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Today, machines observe, record, sense the world – not just for us, but sometimes instead of us (in our stead), and even indifferently to us humans. And yet, we remain human. Correlationism may not be up to a comprehensive ontology, but the ways in which we encounter, and struggle to make some kind of sense of, machinic sensibility matters. The nature of that encounter is not instrumentality, or even McLuhanian extension, but a full-blown ‘relationship’ where the terms by which machines ‘experience’ the world, and communicate with each other, parametrises the conditions for our own experience. This essay will play out one such relationship currently in the making: the boom in self-tracking technologies, and the attendant promise of data’s intimacy.
This essay proceeds in three sections, all of which draw on a larger research project into self-tracking and contemporary data epistemologies. It thus leverages observations from close reading of self-tracking’s publicisation in the mass media between 2007 and 2016; analysis of over fifty self-tracking products, some of it through self-experimentation; and interviews and ethnographic observation, primarily of the ‘Quantified Self’ connoisseur community. The first section examines the dominant public presentations of self-tracking in early twenty-first century discourse. This discourse embraces a vision of automated and intimate self-surveillance, which is then promised to deliver superior control and objective knowledge over the self. Next, I link these promises to the recent theoretical turns towards the agency of objects and the autonomous sensory capacities of new media to consider the implications of such theories – and the technological shifts they address – for the phenomenology of the new media subject. Finally, I return to self-tracking discourse to consider its own idealisation of such a subject – what I call ‘data-sense’. I conclude by calling for a more explicit public and intellectual debate around the relationships we forge with new technologies, and the consequences they have for who – and what – is given which kinds of authority to speak the truth of the ‘self’.