Self-regulation in Sensor Society

Speaker: Natasha Schüll
Date recorded: Mar 31, 2016
In the story of self-tracking technology and its increasing automation, a certain ambivalence over the terms of contemporary selfhood comes to the fore.

Natasha Schüll – From the NSA scandal to Facebook’s controversial “mood experiment,” the past decade has seen heated debate over the ways that governments and corporations collect data on citizens and consumers, the ends to which they use it, and the threat this poses to civil liberties. Yet even as this discussion over surveillant monitoring unfolds, the public has embraced practices and products of self-tracking, applying sensor-laden patches, wristbands, and pendants to their own bodies.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, this talk explores how mainstream self-tracking technologies – in their design, marketing, and use – increasingly part ways with the ethos of intensive self-attention found within the Quantified Self (QS) community, serving as digital compasses to guide consumers through the confounding, tempting, and sometimes toxic landscape of everyday choice making and lifestyle management (for instance, by regulating the micro-rhythms of their bites, steps, sips, and breaths). By offering them a way to fulfill the cultural demand for self-management while delegating the often tedious, sometimes existentially taxing labor involved in meeting that demand, such devices at once exemplify and short-circuit ideals of individual agency and responsibility.

In the story of self-tracking technology and its increasing automation, a certain ambivalence over the terms of contemporary selfhood comes to the fore. Are there any connections to be drawn between this ambivalence and broader debates over governmental and corporate surveillance, data privacy, and the possibility for resistance?