Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Quantified Self; The Partial Self

A few months ago, in an effort to start eating better, I began using an iPhone app to count calories. For four months, I diligently entered every precisely portioned amount of food I consumed into my smartphone. I was also running a lot. I kept track of how far I was running, for how long, at what pace, etc. For the most part I engaged in this bookkeeping adventure alone– praising myself when I landed below my weekly calorie goal and berating myself when I didn’t. I soon realized, however, that there was a whole world of people out there doing the same thing I was and that we formed this thing called ‘the quantified self movement.’

I quickly learned that self-tracking, bio-data or personal analytics, as it is sometimes called, is a growing area of interest for smartphone users, data-philes, journalists, marketers, the tech industry, the health, industry, etc. There are articles circulating from the Economist on the topic, there was a 2012 SXSW competition using personal data generated by BodyMedia, a TED talk on the subject, websites, a Facebook page and daily Twitter conversations all about the quantified self. Also, there’s an annual international conference dedicated to understanding and capitalizing on the quantified self. It’s embarking on its third year (the first two were sold out).

One of the founders of the quantified self-movement, Gary Wolf, suggests that bio-tracking devices and the social practices that accompany them help to change our sense of self in the world. In his TED talk, he says that these tools are mirrors that tell us about who we are and that they should be used help us improve ourselves. “They are tools for self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge,” he says. Used in this way, according to Wolf, we also see our “operational center, our consciousness and moral compass” more clearly.

This is true, of course, of all media. Facebook, and before it, TV, radio, magazines, theater, literature, oral histories, hieroglyphics, etc. have always shown us who we are by showing us abstracted depictions of ourselves. These media portrayed the peasants, the aristocracy, the moral citizen and the outcast. The obvious difference is that over time, mediated depictions of ourselves have become more and more individualistic and personal.

As months went on in my own self-tracking experience, I began to grow tired of the constant bookkeeping. As I entered my default breakfast into the program morning after morning on the bus ride to school, I began to realize that I was becoming somewhat obsessed with life decisions that amounted to very small amounts of food. However, I also noticed I was changing my life to maximize exercise opportunities whenever I could. As I became more and more obsessed with the numbers my iPhone app was generating every day, it seemed I was making healthier life choices. In addition, I realized that I was gaining more and more emotional satisfaction, happiness and excitement from the hobby. I started feeling like I was becoming hedonistically yet healthily addicted to consuming the numbers my life was producing.

The student of socio-technical studies inside of me couldn’t get over the contradictory feelings I was having about all of this. I wanted to understand it better. After bludgeoning many of my loved ones and friends by imposing lengthy conversations on these topics and thinking and reading about the role numbers play in our lives (and have only played for a relatively short part of human history) (oh, and I should mention that I’m enrolled in my first statistics course ever at the moment. ☺). It occurred to me that the thrill derived by self-tracking behaviors can be traced back to fundamental pedagogical advice Plato gave to Socrates: “know thyself.” Plato advised Socrates that only after one knows himself, can he then begin trying to know “obscure” things. Furthermore, then one also has a better platform from which to understand others and human beings in general. The numbers, then, that our bodies create – like all previous forms of media— are a part of a fundamental quest for humans to help know ourselves better.

So, if it is the case that we use these new biometric tools to extend, yet again, our quest to know ourselves, as a society, we land in one of two places. 1.) after thousands of years we still do not know ourselves but we are now closer to doing so or 2.) we may need to realize that we can never know ourselves completely through fixed abstractions like numbers (or media). Personally, I’m partial to the latter conclusion.

Drawing on media materiality scholarship, I would argue that each mediated reflection of ourselves has its own advantages and shortcomings in its ability to show us who we are. Numbers, offer us a clean, neat, easily digestible packet of information about who we are. I’ve seen many self-quantifiers refer to numbers as beautiful. My heart rate is 107/64. I consumed 1543 net calories yesterday. I walked 2.1 miles, mowed my yard for 33 minutes and did yoga for 60 minutes. These data are precise, clean, digestible.

What numbers do not- and cannot- capture are the chaos that is an inherent part of the human condition. Humans are messy. Emotions drive us to do things we would never expect. We dance, cry, laugh, sing, kiss and fight when we least expect it. The unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March in the warm sun (when the plan was to do statistics homework in the library) is memorable where the bar graph on my iPhone that tells me I’ve met my weekly caloric intake for the past 4 weeks in a row is not. These unknowable surprises, one might argue, are the most beautiful aspects of being human and are only weakly depicted through abstracting them into fixed mediated form (especially numerical form).

I think numbers are helpful. However, I hope there is never a time when that unanticipated invitation for beers outside in March comes and I decide to go solely based on how those beers will impact the weekly bar graph on my iPhone.

Digital Inclusion in Brazil: a Social Informatics epistemological problematique

Brazil is currently the world’s fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population. It is the world’s eighth largest economy by nominal GDP with one of the world’s fastest growing major economies (World Bank, 2011). With such outstanding macro indexes, it is a shame to look into a close up reality of the Brazilian society, which is characterized by its abysmal gap between the rich and the poor. The marginalized poor people are not only deprived from decent services to their basic needs, but also to the access of technology. About 47% of the Brazilian population never used a computer, and 66% of the population never had access to the Internet. 64% of the people that had/have some sort of access to the Internet, never had a formal training on how to use the internet (CGI, 2006), which highlights the need of critical education and consciousness of its use.

The Brazilian government has been trying to fight such digital divide by introducing digital inclusion programs in order to socially include the marginalized population. Before moving on, I would like to revisit such terms since they have different meanings but often times are used as the if they were the same. Digital divide refers to inequalities between any groups in terms of access and use of digital technologies. Digital divide is usually concerned with statistics of access and can help us by acknowledging where the problem is situated. Digital inclusion refers to the process of democratizing the access to digital technologies in a way that the digitally marginalized is inserted in the information society.  For digital inclusion, access is not enough; the process should be worried about empowering the marginalized and teach them how to appropriate the digital technologies.

Digital Inclusion policies in Brazil have a technological deterministic approach, in which policymakers are mainly concerned about giving access to technology to the poor classes. Issues such as empowerment and appropriation of technology don’t seem to be on their priorities. In 2005 the Brazilian government invested over $400 million in various programs, equipment, infra-structure and tools to afford the poor population to access to technology. The Brazilian government was mostly concerned about lowering the price of computers and pushing them into the people’s homes instead of providing social programs that would involve technology. (Rebelo, 2005; “Info Plantao” 2007).

Currently, the Brazilian government has two main strategies to promote digital inclusion: LAN houses and Telecentros. LAN houses are establishments where, like a cyber cafe, people can pay to use a computer with Internet access and a local network (LAN). According to the Internet Steering Committee in Brazil, LAN houses are responsible for almost 50% of Internet access in Brazil and in poor areas it is responsible for 82% of the accesses (“O GLOBO”, 2009). Although LAN houses are privately owned business, the government provides several credit lines and loans with low interest rate in order to spread the number of facilities, especially in poor areas. Telecentros are facilities where the general public can access the computers for free. The computers are equipped with a variety of software and connected to the Internet. Several computer lectures are offered to the population throughout the year in order to fight the digital divide. Some Telecentro programs are owned by the government and some others by the private sector. Telecentros are usually implemented in areas where the populations with low income reside.

Because of the relative nuance of the Digital Inclusion programs in Brazil and even in the rest of the world, little substantive research/theory literature exists on the effective ways to measure change brought about by providing access to ICTs (O’Neil, 2002). The reason for such inefficiency is due to the erroneous methodological approach by policymakers whom are mostly strung up on hard numbers and statistics. The “problematique” of Digital Inclusion should be approached by qualitative methods which work well for exploratory studies in new fields as monitoring their progress and offers a holistic view of a dynamic situation (Patton, 1990). In this way, Digital inclusion research can build on Social Informatics research that considers social factors influencing ICT use. Social Informatics provides theoretical tools that can assist researchers in considering and understanding the social factors influencing ICT utilization (Kling, 2000).

The topic of digital inclusion hasn’t been fully explored in the eyes of Social Informatics. A lot of analyses have been done on policies regarding the topic, but a proper study that researches the users’ behavior, culture and attitude towards digital technology is almost nonexistent. No one can argue whether digital inclusion leads to social inclusion or not, because the previous studies try to tackle such question in terms of numbers, and as I already mentioned, it can’t be answered quantitatively. Digital Inclusion has been my main research interest, and as a Social Informatics PhD student, my goal is to ethnographically explore the actual digital inclusion units (LAN houses and telecentros), talk to people and understand their culture in order to properly answer some questions.

References

World Bank (2011, April 15). World Development Indicators database. Retrieved from http://go.worldbank.org/I358WVLTT0

CGI (2006, May 30). Survey on the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Brazil: e-Government Indicators – Households and Enterprises. Retrieved from http://www.cetic.br/palestras

Info Plantao. Retrieved December 7, 2011, from http://info.abril.com.br/aberto/infonews/082007/08082007-17.shl

Kling, R. (2000). Learning about information technologies and social change: the contribution of social informatics. The Information Society. 16(3), 217-232.

O Globo. Retrieved December 7, 2011, from http://oglobo.globo.com/blogs/cat/posts/2009/06/19/lan-houses-caminho-da-responsabilidade-social-197174.asp

O’Neil, D. (2002). Assessing community informatics: a review of methodological approaches for evaluating community networks and community technology centers. Internet Research, 12(1), 76-102.

Patton, M. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rebelo, P. (2005, May 12). Inclusão digital: o que é e a quem se destina? Webinsider. Retrieved from http://webinsider.uol.com.br/2005/05/12/inclusao-digital-o-que-e-e-a-quem-se-destina/

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