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They’re watching!… Themselves.

The “Quantified Self” is a movement characterized by the technological ability to collect and analyze data about ourselves: from our mood to our heart rate to the number of calories just consumed after that giant tub of movie popcorn. The popularity of high-tech devices like FitBit and apps like MoodPanda normalizes the experience of being monitored. Sociologist Michel Foucault used the metaphor of an 18th century prison design called the Panopticon to illustrate a modern society where surveillance and monitoring is normalized. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the Quantified Self movement re-locates the Panopticon from outside our bodies to inside our minds, further internalizing and normalizing the phenomenon of being watched.

I always feel like someone’s watching me; my every move & mood. Oh wait, it’s me.

As of 10:00 on the morning I write this, my maximum heart rate had reached 168 during a fitness class, I’d consumed 417 calories (including 7 grams of fat, 11 grams of protein, 48 grams of carbs, and way too much sodium), documented my mood as feeling very safe after killing a spider, and realized I hadn’t met my writing goals for the month after receiving an alert on my phone. In a sense, since waking up this morning I have been constantly monitoring my productivity along with my physical, biological, and emotional states, collecting data on myself through the assistance of technological devices.

The Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of monitoring ourselves through technology. Users can track and quantify everyday activities, whether it’s calories burned, miles run, television consumed, quality of REM sleep achieved, sonnet lines penned, or ovulation cycles estimated. The phrase “Quantified Self” was coined by Wired magazine writers Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, spurring an entire movement that now holds global conferences to bring users together with manufacturers of Quantified Self products. The Quantified Self movement’s motto: Knowing yourself through numbers.

But what are you to do with all these data on yourself? Be the person society wants you to be! Be productive, be thin, be fit, be smoke-free, be pregnant (or not), be aware of how many microbrews you sampled so far this year. You can even use the data you’ve collected to stay safe from sexually transmitted diseases by storing the results from your latest STD test on your phone’s MedXCom app and then “phone bumping” with potential sexual partners who have the app (I’m not kidding). In case your data are becoming overwhelming, consolidate and analyze the big picture with the Daytum app.


French sociologist Michel Foucault (1975)[1] uses the metaphor of the Panopticon to describe how being watched becomes commonplace in modern society. The Panopticon itself was an architectural design for 18th century prisons designed by Jeremy Bentham that enabled guards in a central tower to visually monitor each prisoner’s cell. Bentham argued that prisoners would discipline themselves, altering their behavior to become more appropriate because of the possibility of being watched. Foucault reasoned that a highly advanced capitalist society also needs well-behaved citizens populating workplaces, military forces, and schools. In our society, the Panopticon is an abstract symbol, representing the way we are always being surveyed: searched at the airport terminal, watched by cameras while we shop, and recorded at traffic intersections. It is much more efficient, though, to have individual citizens purchase apps that document their own behaviors and activities as exemplified by the Quantified Self movement.

The Quantified Self movement assumes that since we are all now capable of self-monitoring, we can and will use this data to improve ourselves, bringing behavior in line with current acceptable hegemonic norms. The Panopticon in which we watch ourselves is potentially much more powerful than a Panopticon where strangers watch us. However, it’s possible that in the process of constantly running surveillance on ourselves, we only see small parts and begin to lose track of the whole. In addition, when behaviors fail to meet appropriate norms, the Quantified Self movement may bring too much focus on individual blame while structural causes begin to fade.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you agree that “quantifying” yourself is a form of surveillance in modern society?
  2. Can you think of a way that a corporation might take advantage of a user’s dependence on a Quantified Self product? Give an example.
  3. Have you used technology to track certain behaviors or activities? Did this practice help you change your behaviors or activities?
  4. Watch this video about the quantified self and make a list of the pros and cons of objectively measuring yourself.

  1. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison  ↩