Metric Culture

Cover of Metric Culture

Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices

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Synopsis

Table of contents

(15 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xix
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Abstract

Metrics, data, algorithms and numbers play an unmistakably powerful role in today’s society. Over the years, their use and function have expanded to cover almost every sphere of everyday life so much so that it can be argued that we are now living in a ‘metric culture’, a term indicating at once the growing cultural interest in numbers and a culture that is increasingly shaped by numbers, as Beer (2016) also argues. At the same time, metric culture is not only about numbers and numbers alone, but also links to issues of power and control, to questions of value and agency and to expressions of self and identity. Self-tracking practices are indeed a manifestation of this metric culture and a testimony to how measurement, quantification, documentation and datafication have all become important tropes for managing life and the living in contemporary society. In this introductory chapter, I provide a general contextualisation of the topic of this edited collection along with an overview of the different chapters and their key arguments.

Abstract

What counts as evidence of good performance, behaviour or character? While quantitative metrics have long been used to measure performance and productivity in schools, factories and workplaces, what is striking today is the extent to which these calculative methods and rationalities are being extended into new areas of life through the global spread of performance indicators (PIs) and performance management systems. What began as part of the neoliberalising projects of the 1980s with a few strategically chosen PIs to give greater state control over the public sector through contract management and mobilising ‘users’ has now proliferated to include almost every aspect of professional work. The use of metrics has also expanded from managing professionals to controlling entire populations. This chapter focuses on the rise of these new forms of audit and their effects in two areas: first, the alliance being formed between state-collected data and that collected by commercial companies on their customers through, for example loyalty cards and credit checks. Second, China’s new social credit system, which allocates individual scores to each citizen and uses rewards of better or privileged service to entice people to volunteer information about themselves, publish their ‘ratings’ and compete with friends for status points. This is a new development in the use of audit simultaneously to discipline whole populations and responsibilise individuals to perform according to new state and commercial norms about the reliable/conforming ‘good’ citizen.

Abstract

Technologies of measurement and self-monitoring of health data have become part of a metric everyday life in Denmark. As part of a change in Nordic Welfare society, Danish citizens are increasingly experiencing a digitisation of welfare services. This chapter explores the rationales behind the eGovernment strategy of Digital Welfare 2016–2020 in regard to health and discusses how this strategy encourages self-measurement and self-improvement through discourses of improvement at both state and citizen levels. By illustrating how performativity is embedded in current conceptions of health, this chapter emphasises how strategies of digitisation lean on a bio-citizenship where individuals with poor health capacities become dependent, not on a supporting welfare system, but paradoxically on their own self-management skills in order to receive health services. Based on the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse (SKAD) analysis, this chapter scrutinises central documents on the strategy of digital welfare. Our exploration provides a critical insight into the current digitisation of health care by illustrating how new virtues of citizenship are demanded in the digital era in relation to digital health, and furthermore represents a current challenge for Danish welfare in the schism between technology as empowering and a technocratic form of governance.

Abstract

In this chapter, we draw on our study involving interviews with Australians who identify as current self-trackers to discuss why and how they monitor themselves. Our approach for analysing self-tracking practices is based on a sociomaterial perspective, viewing enactments of voluntary self-tracking as shifting heterogeneous assemblages, bringing together diverse actors who are both human and non-human. We use vignettes to illustrate the ways in which our participants enacted self-tracking and to identify some of the diverse meanings and motivations that mediate decisions to self-track and resultant uses of the information thus generated. We found that a varied range of self-tracking practices were taken up by our interviewees, including not only digital devices and methods, but also recording their details using pen-and-paper, or simply maintaining mental awareness and using memory. We identified several agential capacities in our participants’ accounts of why and how they monitor themselves. These capacities are interrelated, but can be loosely grouped under the headings of ‘self-improvement’, ‘exerting control’ and ‘identifying patterns and achieving goals’. They are motivators and facilitators of monitoring practices. The broader sociocultural contexts in which monitoring of the body/self is undertaken were also revealed in the participants’ accounts. These include ideas about the moral virtues of self-responsibility and the individual management of life circumstances to avoid chaos and risk, and the notion that monitoring practices can successfully achieve these virtues.

Abstract

Nowadays there are many digital tools and mediatised ways for self-tracking for the sake of gaining self-knowledge through numbers. In his recent book ‘Resonance’, Hartmut Rosa suggests that artefacts can indeed resonate with people (Rosa, 2016, p. 381ff.) by affecting emotion, intrinsic interests and self-efficacy expectations. In contrast, Rosa characterises self-tracking as an attempt to measure the resource potential of individuals, confounding it with the good life itself (Rosa, 2016, p. 47). That is why we want to challenge Rosa’s concept of a good life and enhance the assertion of individual and social practices that can generate resonance.

With several case studies, we want to study empirically how people ‘resonate’ (or not) with and in self-tracking practices and to which degree Rosa’s hypothesis is verifiable or not. By empirically contrasting the quantifying practices and metric culture of self-tracking with the recently emerging sociological field of ‘world relationships’ and ‘resonance’, new insights on the embedding of the quantified with the qualified self will be gained.

Abstract

This chapter provides an insider perspective on the Quantified Self (QS) community. It is argued that the overall approach and methods used in the QS community have not been adequately described. Consequently, the aim of the chapter is to give an account of the work performed by self-trackers in what we coin the 1-Person-Laboratory (1PL). Additionally, the chapter describes other aspects of the 1PL, for example the methods, procedures and instrumentation that are being used and the knowledge sharing taking place in the QS community. With a point of departure in empirical cases it is demonstrated how QS self-trackers put their own questions, observations and subjective experience front and centre by using their own instrumentation and data sets in their personal laboratories. In the 1PL, the causalities that are looked for are not aimed at generalisation to an entire population; on the contrary, the causal connections on the level of the person are essential for discovery by the individual.

Abstract

Drawing on ethnographic observations of diabetes (self-)management in French-speaking Switzerland and semi-structured interviews with healthcare practitioners, people living with diabetes and their relatives, the chapter aims at shedding light on self-tracking practices of people living with diabetes. It explores the ways people with diabetes measure and learn to recognise body symptoms of hypo- and hyperglycaemia through self-quantification, and act consequently. In particular, the chapter investigates recent medical devices – continuous and flash glucose monitoring systems – that reconfigure the work of health providers and self-care practices. It shows the self-monitoring practices and the resulting self-awareness people living with diabetes develop in interaction with technology and caregivers in order to undertake embodied actions. By pointing out that new technologies have facilitated the access to personal body information and the sharing of it, self-monitoring is also questioned as a form of surveillance, opening up issues of power and control over patients’ behaviours. With regard to this, the chapter illustrates that, occasionally, people with diabetes resist ‘docility’ through micro-powers at the level of everyday life by refusing to engage in their use and by developing personal strategies or ‘tactics’.

Abstract

The existing literature on fatness has critically discussed meanings and morals associated with body weight and explored people’s experiences of weight loss attempts. However, little attention has been paid to the practices of dieting – how it is ‘done’. Based on an interview study involving 31 participants, who shared their self-tracking experience of using the MyFitnessPal calorie counting app, we focus on the practices of ‘doing’ calories. First, we discuss the practices of temporality of logging food, showing that the use of MyFitnessPal not only has to be fitted into daily routines but can also transform them. Then, we look at the practices of precision or users’ various ways of turning the ‘messiness’ of food into precise numbers. Lastly, we explore users’ practices of adjustments – their attitudes to adherence to their daily calorie goal and ways of dealing with going above it. Based on our findings we suggest calorie counting is not a straightforward data collection, but one that involves constant practical strategies and negotiations, and can both influence and be influenced by other everyday practices.

Abstract

Sleep apps installed on smartphones are increasingly being used to help people overcome sleep problems. The purpose of this chapter is to identify the discourses that underpin discursive constructions of the potential sleep app user in sleep app marketing communication. According to critical marketing theory, discursive constructions of the potential consumer in marketing communication promote the potential consumer’s identification and alignment, priming the potential consumer to consider positively the product being marketed. In that sense, marketing (of sleep apps, or indeed anything) is culturally significant, as it provides templates for forms of identity, and affects the meanings and objects that circulate within a culture.

A data set consisting of the promotional material that was used to market acclaimed sleep apps was analysed using Foucauldian discourse analysis (FDA). The following discourses were identified in the data: disempowerment, pathologisation, ignorance, behaviourism, responsibilisation, mindfulness, seduction, convenience or common sense, empowerment and individualisation. These discourses indicate how sleep apps are legitimised as technical appendages to be installed into people’s phones and integrated into their lives. They also underpin the discursive identities that summon potential consumers into alignment. This chapter contributes to our understandings of the discursive mechanisms that lie behind the growing uptake of sleep apps. It also demonstrates the value of combining discourse analysis with relevant critical theory to gain insights into the emerging phenomenon of app culture.

Abstract

Since the 1980s, higher education institutions in many developed Western countries have been facing competition for resources, have undergone economic rationalisation, adopted a New Public Management style of performance management and aspired to meet global standards of quality. This chapter explores the self-tracking practices of academic institutions and workers as they negotiate a field that has moved away from a quality evaluation system based primarily on social reputation towards one based increasingly on quantified outcome indicators. Universities typically measure research performance not only in terms of quantity of outputs but also the ‘attention capital’ they receive, for example, the number of citations or awards and prizes. These metrics and the emphasis on attention capital generally encourage a culture of competition rather than collaboration, while promoting the ‘celebrification’ of academic life. We argue that this trend has been intensified by technologies that gamify research achievements, continuously update citation and ‘read’ counts, and promote networked reputation. Under these conditions, academic institutions and workers have attempted to pursue a variety of positioning strategies that represent different degrees of conformity, resistance and compromise to the power of metrics.

Abstract

School districts across the United States have adopted web-based student information systems (SIS) that offer parents, students, teachers and administrators immediate access to a variety of data points on each individual. In this chapter, I offer findings from in-depth interviews with school stakeholders that demonstrates how some students, typically ‘high performers’, are drawn into ‘pushed self-tracking’ (Lupton, 2016) of their academic achievement metrics, obsessively monitoring their grades and other quantified measures through digital devices, comparing their performance to other students and often generating a variety of affective states for themselves. I suggest that an SIS functions as a neoliberal technology of childhood government with these students internalising and displaying the self-governing capacities of ‘enterprise’ and ‘autonomy’ (Rose, 1996). These capacities are a product of and reinforce the metric culture of the school.

Abstract

In June 2017, The Human Data Commons Foundation released its first annual Quantified Self Report Card. This project consisted of a qualitative review of the privacy policy documentation of 55 private sector companies in the self-tracking and biometric data industry. Two researchers recorded their ratings on concrete criteria for each company’s website, as well as providing a blend of objective and subjective ratings on the overall ease of readability and navigability within each site’s documentation. This chapter explains the unique context of user privacy rights within the Quantified Self tracking industry, and summarises the overall results from the 2017 Quantified Self Report Card. The tension between user privacy and data sharing in commercial data-collection practices is explored and the authors provide insight into possibilities for resolving these tensions. The self-as-instrument in research is touched on in autoethnographic narrative confronting and interrogating the difficult process of immersive qualitative analytics in relation to such intensely complex and personal issues as privacy and ubiquitous dataveillance. Drawing upon excerpted reflections from the Report Card’s co-author, a few concluding thoughts are shared on freedom and choice. Finally, goals for next year’s Quantified Self Report Card are revealed, and a call extended for public participation.

Abstract

What happens when we limit our understanding of reason to a calculating competence? In this chapter, I will approach the contemporary introduction of New Public Management (NPM) in the Swedish public sector from the point of view of the fifteenth century philosopher Nicholas of Cusa and his critical analysis of reason and not-knowing. Cusa emphasises not-knowing as something which we cannot and should not avoid. As such it is central to every creation of knowledge. Reason, as the process to gaining knowledge also includes the capacity to relate to not-knowing. In modernity, the understanding of not-knowing has decreased and accordingly changed our understanding of reason. Reason became a calculating capacity, what Cusa calls ratio, rather than a reflecting capacity, what Cusa calls intellectus. The introduction of NPM in the Swedish public sector can, from this point of view, be seen as a kind of ratio-organisation, and I will point out three characteristics of this ratiofication: First, it includes a ‘concept imperialism’, as concepts from outside of the public service-activities displaces concepts that come from within. In this displacement, easily measurable concepts and concepts that frame a measurement-culture displace concepts that belong to the intellect. Second, we can see an ‘empaperment’ when every act has to be documented in order to be counted as complete, and where the empapered world of ratio becomes more central than the lived world with its constant presence of not-knowing. Third, this also results in a ‘remote controlling’ of activities when the acts of the staff are governed from the outside, and the competence to listen to the not-knowing of each situation is not valued.

Index

Pages 255-264
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Cover of Metric Culture
DOI
10.1108/9781787432895
Publication date
2018-09-24
Editor
ISBN
978-1-78743-290-1
eISBN
978-1-78743-289-5