Chris Dancy records nearly every detail of his life. So much so that Wired magazine has dubbed him “the Quantified Man”. Using a combination of sensors, mobile devices and ‘low friction’ tracking software, Dancy is seamlessly building a digital archive of his entire being that he says will one day enable him to outsource much of his activity to an algorithmic “online version of himself”.
Dancy considers his project to be both a science experiment and a “digital cave drawing”. Drawing on the pursuits of the health-conscious ‘quantified self’ movement, a group of tech enthusiasts championed by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, Dancy’s project extends this urge to track, quantify and assess daily life to the very limit.
On a normal day, Dancy will have between 3-5 digital sensors attached to his body in order to monitor, manage and analyse personal metrics such as his pulse, his REM sleep, his skin temperature, his diet, and his mood, to name but a few. This information is logged by a range of data tracking software applications such as iffft, Moodpanda, Zapier and Fitbit in order to provide Dancy with analytical tools that allow him to map correlations and causality amongst his activity.
Dancy also measures all aspects of his working life and online activity. He automatically keeps an extremely detailed Google Calendar log which records all meetings that he attends, all tweets and documents that he creates, all files that he sends, as well as regular screenshots of his work.
Dancy’s project thus sets out a blueprint for a new ideal of personal awareness and self-actualisation. However, his project leads one to question whether this practice really corresponds to a path of enlightened self-examination, or rather represents a Foucauldian technology of the self by which information workers face a further receding of the divide between work and leisure as inflicted within a liberalised labour force.
So, since starting his project, does Dancy feel the need to be productive all the time? He laughs, “I am incapable of answering that because I don’t remember what that felt like!”
Data tracking began for Dancy, after being made a redundant IT worker some years ago, a victim of the ‘creative destruction’ brought about by technological disruption. His response was to data track his life in order to ensure that he would forever be on the right side of a new class divide which he describes as being either ‘tech-enabled’ or ‘tech-dependant’ (which he says is akin to being “in a cyber k-hole”).
Dancy does give a lot of thought to the future of the workplace in which he believes all white-collar workers will be required to keep similar activity records. A quick look at his blog, Servicesphere, shows that he even seems to have conceptualised an entire vocabulary around the topic, suggesting that the notion of the workplace may soon be vastly different.
In this context, one may think of employers seeking to use technology to measure employee productivity and “gamify” the workplace, as well as the competitive individual worker who seeks to self-measure in order to get ahead.
This concern can be discernable in the comments of various Silicon Valley heretics. Take Evgeny Morozov’s critique of technophilic “solutionism” by which technologists misplace their faith in the use of “problem design” methodology to turn issues of political & social complexity into de-contextualised “problems” which are neatly solvable.
For Dancy, it’s ultimately about using the technology in such a way as to self-empower. “The future of work involves your ability to understand your relationship to data and actually derive meaning from your ability to make changes based on the data.”
But how easy is it to actually derive meaning from endless reams of data?
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger recently wrote about ‘the virtue of forgetting’ with regard to comprehensive digital memory. Mayer-Schönberger refers to the Jorge Luis Borges story about the insomniac Funes the Memorius, who “has lost his ability to forget and thus to generalise and to extract… [he] only sees the trees but never the forest. He remembers all the details but can never rise above them.”
Likewise, Dancy is able to use his data to recount with precision what he did on any particular day; he admits that his project has created a data-driven sensibility. “It dawned on me the other day that everywhere I look I see data like it is real, or like it is human. Once you see data, you can’t unsee it.”
For an example, he spots a nearby water jug:
“If I look around the room, I don’t see this water pitcher. I see how much water is in it, how much pressure it is putting on the desk, what direction it is placed in, what state it is in, how much the temperature has changed during the interview, and what it would look like in 3 hours based on its current state if it didn’t change now that I’ve picked it up.”
This leads one to consider how Dancy’s experience might shed light as to how data science may produce a particular regime of affective experience.
One is also keen to consider how mass media networked technology augments not just direct sensible experience, but also political and social notions regarding the constitution of the individual within the collective.
On this point too, memory plays a key role. Here we may consider Bernard Stiegler’s concept of “transindividuation” in order to conceive of the Web as a political space:
“…. within the Web a new process of psychic and collective individuation is appearing, according to the concept of Gilbert Simondon, who shows that an individual always psychically evolves through a social relation, i.e. collectively: the individual’s psychic transformation is never only psychic, and the relationship between psychic individuation and collective individuation works always through technical mediations – i.e. through artificial memory’s artifacts, from shaped flints to the Web, and beyond.”
Given the extent of information at his disposal, this may suggest that Dancy’s process of self-identification and narrativising of experience are filtered through this new process to which Stiegler refers.
Dancy here refers to a general movement towards “link culture” by which one communicates not by way of relaying constructed stories but by linking to “states and feelings directly”. Dancy thus believes that this mode of communication has made him more tech-enabled. “Links are somehow more real than articulation. There is something very powerful when you can send someone a moment or a state.”
One wonders though if quantitative information comes at the expense of qualitative experience. Dancy does admit that early in his project he went through a stage of ‘digital disconnect’ and that he has learnt to practice mindfulness techniques in order to remain present in social life. “When you make data driven decisions, there is going to be some fall out.”