The datafication of therapeutic life management: Assembling the self in control society

For people who are willing or obliged to reflect on and proactively modify their personal conduct, a plethora of self-tracking devices are now widely available. By self-tracking devices we refer to near-body gadgets and related software applications that provide measurements of the rhythms and patterns of eveiyday life - for example, step counts, heart rate, walking distances and sleeping patterns. By providing quantitative data about vital functions or behavioural patterns, these technologies aim at helping people to enhance their self-knowledge, to adjust their behaviour and/or to accomplish self-improvement. As such, self-tracking technologies are entering and altering the domain of the ‘therapeutic’ that emerged and was consolidated during the 20th century (see Madsen, 2014, 2015; Moskowitz, 2001). Instead of approaching self-tracking as merely an instantiation of an overarching and static ‘therapy culture', in this chapter we study more closely the therapeutic imaginaries and functions of self-tracking in everyday life, and situate the phenomenon as part of always-emergent therapeutic assemblages.

Self-tracking has emerged in conjunction with sociotechnical trajectories that are characterised by the terms ‘data-driven’ and ‘datafication’ in recent discussions (see Pentland, 2013; Ruckenstein & Schtill, 2017). The terms ‘data-driven’ and ‘datafication’ refer to the collection and mining of masses of digital data by high-performance computers. Such practices are expanding to all walks of life, from healthcare to traffic and from energy production to mass entertainment. Advocates of data-driven technologies attach great expectations to their capability to provide precise and predictive control and steering of complex technical systems, including social organisations as well as individual human lives and behaviour (e.g. Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013; Pentland, 2013; Topol, 2012, 2015). Self-tracking is undoubtedly an important dimension of this development, as it is essentially about the collection and analysis of cumulative data on bodies and personal lives. As self-tracking technologies increasingly saturate well-being-related retail contexts and cultural imaginaries of self-care, self-tracking can well be conceived of as a mode of datafication of eveiyday life (Lupton, 2016; Ruckenstein & Schtill, 2017).

In order to grasp the formation of therapeutic regimes of action within this data-driven practice, we approach self-tracking and its therapeutic functions with the help of two concepts. First, we deploy the idea of assemblage (agencement)

(Deleuze & Guattari, 1987; Marcus & Saka, 2006), which enables an analysis of self-tracking as a mode of action taking shape within and through networks and collections of things and discourses. We focus on how bodies, (technological) objects and political ideas of self-development and self-care come together in self-tracking and form therapeutic assemblages that ‘hang together’ (Mol, 2002) by and through the practice of gathering and analysing data about oneself. Furthermore, the concept of assemblage entails that the assemblage as a whole as well as its parts are in a constant state of emergence (Bennett, 2010; Latour, 2005). This enables us to situate the phenomenon of self-tracking within a global therapeutic assemblage while being sensitive to the possibilities, affordances and relations through which the idea of the ‘therapeutic’ itself becomes a meaningful concept in and through these practices. Second, we lean on Gilles Deleuze's (1995a, 1995b) ideas of control society and, more specifically, of ‘dividualisa-tion’, which are particularly relevant as regards the therapeutic and political functioning of self-tracking. The concept of the dividual enables us to focus on the data-driven character of self-tracking, that is, how the practice of self-tracking becomes functional by and through data. It also helps us to situate self-tracking in current biopolitical assemblages in which individuals, their lives and their experienced selves increasingly become reduced to, as well as lived by and through, quantification-based haptic and visual information.

Drawing from qualitative analysis of promotional Internet material and interviews with Finnish self-trackers, we focus on the questions of how self-tracking becomes a therapeutic practice and what the idea of the ‘therapeutic’ might mean in the context of such a data-driven practice. We also ask how self-tracking, with its data-driven character, possibly shapes our understanding of the therapeutic. By studying self-tracking practices in this way, we are able to pinpoint contradictions that problématisé a straightforward relationship between datafied life management and the therapeutic ethos.

This chapter proceeds as follows. First, we consider self-tracking in relation to the current therapeutic ethos and as an embodiment of dividualisation (Deleuze, 1995b). Then we present our data and methods. After this, we commence our analysis; first, we focus on the framing of self-tracking as a holistic therapeutic practice by technology developers, and show how self-tracking is reflective of what we call fragmentary holism. Secondly, we draw on interviews with Finnish self-trackers to elaborate on how self-tracking becomes a therapeutic practice in action and promotes regimes of perpetual self-assembly. Finally, we discuss briefly the political dimensions of self-tracking as self-control, and provide some concluding remarks.

Proactive self-tracking and the therapeutic ethos

People have used analogue technologies for self-measurement and lifelogging (Crawford et al., 2015; Lupton, 2016), for various reasons, for centuries. However, it may be argued that the rise of a ‘ therapy culture ’ - the relatively recent success of various forms of therapeutic life-management products and services which often

Datafying therapeutic life management 109 involve some sort of reflective tracking practices (see McGee, 2005; Madsen.

  • 2015) - has also driven the design, marketing and hype around contemporary digital self-tracking technologies. Whereas such technologies originally occupied quite specific domains such as (clinical) healthcare and competitive sports,1 the therapeutic idea of pursuing a better life through holistic self-improvement combined with the cultural power of metrics and data (Ruckenstein. 2014: 77; Beer,
  • 2016) has paved the way for the adoption of quantification-driven self-tracking technologies in various spheres of everyday life. Today, consumers certainly find these technologies an integral part of wellness-related retail contexts, and digital self-tracking has consolidated its position as a mundane way of making sense of -and possibly transforming - the body and the self.

Although the variety of regimens of self-help and self-improvement is vast in Western therapy culture (Illouz, 2008; Madsen, 2015), it is quite common in the therapeutic landscape to see that such therapeutic hermeneutics of the self (Foucault, 1993) take place in a reflexive dialogue. In it, a therapeutic instance - a psychotherapist, spiritual guide, peer group, self-help manual or a website - functions as a mirror or an echo that enables the person to acquire insights about who s/he actually is and what s/he can become. It is tempting to think of self-tracking technologies as such mirrors since self-tracking may be thought of as a practice of negotiation with ‘data doubles’ (Ruckenstein, 2014; Lupton, 2013; also Lomborg & Frandsen, 2016) that serve as a basis for investigating one’s own life. Sociologist Deborah Lupton (2013, 2016: 39) associates self-tracking more clearly with contemporary self-help, as she links the proliferation of self-monitoring practices to the rise of popular psychology discourses that offer individualised solutions to personal problems. She analyses self-tracking as self-help-like responsibilisation of citizens on their own health and well-being. Lupton’s arguments are congruent with critical studies that approach the Anglo-American therapeutic self-help as a field of neoliberal self-optimisation and governing. Such critical studies often see therapeutic self-help as a depoliticizing force as it may effectively hide structural and political problems by endorsing the management of personal qualities, traits or personality (e.g. Rimke, 2000; McGee, 2005; Madsen, 2015). However, the idea of an assemblage helps us to see that while self-tracking as a field of action is no doubt influenced and shaped by other forms of therapy culture, a focus on how the ‘self becomes enacted in practice within everyday self-tracking assemblages reveals a logic of dividualisation rather than that of individualisation. We argue that self-tracking reflects the interplay of the therapeutic ethos and contemporary, dividualising mechanisms of control, which also inverts the focus on the self/ person as a coherent whole found in much 20th-century self-help.

Dividualisation is a term employed by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1995a, 1995b). With an eye on the proliferation of information technologies at the dawn of the digital Internet age in the 1990s, he presented an outline of control society. He claimed that corrective and normalising interventions by public authorities and experts are increasingly being replaced by practices of control that divide its objects into ever smaller elements, parameters and action-units. Deleuze considered dividualisation as a basic requirement of the functioning of controlin ‘societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication’ (Deleuze, 1995a: 174). The rise of digital systems would bring about practices and technologies of monitoring and modulation that work within the flows and transactions between the forces and capacities of living human beings, the environments they live in and the practices in which they participate. For Deleuze, control is continuous and anticipatory, and it works with the help of predictive and prognostic information. The objects of control are conceived of as ‘factors’ or ‘variables’, and their interaction and conjugations are assessable as ‘risks’ and open to modification by meticulous operations and interventions. As a consequence, living human beings as communities, persons and organisms - as units typically conceived of as individuals - as well as the environments they live in, become transformed and fragmented into dividuals within the matrices of control. In short, dividualization refers to the construction of clear-cut variables, dividing ‘everything’ - vital functions, life events, mood changes, the person, etc. - according to these variables, gathering data about these variables, and looking for patterns, trends or deviations by aggregating the data. Dividualisation pertains to all levels of human existence: to populations as well as to basic biological processes on the cellular and molecular level. It is in connection to dividualisation that we begin to see the logic of holistic self-understanding or holistic transformation, often emphasised in therapeutic parlance, giving way to a more fragmentary understanding of therapeutic life-management.

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