experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

On measuring ourselves

“I demand, I insist, that everything around me shall henceforth be measured, tested, certified, mathematical, and rational. One of my tasks must be to make a full survey of the island, its distances and its contours, and incorporate all these details in an accurate surveyor’s map. I should like every plant to be labeled, every bird to be ringed, every animal to be branded. I shall not be content until this opaque and impenetrable place, filled with secret ferments and malignant stirrings, has been transformed into a calculated design, visible and intelligible to its very depths!”

–Michel Tournier, Friday; or, The Other Island (Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique), 1967

The quote above captures an attempt to stave off madness, and it’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever someone brings up data-driven science or the quantified self movement. Now I don’t mean to suggest that either of these activities is mad, but the quest to measure everything makes me nervous, even while it fascinates me.

Robert P. Crease, author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, wrote an interesting piece for the NYTimes this weekend on measurement and its discontents. In it he describes two different ways of measuring things:

“In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this ‘ontic’ measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties. But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as ‘fitting.’ This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t ‘measure up’ to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this ‘ontological’ measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.

It’s obvious which kind of measurement is preferred or privileged in the examples I provided above, and Crease explains:

“As the modern world has perfected its ontic measures, our ability to measure ourselves ontologically seems to have diminished. We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself … [But] in our increasingly quantified world, we have to determine precisely where and how our measurements fail to deliver. Now that we have succeeded in defining the kilogram by an absolute universal standard, we still have to remind ourselves of the human purposes that led us to create the kilogram in the first place, and always to make sure that the kilogram is serving us, and not the other way around.”

So why do we measure ourselves? The Quantified Self website tagline is “self knowledge through numbers” but the purpose or benefit of this knowledge is less clear. Ethan Zuckerman, who attended the recent Quantified Self Conference, notes that people self-track in order to “test the effectiveness of an intervention” or “monitor and understand the dynamics of a particular indicator,” and that one of the benefits might be that a “personal science could help a much broader range of people.” However, he also points out that “most self-trackers aren’t sharing their data very widely, both due to privacy concerns (will my health insurance provider cut me off if they discover I’m a restless sleeper? That I only walk 3000 steps a day?) and in part because sharing and aggregating data may not have easily apparent benefits.” This seems to suggest that if the data collected are mostly useful to the person collecting them, then the primary benefit is self-improvement or self-management. Zuckerman distinguishes this from surveillance data that are useful to others, but in my mind, self-surveillance is still surveillance. And, honestly, I’m really not a fan of self-improvement if it seeks to make people as efficient and productive as industrial machinery, or if it is considered to be a direct path to moral righteousness.

The quantified self, especially as a form of citizen science, is most often presented in terms of increased or improved agency. But I wonder what this agency actually allows people to do or be? How does it differ from what Foucault described as disciplinary power, and a relation of docility and utility with our bodies? (In the scenarios he described, internalised discipline removes the need for externalised force and violence because monitoring and regulation are self-imposed.) Put more bluntly, if our bodies are still just cogs in a machine then being the machine operator is surely only a limited improvement, or lateral shift in power, rather than a revolutionary change in the order of things.

For that kind of wholesale change to occur, I think we need to recapture our “ontological” measuring capacities and capabilities. Of course it’s ludicrous to claim that ontic measurements and quantifiable data are useless, but as I’ve argued before, “by implicitly supporting the notion that scientific data are the [most] appropriate types of evidence a citizen can collect, political action relies on conformity to existing structures of knowledge and power.” And the potential for action is also further complicated by “the capacity (or incapacity) of people to make sense of the data collected, not to mention their willingness (or unwillingness) to act as data collectors in the first place.” What I want to suggest is that we also need other ways of measuring that are equally valued. Ways that are more experiential, more qualitative and more ambiguous–and therefore more inviting of critical interpretation and debate.

What do others think?

Update: Ken Anderson left a comment that points to an interesting paper that includes a quote that nicely sums up some of my concerns:

“Where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented? … What is needed … are tools that capture what have always been the hidden practices of modernist innovations: objects have always been projects; matters of fact have always been matters of concern. … What I am pressing for is a means for drawing things together – gods, non-humans, and mortals included.”

– Bruno Latour – keynote lecture for the Network of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

Posted: October 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Everyday Life, Science, Technology & Society | 2 Comments »

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