- Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life ed. by Dawn Nafus
Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life is challenging to review because the volume itself already contains cogent efforts to draw together themes from, and respond to the provocations of, its various essays. It is a collection of articles on the so-called “quantified self” (QS) movement that recently has become a cultural phenomenon. Editor Dawn Nafus clearly put a great deal of thought into the organization and structuring of the material. She provides a compelling introduction and epilogue, as well as short introductory essays for each of the book’s three substantive sections. In addition, she invited non-academic authors to respond to the academic essays in the first two sections: journalist and QS enthusiast Gary Wolf for the first; technology entrepreneur Rajiv Mehta for the second. Non-non-academics Judith Gregory and Geoffrey Bowker conclude the third section with a broad reflective piece. The volume does an admirable job of self-reflection without the reviewer.
I accepted this review because I have become interested in quantification. As it turns out, however, “quantification” may not be the best term for the phenomenon; “datafication” may be more accurate. As Nafus herself notes, “The phrase ‘quantified self’ is too apt; it taps too strongly into longstanding Western tropes of calculative rationality and preoccupations with the individual as the privileged locus of action” (p. xv). And that’s just it: the real excitement of Quantified lies less in what it has to say about quantification than in what it has to say about the self. [End Page 293]
For example, in his essay updating Walter Benjamin’s analysis of photography for the age of the QS, Jamie Sherman asks what happens when we move representations of our “selves” onto technological platforms such as social media. “What happens when we all become abstractions of ourselves is a question we have already begun to answer in the proliferation of selfies and self-rendering across social media sites” (p. 40). He suggests that this constitutes “a rearrangement” of Benjamin’s notion of “aura” (p. 41). Sophie Day and Celia Lury argue that the contemporary tracking of persons challenges conventional notions of individual integrity and coherence. “Parts” of individuals, such as their genomes, are put into datasets, (ostensibly) de-identified, and distributed, raising the question of whether they can ever be reconnected to their source individual. Thus, “the edges of a person cannot be easily stabilized or secured” (p. 62). In response, Wolf offers the phildickian comment: “these threats to self are visible against a background of smart machines, of drones, whose explicit branding of convenience and violence delivers an implicit payload in the form of a question: what if you are yourself a drone, programmed for action in a code you’ve never bothered to read?” (p. 71).
Dana Greenfield explains that the QS is premised upon “the n of 1,” which “rejects the requirements of large numbers of subjects for statistical validity and expert credentials, forging a new epistemology of health and being where the single case or person collecting data over a lifetime displaces the population as locus for knowledge and intervention” (p. 125). Alex Taylor suggests that biosensors “are also the catalysts for discovering new relations between bodies all the way down (and up)” (p. 205). Gregory and Bowker suggest that we cease to “see ourselves as basically elucidated by the information in our DNA.” Instead, noting the increasingly recognized importance of the microbiomes in and on our bodies and our “personal living spaces,” they argue that we ought “to account for this community of self within which we live and through which we live together” (p. 212). Nafus summarizes: “a biosensor-rich world requires a much more complex notion of where a person’s body begins and ends” (p. 228). She—and Gregory and Bowker—call for a reconsideration of the skin as this boundary, something that has already been undertaken in a different context by Mark Taylor (Hiding, 1997).
Though not really relevant to the theme of...