The Digital Culture and Communication section of ECREA
Fotopoulou, A. (2018) From networked to quantified self: Self‐tracking and the moral economy of data. In Papacharissi, Z. (ed.) A Networked Self: Platforms, Stories, Connections. New York: Routledge.
The paper I presented at the ECREA Digital Culture and Communication Conference in Brighton (6-7 November 2017) examined a key question: how is our engagement with self-tracking technologies (apps and gadgets), changing the ways we perform and enact identity? Drawing from analysis of cultural texts, and on fieldwork with communities and individuals who practise self-tracking, I have examined the key aspects that indicate a shift from the networked to the quantified self. The paper draws from research published in the forthcoming volume edited by ZIzi Papacharissi, where I also trace values of data longevity, permanence but also the right to self-erasure, as they manifest both in cultural texts (such as the fiction novels The Circle and Super Sad True Love Story), and in legal schemes such as the ‘Right to be Forgotten’. I also draw from ethnographic study to outline the delicate dance between commercialization and self-knowledge in the Quantified Self community. Here I consider the moral undertones in the framing of personal data disclosure as “sharing” by apps and platforms such as PatientsLikeMe. I also discussed the performative and material aspects of the quantified self, and the centrality of ritual.
One of the key ideas of the paper was how matters of data ownership and privacy rights are infused with moral significance, just like property rights have been in the past. For example, hacking, identity theft and piracy are considered violations of intellectual ownership and as such, they are inevitably deemed as immoral acts. But when it comes to personal data ownership, what does it mean to frame personal information disclosure as “sharing”?
See for instance how Meforyou.com advocates the sharing of personal data for the common good and for the advancement of scientific research. The video and website overall calls for a contribution to the commons, and makes a case for a moral obligation to contribute to the repository. There are a few more projects that evoke the hope to turn patient experiences into voice by collecting data for the public good (see for instance the Million veteran program, Health Data Exploration and OpenSNP).
This moral undertone imbues not just health data sharing, but also the collection of passive data such as real-time traffic data. But as scholars have noted (see Gabrys, 2014, p.7) the rhetoric of the common good in smart and sustainable city projects is problematic; it may reproduce existing or create new material-political arrangements that perpetuate inequalities and exclusions.
Another aspect that I discussed at the presentation was how ritual and performativity inform data subjectivity. Mash-ups and other remix practices of participatory cultural production have embraced copying, curating and modification of digital content. The cultural product is unfinished, and co-produced by the collective in a non-linear process (Sinnreich, 2016). These practices have also been saturated with morality – at its extremes a recognized religion, Kopimism.
But with data collection practices, such as self-tracking, it is indeed the self that remains unfinished. Based on the idea that data can be indefinitely recycled, repurposed and “correlated” (Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier 2013), the self can be endlessly reconstructed across datasets. This constitutes the quantified self inherently performative. At the same time, this performance is ritualistic because of the repetitive nature of logging or checking information. Although self-tracking practices of the quantified self resemble the repetitive practices of letter and journal writing (Rettberg 2014; O’Riordan, 2017), their direct association to behavioural change sets them apart. The discussion in the chapter From networked to quantified self (Fotopoulou, 2018) gets into depth as to how publicity and sharing makes there rituals distinct.
To conclude this post, my argument in this work is that the Self in an era of data-driven systems, is not merely another form of representation, or a “data- double”. The Self is performative and material, and an analysis of moral discourses of ‘sharing’ in digital culture allows us to understand how power operates in datafied societies.
Keywords: moral economy, quantified self, networked self, self tracking, datafication, critical data studies