The Problem With (The Problem With) The Quantified Self Movement

For whatever reason, perhaps because it’s that time of the year and I know many fitness-minded people, I keep coming across articles about the Quantified Self Movement (briefly: the movement towards collecting your own health data whether it’s steps counted with your fitbit, calories and macronutrients eaten, quality and quantity of sleep with a phone app) and the problems with it.

But the problems I keep seeing people write about are not the problems I’m particularly interested in. Yes, the question of where does that data go and who is using it is important (though hard to get excited about knowing that everything from my Facebook to my debit purchases are tracked, sold, analyzed). As is the issue of how male-oriented a lot of health trackers are (half the population has periods and the things that go along with it!).

But the biggest problems, to my mind, are the ways that the Quantified Self Movement (or, if you’re not crazy about the title, the increasing ubiquity of health-trackers) reifies the neoliberal approach to health as a project of surveillance and self-governance with a complete elision of the structural factors that affect health much more deeply than the number of steps you take in a day.

While activity is important for health, and 10,000 steps is a good goal for those whose bodies are able to meet it, the more pressing matters for more and more people are living in a safe environment (does your pedometer matter when you have black mould in your damp apartment? When you can’t walk down the street for fear of violence from passersby and/or the police?), having access to enough reasonably healthful food (who cares about goji berries when the only food options within an hour’s walk are fast food?), and living above the poverty line (did you know poverty is one of the biggest risk factors for diabetes?).

So far, $1.4 billion has been invested in wearable technology and it’s estimated that revenue from wearable tech will hit $19 billion by 2018$19 billion. Nineteen billion dollars. Imagine what $19 billion dollars could do in terms of infrastructure. $2 billion could cover my entire city with streetcars, which would get more cars off the road, more people walking, and would stimulate local businesses. Imagine how many community gardens, culturally-relevant food sharing and cooking programs, safe green spaces in urban communities, grocery stores in food deserts, bike-sharing programs, low-cost/free health clinics, mental health programs, and domestic violence programs could be funded. Hell, imagine how much lobbying for fruit and vegetable subsidies we could do with $19 billion dollars.

Of course, it’s not as easy as that. It’s not like that $19 billion dollars, if not going to Fitbits and Misfits and other weirdly named trackers, would go into infrastructure and alleviating poverty. But the salient point here is that if these companies (and the middle class Whole Foods goers who buy them) are going to claim to care about improving health, we need to look beyond the individual. We need to look at what creates healthy societies and invest our time, money, and talents in that, rather than getting yet another gadget to sync with our phones.

(Full disclosure: I have a Withings Pulse and wear it daily. In hindsight, a $10 pedometer would have done the trick just as well.)

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One thought on “The Problem With (The Problem With) The Quantified Self Movement

  1. Doing my masters research project on this exact topic, came across your blog, and am re-inspired after losing motivation for the paper. So helpful – thank you!

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