Self-tracking and body hacking: the biopolitics of the Quantified Self in the age of neoliberalism

“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]

Data or debris?

Benjamin’s vision of the Angel of History is often invoked to capture the inherent ambivalence in the idea of ‘progress’, of the promise and catastrophe that new technology brings, and the impossibility of resisting the storm of the oncoming future.  We live in a cultural moment where this image is brought into stark relief with the convergence of smartphone technologies, the primacy of the individual, the rise of ‘big data’ and a set of neoliberal values that has given rise to a strange and contradictory beast:  the notion of the Quantified Self. Self-knowledge through numbers is how the movement describes itself, and it happens through the use of self-tracking applications to gather biodata (both in the sense of biological and biographical) about the self.  But it is not just self-identified members of this intriguing movement who participate in this social practice: it has become increasingly easy, if not commonplace, for any of us to use social media and mobile technologies to capture, store and manipulate data about ourselves; as well as to exchange, represent and interpret that data in a variety of ways for multiple uses at the touch of a (virtual) button.

Figure 1: personal biodata is tracked and monitored with enhancement technologies of self-quantification

Figure 1: personal biodata is tracked and monitored with enhancement technologies of self-quantification

You can track almost anything:  heart rate, menstrual cycle, body fat percentage, mood, steps walked, miles run, calories eaten, pain levels, glucose levels, happiness levels… the list goes on.  There are apps like fitbit, digifit, runkeeper, heartrate calculator, moodpanda, sleep cycle, genomera (helps people use personal data tracking, science, and collaboration to understand how their body works and make healthier choices), imapmyrun, imapmywalk, momento (mobile journal writing app), bodymedia, 80 bites (healthy eating), Lose it!,  caloriecounter, Stress check, iperiod menstrual tracker, daytum, Islet diabetes, leanscale (tracks and graphs weight and body fat percentage).  You can even track and monitor your online presence with klout.  The possibilities for self-optimization are seemingly endless.

The Neoliberal Quantified Self

Nikolas Rose asserts that in advanced liberal democracies, “individuals are enjoined to think of themselves as actively shaping their life course through acts of choice in the name of a better future”[2].   This seems so self-evident in our contemporary context that we almost forget that this excessive individualism is not a ‘natural’ or de-politicized state but rather a formation that arises in the context of power and social value.  Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman, ethnographers interested in the social dynamics and practices of the Quantified Self movement, argue that “the relentless focus on the self, we suspect, does have cultural roots in neoliberalism and the practices of responsibilization Giddens identified so long ago, but it also does important cultural work in the context of big data”[3].  I will return to their point about big data later in this post, but to pick up on their first point, the convergence of neoliberal values, new technologies the ever-expanding domain of biopower is, in some ways, the perfect storm for the Quantified Self to emerge.  This intense focus on the “informed body”[4] is both symptomatic of postmodernity’s “inwardly directed gaze”[5] and neoliberalism’s celebration of the individual as centre of society; at the same time as it is a new form of social practice in the spectre of big data and the burgeoning e-health industry.

On one level, the Quantified Self conforms to the ideal neoliberal citizen:  the self-optimizing individual who voluntarily monitors, measures, regulates and collects biometric data on their own health, wellbeing and fitness; taking control of their own bodies on a minute and detailed level, making choices about what and how they use, share and represent themselves through that information.   But the intricate linking of the self and subjectivity to acts of individual choice and freedom – mediated by a proliferation of technologically-enabled knowledges about our biological selves – alters the way that we understand and represent who we really are.

This aligns with neoliberal discourses of self-government and entrepreneurship, couched in softer terms of enabling increased self-knowledge and autonomy over one’s quality of life, at the same time increasing the our freedom to choose (or at least have a technological hand in) our own fate.  Applications of the Quantified Self take this one step further.  Lupton contends that these technologies “promote techno-utopian, enhancement and health discourses”[6].  These discourses do more than promote an image of the self as endlessly improvable and malleable, they create an expectation of such, and in doing so they also open the possibility of the opposite:  a vision of the self as narcissus forever gazing at his own reflection.

The biopolitics of self-measurement

Figure 2: Screenshot of the mappiness app

Figure 2: Screenshot of the mappiness app

So the Quantified Self is as ambiguous as it is contradictory.  One example of this tension is an app called Mappiness.  Mappiness is a free iPhone app, part of a research project at the London School of Economics. According to the LSE, the app “prompts you a few times a day to ask how you are feeling, who you are with, where you are, and what you are doing”[7]. The data is anonymously collected by the LSE who then analyse the data to determine the effect of local environment (including sensory data) on people’s mood. Oh, and of course, “users can view their own happiness history directly in the app”[8].  This brief example throws up a range of ethical and philosophical questions for me:  Does the deliberate act of recording how you are feeling at several points in the day change the nature of that experience?  And in what way?  How does the knowledge that the data is used by a research project alter how people rate their happiness?  How does the use of crowdsourcing and the generation of big data through these forms of self-tracking reshape our boundaries around ‘happiness’ and wellbeing?  Could the obsessive recording of a person’s happiness levels get in the way of happiness itself?  These are questions I don’t have answers to.  But it is important to ask the questions.  Milan Kundera, writing on a particular novelists treatment of new technologies (the motor car at the time), notes that “the existential import of a social phenomenon is most sharply perceptible not as it expands, but when it is just beginning, incomparably fainter than it will soon become”[9].

But the use of these technologies in the “health and wellness” domain has implications beyond whether we know how many miles we ran today, or what our changing body mass index is.  Mobile and web applications that enable the Quantified Self give rise to a new level of what Rose calls “vital politics”, a politics concerned with our “growing capacities to control, manage, engineer, reshape, and modulate the very vital capacities of human beings as living creatures”[10].  The enthusiastic uptake of self-tracking apps has implications for how we understand and relate to ourselves as technologically mediated “biological citizens”, a form of citizenship has emerged in “the age of biomedicine, biotechnologies and genomics[11].  Potentially, it also gives rise to new forms of subjectivity and embodiment that are further complicated by the drive to neoliberalism with its emphasis on individual responsibility and the privatization of care.  How does the Quantified Self in this context reshape our expectations around how much we can know, control and modify about ourselves?

New vantage points: the spectre of Benjamin’s Angel

As I have argued, self-tracking mobile apps, along with social media platforms like twitter and facebook, reconfigure the relationship between ourselves, others and the minutiae of our everyday experience – we know what our friends are eating, wearing, etc. in a way that collapses public-private boundaries, making the frontier of what constitutes our sense of ourselves not just permeable, but malleable.  It is not the question of whether technology, as a knowledge-producing social innovation (which stretches back to our discovery of how to use wood and stone to produce fire), leads to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ formations; whether it is used to further or hinder ourselves socially, morally, materially.  It is rather what this malleability does to our “vital” selves (to use Rose’s term) and what happens when we view ourselves from new vantage points.  Are we fundamentally transfigured?

Figure 3: The Chronica iPhone app

Figure 3: The Chronica iPhone app

The Chronica app for iPhone is one of many self-management tools for chronic pain, with its tagline “take control” offering a promise of self-empowerment and agency.  The application enables a person to log and track data about pain levels, pain locations on the body, medications, treatments, as well as make notes and customize additional fields that could include mood, sleeping patterns and other relevant information.  An optional reminder function can be used to send you pop up notifications for when to take your medications, when your appointments are scheduled, even to record regular data about yourself, if you wish.  You can view a log of all (or a selected range) of your entries, visually compare entries over time mapped on a graph, and generate reports to export by email to take to your GP or keep as an personal archive.  When I first discovered this app, I was desperate to find ways to actively “take control” of my pain by trying to identify all the elements in my life that might contribute to or reduce my stability and function, and in turn, better manage my pain. 

As well as the Chronica app, I used Sleep Cycle which uses the iPhone accelerometer to sense your movements as you sleep to monitor signals from your body and wake you in your optimal sleep state.  As someone whose sleep has been, at best, patchy over the years, I thought this addition would be a great compliment to the pain management app. Sleep Cycle also records statistics on time of going to bed, time in bed, sleep quality, average hours of sleep and produces impressive visual data which maps the patterns of awake-sleep-deep sleep during the night.

I felt good about taking back control over my body by learning about the variables that affected my pain levels.  I enjoyed studying the multi-coloured graphs that my pain mapping spat out at me.  I kept meticulous records, like I had done with pen and paper in the past.  I saw myself in refracted and fragmented splendour.  I could quickly look at variables I’d entered at any given day or time and compare them – looking for an explanation for the ‘bad pain day’ that leapt up otherwise unexpectedly.  With dedicated use of these two apps over a period of about six months, I amassed an avalanche of data.  Like an amateur data analyst or human geographer, I looked for correlations, causations, patterns and anomalies.  But the more data I collected, and the more variables I added, the more confounding the data became and the less clear its meaning.   What had appeared as causations on one day did not correlate on another day.  The spectre of Benjamin’s Angel of History began to haunt me; my own biodata threatened to consume me in a spiralling sense of dread and panic.

The panopticon, internalized

What are the repercussions of constantly measuring the self?   Are there downsides to this new form of amateur cultural production and citizen empowerment? Does it enable self-improvement or lead to ‘cyberchondria’ and an unwitting compliance with the interests of those who control big data?  Has Bentham’s panopticon been cannibalized and digested by individuals obsessed with their own self-surveillance?  Authority and influence are no longer garnered upon direct control or discipline, but as I have shown through mobilizing a discourse of individual choice and freedom.  That “rhetoric of choice” clearly resonates with the “ethic of autonomy at the heart of advanced liberal modes of subjectification”[12] but it has been further complicated by new digital technologies such as the ones I’m talking about here.  These self-tracking apps devolve an increasingly intricate and detailed level of responsibility for one’s health status and sense of wellbeing onto the individual who, in turn, eagerly monitors herself; reflected in that tiny, shiny screen.  That screen promises self-knowledge but obscures the fact of our own self-surveillance.

No one needs to watch us.  We are too busy watching ourselves.


[1] Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts  (Harper Perennial, 2007).

[2] N. Rose, The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century  (Princeton University Press, 2007), 26.

[3] Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman, “The Quantified Self Movement is not a Kleenex,”

[4] Marc Chrysanthou, “Transparency and selfhood:: Utopia and the informed body,” Social Science & Medicine 54, no. 3 (2002): 473.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Deborah Lupton, “Quantifying the body: monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies,” Critical Public Health (2013): 1.

[7] London School of Economics, “Mapiness,”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts: 121.

[10] Rose, The politics of life itself: Biomedicine, power, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century: 3.

[11] Carols Novas and Nicolas Rose, “Biological citizenship,” in Global assemblages: Technology, politics, and ethics as anthropological problems, ed. Aihwa   Ong and Stephen Collier (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

[12] Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, “Biopower Today,” BioSocieties 1, no. 2 (2006): 208.