Self-tracking as a therapeutic regime of anticipation
So far we have seen that self-tracking is often presented as a holistic means of self-inspection despite its tendency to disassemble the self into (longitudinal collections of) functions and variables, which encourages further selfinspection rather than ‘holistic’ self-knowledge. In this section, we focus on the ways in which self-tracking assemblages are narrated to facilitate the idea and ongoing pursuit of a good - or, rather, better - life. We thus show how the data assemblages gathered in self-tracking practices unfold into therapeutic regimes of action in everyday lives.
When people speak of their self-tracking practices they usually say that selftracking makes aspects of the self (activity levels, sleep quality, etc.) ‘more real'. Sari, a woman in her late forties, speaks about how the Polar Loop device enables
Datafying therapeutic life management 115 her to convince herself that she is ‘really doing something’ in the sense of daily activity. Specifically, she has tried to fight against a risk of type 2 diabetes that has been brought to her attention by medical professionals. When Timo (male, 26) talks about tracking daily movement and calorie consumption, he readily recognises the very limited employability of individual measurements and says that he does not necessarily check on the measurements on a daily but rather on a weekly basis. Despite this, he points out that the accumulation of data reveals patterns and creates a very tangible or ‘real’ history, evident in the repository of numbers and graphs. Through this timeline he can then reflect on and analyse ‘how things have been going’ in his life in a more general sense. It can be argued that self-tracking usually makes sense to people as a practice of acquiring knowledge about developments in terms of specific functions, which is also thought to reveal a bigger picture of one’s own life through futures and histories of potential health, physical fitness and wellbeing.
However, despite such experiences, what is characteristic of interviewees’ narratives is the pervasive tension between becoming a self-informed subject and constantly pushing the boundaries of self-knowledge further. In many cases, then, self-tracking in practice becomes anticipatory (see e.g. Adams et al., 2009) rather than evidentiary. Many interviewees acknowledge that self-tracking may provide quite a lot of self-awareness and promote joy and delightful moments when the self is actualised as ‘active’, for example, by reaching 10,000 steps or by producing a good sleep score daily or, even better, consistently, but they also reflect that it may easily turn into a repetitive practice, the main attraction of which is to predict and control. As the ‘tracks’ always lead on, self-tracking can spark ever further interest in the self, which makes the idea of the self as an experience of something ‘whole’ quite questionable. For example, Veli, a 28-year-old male, reflects that it is really ‘quite silly' to engage in sleep tracking because in a sense one already knows how one sleeps. Nevertheless, he self-tracks because the data logs ‘provide motivation for improvement’; that is, the logs and linear graphs psychologically move him to develop himself. This highlights the tendency of self-tracking to produce a processual regime of action in terms of datafied self-mapping.
It is our claim that through fragmentary holism, the purpose of self-tracking often becomes the process of self-assembly itself, as a sense of self-control is pursued. Relating to dividualisation, it seems that self-tracking as a therapeutic assemblage engenders a mode of action that enables not holistic self-awareness per se but rather an information-deprived relation to the self on pre-established scales. In other words, the self becomes highlighted as potential. This relates to how, in the context of border security, Amoore (2011: 28) speaks of algorithmically forged ‘data derivatives’ that do not centre on ‘who we are, not even on what our data says about us, but what can be imagined and inferred about who we might be’. Self-tracking data derivatives are another example of how improvement is linked with attempted control of potential futures and thr eats.
In terms of specific threats, our analysis of the promotional material points out that self-tracking devices are often framed as quasimedical devices that are supposed to lead individuals towards health, longevity and regeneration. As such,
they both answer to and produce what anthropologist Joseph Dumit (2012; see also Schiill, 2016) calls a ‘double insecurity' that the medical industry enacts: not knowing whether one is already ill and never knowing enough about illness prevention. The person is thus always potentially ill. Perhaps the clearest example of this in our interviews comes from Sakari, a 50-year-old male who is a very active self-tracker and describes himself as a scientist of his own life (cf. Heyen, 2016). For example, he makes an effort to track his weight and relaxation (via heart rate) daily, his blood pressure regularly once a year, and occasionally he goes to a nearby laboratory to gain data on various biomarkers of his choice. All this provides him with ‘more data’ in his ever-expanding database of himself. In addition to quantitative data, he also carefully notes any events that may be symptoms of illness. (One example that he provided us with is ‘12th March, nosebleed, short duration, left nostril’.) He describes self-tracking as ‘at its best a very therapeutic practice' in the sense of producing a ‘peace of mind' and feelings of ‘self-confidence’. However, he also states that a central product of self-tracking is the feeling of ‘panic’ or ‘terror', especially when one sees results that deviate from normal reference values and seem unexplained to him. When asked about whether self-tracking has served his well-being or not, Sakari said that a sense of control provides him with a really ‘healthy feeling'. Explaining the negative side of tracking in more detail, Sakari specified his ideas on control:
It is really about an experience of control... because you cannot really control life, but you can feel that you are in control... and the negative comes from the kind of terror, especially in the face of [measurement] results that are somehow... unexplained [...] and it seems hard for me to grasp what could be negative about [self-tracking]... like if you think that people get all hypochondriac and they increasingly go to the doctor, well I think that’s a good thing in a way. Because this is preventive health care, and it’s better that you go early [to the doctor] to check up on some fine nuance, than going when you’re already sick.
For Sakari, self-tracking seems to become functional as self-control and an ongoing straggle against illness. However, as his life and body are now spatially and temporally divided into ever-expanding data sets by and through self-tracking technologies, it is also quite likely that he will encounter situations in which the feeling of a loss of control, in the form of unexplained data, becomes tangible. He explicitly connects such scenarios with emotions of terror. Here we can see self-tracking as a therapeutic assemblage at work: self-tracking becomes therapeutic as a practice of continuous and preventive health-related control through the dividualising and fragmentary logic of the system. This fragmentation and production of self-related data derivatives mean that a sense of full control often remains elusive. In Sakari's case, this is implied in the curious sense that selftracking seems both a vitally important and therapeutic task, but also, in the long ran, a battle one cannot win, because ‘you cannot really control life'. Thus, the therapeutic assemblage of self-tracking produces its own purpose by opening up the self and the body as potential and as an object of continuous control. The self becomes a data assemblage that is not, in fact, approached as a whole individual but as dividualised into trajectories of functions, traits and biomarkers, through monitoring of which a sense of control may be pursued.
As control of potential, self-tracking may be thought of as a constant struggle against the ‘deviant’ within (Bode & Kristensen, 2015). While Sakari wages war on various fronts against ill health, in another example we see the struggle against the disorder and social ill of ‘laziness’ or ‘idleness’, familiar from mainstream wellness- and efficiency-related activation discourses.6 Aino is a 39-year-old female, a mother of three children who works in an executive role. She has a background in competitive sports so she has long been familiar with heart rate monitors and other gadgets by which one can optimise physical performance via metrics. For Aino, such techniques have now become a part of coping with the demands of working life. She says that an activity wristband motivates her to move more, and she feels that if she did not exercise she ‘would not have the energy to cope with [the] damn tough demands’ of a stressful job. Here, as with Sakari, the way in which self-tracking comes to serve as a useful technology of the self (Foucault, 1988) is by control of vital potential, although in this case self-tracking is more explicitly connected to the maintenance of one's productive energy. Aino speaks about self-tracking as an ongoing process of avoidance of the lazy self always lurking in the shadows. She says that the whole point is to ‘give yourself a kick up the ass’ and ‘avoid the days when [my] activity is basically zero’. She wants to avoid inactivity, which she explicitly associates with ‘laziness’. In a quote Aino reveals how the device cooperates daily in establishing a sense of self-control:
Of course it was nice when in the summer I went golfing and I got a huge amount of steps... of course it was nice [smiles widely], like WOW, so many steps. But in normal life it is enough for me that the wristband vibrates [haptic vibration, a signal of achieving 10,000 steps] at some point of the day, that I’ve been active.
It goes without saying that a life with an activity tracking wristband that counts steps and measures sleep via movement of the body may enable different modes and patterns of self-control than a life with a weighing scale or with access to high-end laboratory testing. However, the logic of dividualisation in any case frames one’s relation to the self as a relation of control, because the production of the self as data assemblage highlights the self as potential. This is evident in Sakari’s and Aino’s cases. Sakari is potentially always in ill health, even (or perhaps especially) when there are no obvious indications of illness (see Dumit, 2012). The complex assemblages of technical devices, laboratories and biographical notes seemingly enable the person to control this insecurity, although such assemblages also produce the self as an object of ‘tinkering’ (Pols, 2010) with fine-grained nuances. In a similar manner, Aino is potentially always ‘lazy’, since every day is another straggle against ‘laziness’ and Tow energy’, which in her case is determined primarily via step count. The process of self-management manifests itself as permanent avoidance of the illness of ‘zero’ activity.
We suggest that while everyday proactive self-tracking is often narrated in terms of the typical therapeutic parlance of self-discovery, self-exploration or self-improvement, interview narratives show that dividualisation and fragmentation of the self are the primary characteristics of self-tracking. Although it may be said that self-tracking enables a process of self-discovery through the longitudinal measurement of fragmented vital functions or activities, in functioning it also creates interests that tie individuals into these sociotechnical regimes of control. The functions of the data as therapeutic life management ultimately become anticipatory rather than evidentiary, as any individual event of tracking does not so much generate self-knowledge as position the self in a continuum of measurements through which future (and past) selves can be imagined and potentially realised. Self-tracking thus persistently produces knowledge-craving subjects whom it supposedly serves, and the self as a ‘whole’ remains persistently unattainable. Self-tracking assemblages, then, present vivid instantiations of control through anticipation because, as we have seen, from marketing rhetoric to everyday experiences these technologies reveal the self as process and as potential, as something to be acted upon consistently in order to actualise a better life. Inasmuch as self-tracking assemblages are articulated as producing knowledge of something ’real’ about the self, they create a need to know by dividing a complex whole of life into trajectories and functions that extend indefinitely. This is fragmentary holism in action.