Ch 07: Seeing Ourselves Field Notes

The Quantified Self in the PPU

                Rettberg’s chapter on the “quantified self” left me in a bit of a depressed mood. The idea of using technology to “interpret” and “represent” our lives through tracking software isn’t as bad as the notion that everything is never ending. Don’t get me wrong, the tracking software itself is unnerving. At first when I was reading her article, I felt like not only was it a little creepy, but also the most frivolous idea I’d ever heard. Really? A camera you wear to take pictures of yourself and your surroundings all day? First of all, in the current pandemic, this would be incredibly boring. Second of all, what about your life is so important or interesting that you would need to have record of it every 30 seconds?

I suppose the thought that taking pictures is frivolous plays into the dynamic of what is “photographable.” Rettberg brought up the point that in the past we had to be choosey about what we took pictures of which fed into a cultural standard of what was proper to photograph. Now that taking pictures and videos is accessible to anyone with a phone, there is no limit to what can be photographed. The question still remains though, even if you can photograph or track or record, should you?

When I read about technology that tracks us in the context of a “diary” I struggled to understand how this is even a thing. I felt like there had to be more to this than just another way to waste time on an app. I found the notion of a “quantified self” to be really fascinating and wondered what exactly this meant beyond a diary, so I did a little looking around.  My searching led me to a website that is a huge proponent of the quantified self, and they had plenty to say about the benefits of tracking ourselves with technology.

“We want to make the best decisions, yet we lack the appropriate data to guide us,” says the writer of “The Beginner’s Guide to Quantified Self (Plus, a List of the Best Personal Data Tools Out There)”. The article goes into further detail and suggests if we want to live in a way that is constantly improving our health and happiness, we need to utilize tracking technology. By using a whole range of apps that can track everything from mental health to heart rate, we can gain the “appropriate data” we need to become, what Rettberg hints at when discussing Silicon Valley, our more perfect selves.

Rettberg mentions in her article that there is still a need to figure out what all the data collection on ourselves is really good for. In the context of lifelogging and taking pictures every 30 seconds, I can see how this would be a real question. But when I read through “The Beginner’s Guide”, I saw that the data that is being collected can legitimately be used for serious issues. One thing that stood out in a huge way is health.

This idea of being able to use technology to track things that are vital for more accurate diagnoses when our health goes south is incredibly attractive. Just think of how many people are suffering because they either don’t have the right data to take to their doctor, don’t have access to proper medical treatment, or have illnesses that medical professionals just don’t understand. If technology, with its ability to be made accessible and widespread, could be applied to helping people gain the data they need to get medical help, that could lead to changes that promote equity in a very inequitable system.

Admittedly, there are still problematic issues with this idea of tracking health through technology. When the writer says “…I see a revolution of the healthcare industry. Soon, technology will be spotting trends and diagnosing problems far quicker and more accurately than doctors” I feel a twinge of fear at the implications of tech being our new “doctors” and diagnosing us through algorithms. That is where the conversation we had last week about the Zoom Gaze and what is happening behind these technologies comes back in. It is one thing to look at what Rettberg is talking about and see how there could be a lot of issues in tracking ourselves needlessly; I don’t want to be a cyborg anymore than the next person (sorry to those that do wish to be a cyborg, no judgement). But when you tell me that I can use this technology to help with incredibly frustrating, real life issues like having to fight with the medical system to get proper treatment – this is where it gets tricky. Of course I want to use technology to help in this way – but at what cost? Again, if the Silicon Valley folks are putting their picture of perfection into software, what would they put into the technology that would be used in situations like healthcare? What would be the “gaze” we would have to deal with then?

Extending this fine line between excessive self-tracking and beneficial data collection to learning, I wonder what the future of tech tracking is in the post-pandemic university. Will we have technology that will be programed to teach a class so that it can all be conducted asynchronously without human interference? How will this be tracked to make sure that students are meeting learning outcomes? Will it continue to be more of the same software used now that people are giving so much push back? Who would be behind the technology and what messages would they be coding into the software? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I realize after considering Rettberg’s essay and looking further into the quantified self that it really isn’t as straightforward as we would hope. The never ending goal setting nature of tech would imply that it could set a goal to do better than what has been done up to this point. We can only hope that is the case.

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