The Quantified Self Europe conference took place in Amsterdam on May 10-11, and I attended — making this my third Quantified Self conference! As always, it was a bit of a blur, with so much going on during each session it was hard to decide what to do. Needless to say, I didn’t see everything, but I want to share a few of the highlights.
I was struck by the unusual emotional intensity of several of the sessions I attended. The opening plenary set the emotional bar high, with Dana Greenfield’s talk. Her mother died in February after a coma of several months following a massive head trauma. She was an active, healthy woman who somehow fell down some stairs. She never regained consciousness.
Dana has been using lifelogging to process her grief and maintain a connection to her memories of her mother. She keeps track of “mom sightings” — those moments when a memory, feeling, or sense of her mother’s presence pop — along with her location, comments (micro journal), and her mood or affect at that moment. She noted that her mood is usually multifaceted, with sometimes incongruent feelings co-existing. She does all of this tracking using a Google form she created herself, which she accesses via her smartphone.
This process has made her realize that she wishes she had done something like this while her mother was still alive. She’d love to have a record of what she was thinking and feeling each time her mother gave her a porcelain figurine (which she never appreciated at the time, but now they are like a collection of moments when her mom was still alive). This talk really drove home how valuable lifelogging can be for remembering what really matters. There’s something very poignant about the ephemeral nature of life that lifelogging touches, which is why stories like these are so important to share in the QS community.
In a few sessions, discussion turned to the ethical ramifications of Quantifying the Self. In the closing plenary on day one, Josh Berson asserted that it is the responsibility of people privileged enough to self-quantify to refocus their energies outside of self and build tools that help those who truly need it. Can the quantified self community impact human rights, poverty, and global health issues? These are lofty goals, and as someone pointed out, “tools are just tools.” It’s how we wield them that matters.
During the Philosophy of QS — hosted by Joerg Blumtritt of Datarella — breakout session on day two, we had a fascinating discussion about sousveillance/ surveillance and the transformation of moral control. As we collect more data about ourselves and share that data, we begin to go back to a village-like model for determining what is socially acceptable. An example one participant offered was a recent spate of online nanny-bashing. People post photos of nannies they deem to be acting irresponsibly. In some cases the offense may be clear, but in many cases it’s something like talking on the phone.
The fact is, technology is making us more visible whether we engage in Quantified Self tracking or not. Will this visibility lead to a world with no crime or abuse? Will our values be crowdsourced and homogenized? There are utopian and dystopian predictions, most of which are probably more extreme than reality. I happened to finish Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle while I was in Amsterdam, and he certainly paints an unsettling picture of the kind of social control that may come with extreme lifelogging and “total transparency.” I’m glad to see people in the QS community invested in using the tools of QS to bring positive change not only to individuals, but to the world at large.
Categories: Quantified Self