I database, therefore I am!

We complain about Aadhaar and state-monitoring but willingly undergo higher levels of intrusive monitoring by fitness devices

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 11th Oct 2018   12:18 am Updated: 10th Oct 2018   10:17 pm

The FitBit or fitness tracker is now a fashionable accessory. The heart-rate, weight, resting heart rate (RHR), sleep time, calories ingested (and burnt), exercise, location, are all immediately displayed on screens strapped to wrists or upper arms, or on the phone.

In more social consequences, an American parent has filed a petition that school-day recess (interval, as it is called in India) cannot be cancelled even on rainy days because ‘every cancelled recess takes about 600 steps out of [her son’s] day’. When one is supposed to take an average of ‘15,000 steps a day’, this loss of 600 steps for each lost recess, said the petitioner, amounts to something (http://quantifiedself.com/topics/videos/).

The process of quantifying what we do has become commonplace enough for it to be commercialised and monetised. And now it is a movement. The Quantified Self movement (http://quantifiedself.com/) believes in ‘self knowledge through numbers’ (the movement’s tagline). Set up as Quantified Self Labs in California by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired, who incidentally also coined the term in 2007, the movement advocates the increased role of instrumentation to document all aspects of life: ‘When in doubt, add more instrumentation’.


Tracking Productivity
Members of the movement have documented ketosis or the link between drinking and creativity. Another wished to understand how well he utilised his worktime. This is what, according to QS.com, one Mr Kyrill did:

Kyrill … connect[ed] the time-tracking service RescueTime to a light placed in a box with a house plant that he named Eddie. When he spends time on things he finds personally fulfilling, like working on his PhD, the light turns on and the plant grows. When he’s caught up in other activities, the leaves yellow and die.

The arrangement adds a new dimension to his productivity data. Every couple of days, Kyrill opens the box to water the plant. This ritual provides an opportunity to take stock on how he has been using his time, based on the condition of the plant. Embodied in this living organism is his failures to stay on task and focus on what’s important. Distractions take on a new threat. Rather than just endangering his goals, they now threaten the health of Eddie.

Now RescueTime (https://www.rescuetime.com/) itself is a great self-tracker. It shows you how much time you spent on various websites, emails and apps, thus allowing you to develop ‘an accurate picture of your day.’ It also enables you to ‘set alerts to let you know when you spent a certain amount of time on an activity’. If you feel guilty for spending an inordinate amount of time on certain websites (I confess I spent a lot on quantifiedself.com and rescuetime.com), you can decide the quantum of time to be spent hereafter and RescueTime will block those websites. The aim, says the project, is to be ‘in complete control’. Databasing every minute and every act is possible now. I database, therefore I am.

Logical Next Step?
Big Data, say Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier in Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think (2013), will ‘change fundamental aspects of life by giving it a quantitative dimension it never had before’. We understand now that Big Data (of which the Quantified Self movement is a subset) is essentially predictive – patterns emerge from numbers, which can then be used to predict future behaviour.

The quantified self offers us, undoubtedly, huge insights into how we spend our days. Used as we are to datafication – we don’t complain, do we, when our purchases are logged at the supermarket for future discounts on loyalty cards, or when we accrue frequent flier miles benefits? The Quantified Self movement is a logical next step.

Instruments compiling profiles is in itself not new. What is, however, new is the degree of intrusive monitoring we are willing to subject ourselves to. Even as we complain about Aadhaar and state-monitoring, we assume that data willingly shared enables and empowers us to maximise output, restore health parameters and determine our social success rates (meet X, whose interests match yours, from the data you submitted).

Yet, each of these outcomes (output, health, social success) requires us to make decisions and choices: but hereafter, these decisions will be based on the data compiled about us, by us. Beliefs, intuition, intellectual and cultural history in which we are embedded, and shared opinion, can be discarded because the numbers tell us what to do. Collectively, if democracy is about consensual opinion and informed judgement (the informational theory of democracy), the database alters the mechanisms for decision-making.

Make Believe
Then, the quantified self movement alters our perceptions of our-selves. We believe we can discern ourselves in the numbers, and plan a future from those numbers. But this evaluation of the self erases the grey areas – sentiment, influence, prestige, belief, irrational-but-fun actions – that are intrinsic to our sense of who and what we are.

Next, the quantified self eventually contributes to an inordinately large pool of data about several individuals with whom we share blood pressure levels, time-wasting routines and social expectations. Quantification leads to prediction for one, and for the many. What we then see emerging in the future is a standardisation of human responses (and responses to human behaviour) because these responses will be predicted for all those whose data revealed the same results. In other words, we are looking at the loss of diversity that makes humanity interesting.

Quantification is a great new mechanism of not only standardisation but also of governance systems. Advisories based on the data we submit generate models and templates for fashion, food, reading, entertainment, time-management, emotion-management.

If an individual can make decisions based on self-tracked data, then a state dedicated to citizen-welfare (okay, okay, just hypothetically such a state may exist!) can take decisions for your own good, can’t it, restricting your second helping of ice-cream or blocking that sleazy thriller on Netflix? Rather than as just enabling and emancipatory systems, one needs to also see such quantification as regulatory, limiting and regimenting.

Now I have spent a few thousand calories writing this, I have earned the right to relax with a Wodehouse.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)