Measure of man

text: Marie Kuhn, translation: Jasmine Wenzel/images: Chris Dake-Outhet

“Humans make errors.“1 With this statement, Gary Wolf, one of the founders of The Quantified Self, begins his essay on the data specific life, proposing to counteract human inadequacy by utilizing the technology of digital self-measurement. Wolf measures, analyzes and publishes his movements, diets and sleeping habits daily by using small portable technological devices that enable meticulous data collection. With the aid of sensors that attach to clothing or the body, smartphone apps, and a variety of other tools and gadgets, blood glucose values, the pulmonary function and the number of steps per day can be measured, and graphically represented and compared by evaluative visualization software. The regular collection and evaluation of physical, biological, environmental and personal data of any and all kinds is called self-tracking.


The Quantified Self follows the goal of self-awareness through data. The intention of the digital self-surveying process is to enable a self-determined handling of one‘s own body and help control its habits. The aim of the practice of self-tracking is auto-optimization. It is obvious that the use of digital measuring methods to quantify the self does not only correspond to the individual desire for self-determination, but as a business model that adapts neoliberal standards as well as making data available for purchase by third parties.


The project of self-surveying has long been affiliated with the field of sports and medicine, however this is no longer the case, and now, there are attempts to measure ‘feelings’ within the data. In theory, self-surveying should allow access to unconscious behaviors and not investigated through self-tracking but by linguistic and intellectual self-reflection and quantitative measuring methods. Wolf believes that the deficient person must rely on technology and data to counteract his own inability within his actions. According to Wolf, people can lie, unnoticed to themselves about their daily habits, but not to technology. Third-party observations, which have been aggregated from user data and visualized via technological processes, should liberate the subjective knowledge of assumed blind spots of human perception and with technical support, the users can be satisfied by gathered data — but what does the data of our bodies actually say? The lacking capacity to evaluate the collected data prevents the generatation of meaningful content about the users and their reactions. Thus, the relevance of the data about the body remains often not accessible. However, the sole collection of values does not provide qualitative insight. Both the motivation for self-measurement as well as the evaluation and interpretation of analysis results are based on communication. Self-knowledge is not brought up by counting, but by narrative. The assumption of Wolf that no objective knowledge generation results from a subjective narrative sounds paradoxical in this context. Nevertheless, the belief in the measurability and quantifiability of life dominates the digital age. The absolution of data thus stems from the cultural sense of our time.


The practice of data acquisition provides us with statements about health and illness, subjective sensibilities and optimizable behavior. It treats the body as digitally fragmented object and moves it increasingly into the focus of neo-capitalistic profit strategies. But how did it come that externally driven controlsystems developed into voluntary self-control systems? Humans gradually learned to have a body with an individual and collective health that can be modified, writes the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his book The Will to Knowledge.2 The central theme of Foucault‘s scientific work is the technologies of subjectivation. In hindsight, his statements seem like an anticipation of the Quantified Self movement. According to Foucault, in modern capitalism, technologies of power take effect based on “subjectivation, individualization, confession and classificational knowledge as collecting data and information“.3 Their principle of operation is exemplified by Foucault through the architectural metaphor of a Panopticon. The Panopticon is a prison model designed in 1791 by British penal system reformer and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, consisting of a ring-shaped building with a tower in its center. In the ring-shaped portion of the outer building, prisoners are confined to cells that measure as wide as the ring. The cells have a window on both sides of the ring and are therefore completely illuminated. The wardens inside the tower can observe the silhouettes of the prisoners at any time, but for the prisoners, it is not possible to recognize the wardens inside the center tower. In contrast to the control system of a dungeon, the prisoner is not hidden in the dark but always remains potentially visible without seeing himself. The concept of the Panopticon hence enables an efficient principle of control. The disciplined subject is exposed to an anonymous observation mechanism and actualizes itself through constant self-verification. The body of the prisoner becomes the subject and object of the control mechanisms.


The example of the Panopticon is useful to demonstrate how anonymous control mechanisms are automated and work through internal self-control. The external observer’s gaze is internalized and acts abstractly without inspectors or institutions of discipline. Self-management no longer refers exclusively to individual practices but acts as a pattern of social order. The self-monitoring practice finds its materialized counterpart in the Quantified Self, a technology in which regulation by a foreign force is transferred into the regulation of the self; a largely anonymous mass is enabled to access to its own personal data. In this sense the websites of the Quantified Self are arranged in panoptical order, the ubiquitous gaze of observers motivates the Quantified Self associates to control themselves and improve their performance. The disciplinary power acts by analytical methods, which classify the individuals on a scale of normalization; not only by self-control, but also by techniques of self-revelation the Quantified Self member reassures of him- or herself as a conforming subject.


In the much-quoted chapter Postscript on the Societies of Control,4 the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, Foucault‘s contemporary, postulates that the control societies are in the process of superseding the disciplinary societies. Herein, the gradual progression of a society founded on discipline and obedience being supplanted by a society whose ideal is autonomy, personal performance and self-responsibility. Neoliberal leadership techniques rely accordingly on “flexibility, motivation, target agreement or self-control“.5


To act responsibly requires self-discipline: It is not based on obedience, but based on autonomy. Using the ideals of individual subjectivity and self-determination, neo-liberal capitalism enables the creation of new constrains and forms of (self-) exploitation on the assumption that self-tracking enables selfdetermined action. With the introduction of new ideals of action, control forms with liberal appearance and in this way a system of “voluntary self-control“ was established. The ubiquitous imperative to initiative and self-realization makes structuring practices a precondition.


Self-control, along with the seemingly objectifiability of performances, convey to the self-trackers the feeling of being responsible with one‘s own body, suggesting that anything is possible through “[t]he modification, transformation and enhancement of personal skills with the aim of optimization“.6 Ultimately, however, the permanent feeling of inadequacy will remain, because self-optimization as an ongoing process knows no achievable goal.


The growing interest in digital self-surveying is proving to be profitable not only for suppliers of wearables and fitness apps but also health insurance companies who are following the trend as well. For these companies, self-tracking is intended to provide patients with a better treatment, simplify doctor‘s working routines, and save the health insurance‘s expenses. Some health insurance companies are now offering fitness apps that reward the user with cash or other forms of rewards for self-tracking. The threshold from a self-determined measurement of the body to a governmental monitoring is critical. In her book “Corpus Delicti“, the writer Juli Zeh describes a dystopian regime in which deviations from the prevailing health standards are severely punished. In an article published in 2012 in the Swiss daily scoreboard, she writes: “It is important to ensure that the waiver of freedom of Quantified Self remains a legitimate hobby. And not secretly mutated into the social concept.“7 The usage of digital measuring methods to quantify the self does not imply self-determined behaviour, but rather the adaptation to neoliberal norm requirements. They do not determine the working life alone, but rather by pulling almost all areas of life.


We cannot elude a progressive networked world, nor is it the objective of my argument to plead for it. The key is not the renunciation of technical devices such as smartphones or fitness bracelets, but a critical handling with them. The blurring of the external boundaries of self-regulation within the professional and private life is a highly problematic development — the focus should not be on the on the consumer decisions of the individual, but on political measures preventing a lack of transparency and accountability in the handling of data with regards to the institutionalized standardization practices. Self-tracking poses not a reference to a self-determined approach to one’s own body, but rather an indication of the incorporation of neoliberal leadership techniques.


Measure of man
Measure of man
Measure of man
Measure of man
  1. Wolf, Gary (2010): The Data- Driven Life. In: The New York Times Magazine.
    (Retrieved from 16.01.2018)
  2. Zeh, Juli (2012): The measured man. In: Swiss daily scoreboard.
    (Retrieved: 16.01.2018)
  3. Foucault, Michel (1983): Der Wille zum Wissen. Sexualität und Wahrheit I, Frankfurt am Main.
  4. Kuhn, Gabriel (2005): Tier-Werden, Schwarz-Werden, Frau-Werden. Eine Einführung in die politische Philosophie des Poststrukturalismus, p.120, Münster.
  5. Deleuze, Gilles (1993): Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften. In: Deleuze, Gilles: Unterhandlungen. 1972-1990, Frankfurt am Main. P.254-262.
  6. Bublitz, Hannelore / Kaldrack, Irina / Röhle, Theo / Zeman, Mirna (Hg.) (2013): Automatismen – Selbst-Technologien. p. 223 München.
  7. Bublitz, Hannelore (2010): Im Beichtstuhl der Medien. Die Produktion des Selbst im öffentlichen Bekenntnis. p. 207 Bielefeld.
    further reading:
    • Bröckling, Ulrich (2013): Das unternehmerische Selbst. Soziologie einer Subjektivierungsform. 5. Aufl., Frankfurt am Main.
    • Bublitz, Hannelore (2010): Im Beichtstuhl der Medien. Die Produktion des Selbst im öffentlichen Bekenntnis, Bielefeld.
    • Bublitz, Hannelore / Kaldrack, Irina / Röhle, Theo / Zeman, Mirna (Hg.) (2013): Automatismen – Selbst-Technologien, München.
    • Deleuze, Gilles (1993): Postskriptum über die Kontrollgesellschaften. In: Deleuze, Gilles: Unterhandlungen. 1972-1990, Frankfurt am Main. S.254-262.
    • Foucault, Michel (1977): Überwachen und Strafen. Die Geburt des Gefängnisses, Frankfurt am Main.
    • Foucault, Michel (1983): Der Wille zum Wissen. Sexualität und Wahrheit I, Frankfurt am Main.
    • Foucault, Michel (2015): Die Geburt der Biopolitik. Geschichte der Gouvernementalität II. Vorlesung am Collège de France. 1978-1979.4. Aufl., Frankfurt am Main.
    • Grasse, Christian/ Greiner, Ariane (2013): Mein digitales Ich. Wie die Vermessung des Selbst unser Leben verändert und was wir darüber wissen müssen, Berlin.
    • Han, Byung- Chun (2014): Psychopolitik. Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken. 5. Aufl., Frankfurt am Main.
    • Kuhn, Gabriel (2005): Tier- Werden, Schwarz- Werden, Frau- Werden. Eine Einführung in die politische Philosophie des Poststrukturalismus, Münster.
    • Menke, Christoph / Rebentisch, Juliane (Hg.) (2012): Kreation und Depression. Freiheit im gegenwärtigen Kapitalismus, Berlin. S. 18-37.