Self-tracking liberates and restricts

Many of us use step counters, monitor our sleep with smart wristbands or cheer on our friends in exercise apps. According to University Researcher Venla Oikkonen from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, the attraction to self-quantification lies in technology and community.

Monitoring and quantifying ourselves is becoming ever more popular, with apps measuring various bodily functions easily available for our phones.

 “Self-tracking and self-quantification are having a fundamental impact on our daily lives, and a shift is underway,” says University Researcher Venla Oikkonen from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

However, self-monitoring is not a new phenomenon. Over the course of history, it has been inscribed particularly on the female body, which was thought to be responsible for reproduction and childcare. The quantification of the self may be discussed in Foucauldian terms. According to Foucault, the internalised need to observe oneself shapes power and power relations.

 “With neo-liberal thinking, the monitoring and quantification of the self has become more intense and more commonplace. The technological developments of the 2000s have enabled a qualitative change: the body’s previously invisible internal processes, such as ovulation, can now be observed."

The body’s previously invisible internal processes, such as ovulation, can now be observed.

The Monitoring the Self symposium, organised by the Nordic Network Gender, Body and Health with the Helsinki Collegium, tackles topical biotechnological phenomena from the perspectives of gender, class and ethnicity.

Who tracks the tracker?

New technologies are not ethically unproblematic.

 “When a great deal of health data is produced on us, it is also recorded somewhere. And it is being controlled by major corporations, not the public health system. What if we later decide we no longer want to share our information?”

The job of the companies is to market their technologies and to make them sound interesting. But therein lies the risk.

New technologies are not ethically unproblematic.

 “For example, when we track the Y chromosome with a genetic test, we can only see a tiny fraction of the genome. Is the consumer informed of this with sufficient clarity? What is the responsibility of the service provider? Our roots are much more than our genes.”

Self-tracking technologies are unlikely to disappear in the future. Instead, they are likely to increase in number and become more commonplace as their price goes down. This means that questions of accountability will increase with them.

Receding responsibility

 “The responsibility for health is being transferred from society to the individual,” describes Venla Oikkonen.

However, the responsibility issues are complex.

 “How does responsibility influence risk-taking and power relations? Does socio-economic status place people in unequal positions?” asks Oikkonen.

In Finland, an employer may offer vouchers to cover exercise expenses, but in the Anglo-American world, there is a trend towards more direct encouragement to choose a healthier lifestyle. The underlying motivation is the requirement of efficiency: an employee who controls herself and her time is more productive.

Who is responsible for inequality? Is it fair?

Not everyone can afford health technologies, healthy foods, gym memberships or children’s hobbies. There are local and global contexts in which these technologies do not even seem sensible. Who is responsible for inequality in such cases? And is it fair? Oikkonen believes that this area requires more ethical discussion.

The culpability of the female body

Self-tracking technologies are goal oriented: losing weight, getting pregnant, becoming more fit. And when the goals are not reached, guilt can follow.

 “If certain technologies, such as applications that track ovulation, are necessarily gendered, how does failure present itself? Does the technology in such cases produce risks that specifically target people who are assumed female?”

Care is also a gendered concept. Women are typically seen as caretakers. When the responsibility for public health increasingly rests on the individual, the responsibility for care accumulates on friends and families, often specifically women.

 “Ultimately, the health policy issue of care expands to include prevention,” Oikkonen points out.

Technology is not good or evil

An article on genetics and Mitochondrial Eve brought Oikkonen the Catharine Stimpson award in 2015. Her new book, Population Genetics and Belonging, discusses different ways of creating connections and differences through genetics. Community is a strength of the self-tracking technologies. Peer support can be available for people trying to lose weight or suffering from infertility. However, community always implies drawing boundaries: some are included, others excluded.

 “For African Americans, a genetic test can be a way to discover their roots behind a history of slavery, when no paper records exist. On the other hand, members of the far right have used these tests to justify their white heritage.”

 “Technologies have many kinds of simultaneous consequences.”

According to Oikkonen, this ambivalence is typical of self-monitoring methods. In addition to individual curiosity, the tests can address many kinds of needs. They can be used to serve politics, highlight the differences between us or open up new horizons.

Accordingly, Oikkonen points out, “Technologies have many kinds of simultaneous consequences. They generate freedom and inequality.”