenson’s “documentary vision” plus Jenny Davis’s“fear of being missed” [or FoBM] all rolled up into one, combined (of course) with a little tongue-in-cheek metavexation over the fact that I care in the first place. But it’s true: somehow, at some point over those first four months of Spotification, I became the kind of person who’s bothered more by the idea of not being able to broadcast my listening habits (when I want to do so) than by the idea of my listening habits being broadcast (when I don’t want them to be). It’s still true now, and that still strikes me as somewhat strange.

She goes on to discuss her shift toward new kinds of visibility that come with developing a research profile – something I identify with fully and find a particularly difficult part of the PhD academic training experience.

Slowly but surely, I’m acclimating not only to the process of becoming more visible generally, but also to new kinds of visibility; I’ve also learned to see potential social- and cultural capital in a lot more places, and to see my failures to engage with those potentials as “losses.” Academic Twitter, for instance, started out as a lifeline; now I recognize it as something I should be making time for even though I have other sources of intellectual and social support, because it’s an important part not just of my job as a public sociologist, but also of my professional development. This is not, of course, to say that I’ve jumped on the ‘Look At Me’ paradigm of Mandatory Visibility for All bandwagon, because nothing could be further from the truth; it’s important to note that I’ve chosen the contexts in which I’ve become more visible, that I’ve done so more-or-less on my own terms, and that while some of my choices have undoubtedly been influenced by the affordances of the apps that I use, I have not been unaware of those influences.

I’m still working on that one, but I’m hopeful I’ll get there.