Making sense with numbers. Unravelling ethico-psychological subjects in practices of self-quantifcation

Jeannette Pols , Dick Willems and Margunn Aanestad: “Making sense with numbers. Unravelling ethico-psychological subjects in practices of self-quantification”. Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 41 No. S1 2019, pp. 98–115

Do you use a step counter, Fitbit or Apple Watch? Such devices promise you an ability to “see” something new about your body. Among technology providers and governments there is a hope that such self-tracking technologies will help people live healthier lives – the assumption is that we will get help from an app to do what we know we should do. But do these technologies actually work in this way? Using heuristics from empirical ethics, we have analyzed how users relate to such tracking devices.

Some of the questions we have asked are these:
How do the users interpret and understand the numbers generated by the devices? How do they adapt (or not) their behavior? How do the users relate the use of the apps to what they consider to be “good”, and how does this make them act? In sum, how do these app shape the “self” of the user?

We have found different ‘styles’ of self-tracking users – the objectivist-changer (interested in control and prediction with the aim to change lifestyle) and the aestethic-semiotic user (interested in new knowledge about themselves with the aim of increased understanding). In addition, we argue that the relation is two-way: not only does people make sense of numbers, the numbers also “make sense” of people and impact their goals, concerns and conscience. The role of self-tracking is therefore more complex than the optimistic visions claim.

Among technology providers and governments there is a hope that such self-tracking technologies will help people live healthier lives – the assumption is that we will get help from an app to do what we know we should do. But do these technologies actually work in this way? Using heuristics from empirical ethics, we have analyzed how users relate to such tracking devices. Some of the questions we have asked are these: How do the users interpret and understand the numbers generated by the devices? How do they adapt (or not) their behavior? How do the users relate the use of the apps to what they consider to be “good”, and how does this make them act? In sum, how do these app shape the “self” of the user? We have found different ‘styles’ of self-tracking users – the objectivist-changer (interested in control and prediction with the aim to change lifestyle) and the aestethic-semiotic user (interested in new knowledge about themselves with the aim of increased understanding). In addition, we argue that the relation is two-way: not only does people make sense of numbers, the numbers also “make sense” of people and impact their goals, concerns and conscience. The role of self-tracking is therefore more complex than the optimistic visions claim.

Del denne siden: