Law in the Internet Society
The Quantified-Self Movement and Freedom of Thought

-- By RemicardSereme - 22 Oct 2021

In this essay, I want to explore the link between the quantified-self movement and freedom of thought. This idea came to me after reading the article entitled “Intimate data: can a person who tracks their steps, sleep, and food ever truly be free?”. My idea is that the answer to that question is a resounding no. A person who tracks everything about themselves cannot ever truly be free.

The Quantified Self Movement

*What is it*

Adherents to this movement, founded in 2007, describe it as a way to attain “self-knowledge through numbers”. The underlying idea is that by measuring and tracking, an individual can obtain information about their own patterns and behaviors which, in turn, will help them in their self-improvement journey. It is a booming industry and tech companies have gotten the memo. More and more self-tracking tools are introduced in the market regularly, allowing individuals to track everything about themselves from food intake to sleeping patterns as well as time spent on different websites on ones’ computer, and very soon the content of one’s stool.

*Why do people self-track?*

Self-tracking is alluring for several reasons:

- Intrinsic Value: Some people like the data collection process in itself without thinking about getting any utility or meaning out of it. It can be a way to quantify and have a sense of order in an existence that can be more often than not chaotic.

- Feedback: This component was advanced by a self-professed self-tracker and I found the idea very interesting. He argues that self-tracking can be a way to obtain “impartial feedback on our life performance”. We go through an education system where our performance is obsessively tracked and then get released into the world without a similar metric (apart from maybe yearly appraisal from our jobs). Without the metric of grades, feedback, it might become difficult to evaluate one’s existence. As we live in a world where success is closely linked to numbers (grades and then revenues), self-tracking can be a way to obtain those numbers allowing us to evaluate the success of our existence.

- Social gratification: People often feel compelled to share these data and present it as objective proof of their accomplishments, notably on social media so they can be congratulated and patted on the back. The aim of that is also to compare oneself to others through an objective metric and thus feel a sense of validation out of outperforming someone else.

- Motivation: It can also be a way to motivate oneself to attain a certain fixed goal because, by monitoring and tracking progress, it’s easier to know at which point you are in the process.

- Performance: In a capitalist society that defines human worth by their level of productivity, self-tracking can be used to enhance one’s performance in terms of productivity, and in turn, one’s sense of worth.

The Implications of the Quantify-Self movement in terms of privacy and freedom of thought

Proponents of Quantify-self argue that self-tracking is a form of empowerment, allowing individuals to take charge and responsibility for their lives and do everything they can to improve their health (health tracking is one of the most successful sub-section of self-tracking), lifestyle, and general happiness.

I think that rather than empowering individuals, self-tracking furthers alienation and is promoting a version of what it means to be human which is becoming closer and closer to machines as self-tracking is essentially a way for individuals to use technology to optimize themselves like machines.

The tools used to gather all this data pose obvious privacy issues. That information is often sold to third parties who then use it to not only predict but also change our behaviors.

It is not possible to be free in a world where our decisions are informed by numbers that are incapable of taking into account the complexity of what it means to be human. With self-tracking, humanity isn’t contingent on the ability to think, as affirmed by René Descartes through his famous “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am), but on measuring, buying, and trying to optimize everything about ourselves as if we became the very products which are constantly marketed to us.


Self-tracking will never fulfill its promise of making us healthier and happier because by feeding this data to tech companies, it comes to redefine our very conception of health and happiness, which by essence will forever remain unattainable in order to nudge us into buying and consuming always more in pursuit of this chimeric goal.


Webs Webs

r1 - 22 Oct 2021 - 21:26:48 - RemicardSereme
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM