Time-Consciousness and the Quantified-Self Movement — pt. 1

In the context of changing global circumstances, reflections on the nature of time are today as common as weather forecasts. Modern human, the one that exists within a networked society has become aware of time and its flow perhaps more than any other human before. This 24/7 society as Hassan and Purser describe it in their Time and Temporality in Network Society (2007) is constantly online, managing at the same time their presence in both physical and virtual realms. Moreover, this society is always “connected or connectable and always available to work or to consume” (Hassan 2007, 3). Individuals that comprise this networked society have a unique social capability of being able to communicate with others across the globe at any given time or place. Finally, these individuals are being driven by the demands of this

ever-accelerating networked and globalized life where the time of the clock no longer schedules and meters our individual and collective existence in as predictable fashion as it once did. (Hassan 2007, 2)

In other words, our society is increasingly leaving behind the notion of working in shifts and schedules, which required being confined to a specific time and place. As late capitalistic Western societies started outsourcing their production demands to the third-world countries because they offer cheaper labor, the service industries started blossoming and becoming available at any time of day. In turn, modern worker is no longer expected to be punctual, but to be flexible and efficient. Naturally, this organization of social life has brought upon tremendous demands that human bodies are not equipped to handle: individuals are asked to be “masters of time” in order to be accepted, trustworthy and successful participants of the society.

One of the consequences of such lifestyle is the increasing desire to have everything documented (Hassan 2007, 3). Remembering has become too demanding for human bodies, as the amount of information they’re exposed to on a daily basis is increasingly overwhelming. Because of this, humans have started creating and consuming information virtually, in “shrunken” forms — whether it’s digital photography stored in a cloud or shared on social media outlets, status updates that may or may not be accompanied with pictures, consuming news in “real-time” — the buzzword of today is “instant” because anything else requires an investment of time and time is a precious commodity that even the richest among us don’t have in abundance.

Today’s “information society” or “knowledge society” is affected with the ubiquitous influence of mediation by means of digital communication technologies. Living in the digital age is often being described as living in the “age of anxiety.” Observed through that context, the new social habit of tracking our bodies, behaviors and environments can be seen as a way of dealing with feelings of anxiety. As people feel they don’t have enough hours in their day, they are being invited by technology creators to “hack” their time, their bodies, and their life in general, so they could become the masters of the self. Having a digital, virtual life means having a repository of one’s life — both social and private — that one can turn to, to reflect upon the gathered information or to share the information with other individuals, businesses and organizations.

In this context, Quantified Self has emerged as a trend in big data science, a movement and a collective of “individuals engaged in the self-tracking of any kind of biological, physical, behavioral, or environmental information” (Swan 2013). Individuals involved in this contemporary self-tracking practice employ an array of products that come in form of sensor-laden patches, wristbands and pendants applied to their own bodies. Quantified-Selfers, lulled by the promise of “self-knowledge through numbers,”[1] seek to discover patterns in large volumes of numerical data, rendered and presented to them in graphs, pie charts and other data visualization techniques. Patterns that emerge over time are supposed to show a full picture and uncover hidden habits that affect one’s behavior.

This feedback loop in which the data should affect behavior is a cybernetic dream coming to life. The loop holds a promise of empowering individuals with more control. In this relationship, a hacker is born. Not a hacker as computer geek, but hacker as “a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system” — this is how the Internet Users’ Glossary defined a hacker back in 1993. Today the word is often used to describe an efficient and flexible person, someone who is capable of making his problems manageable and at the same time is in the never-ending pursuit of making things better. It is a person with a desire to master his or her body and environment, in order to be able to manipulate them to do more than they were “originally” intended to do.

What becomes evident is that these new habits of self-tracking and documenting our lives digitally are in large part depending on and fueled by our tools. While humans have been using simple and analog tools to track their use of time and their bodily processes for a long time, Quantified Self became possible when mobile technology and electronic sensors became ubiquitous, portable, accurate and affordable. As Nora Young argues in her book The Virtual Self (2012), digital technology has made it easy to engage in this sort of activity. What would once be considered crazy and bizarre, or reserved only for scientists and scholars, mostly because of how time consuming it was, personal information gathering and curating in digital age are casual and painless processes. As far as shifts in temporal organizations of post-industrial, networked societies are concerned — whether actual or perceived — they are also directly related to the technological make-up that structures society today (Zandbergen 2012). If industrialization made speed a “natural” feature of everyday life, then digitalization and proliferation of information technologies has done the same for instant. The alluring promise that everything, once “transformed into digital, can be moved around at the speed of light” (Zandbergen, 2012:30) has only intensified and justified a desire to track digitally.

This series of articles will examine the Quantified-Selfers relationship with time as a product of their relationship with self-tracking devices. If the QS movement is all about hacking the body in order to be able to fine-tune it to perform better in this demanding culture, then hacking the time in which the body exists is a requirement that makes the former possible. I argue that ultimately, the QS movement is not just about being more efficient, or optimized or in charge of time, it’s about hacking the body and/or time the same way we were able to hack the genome — to enter its form and substance in order to be able to bend it to our own will.

[1] “Self-knowledge through numbers” is a slogan of the Quantified Self, an international community of users and makers of digital self- tracking tools, which includes people who are doing personal projects as well as developers, hackers, and entrepreneurs.

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