14 December 2009

Fat activism and quantified selves

I've been reading about an emerging trend from, where else, the Bay Area which h+ magazine is calling, variously, life logging, life blogging, and Quantified Self. There's an article about it on pages 56-58 of the Winter 2009 issue (.pdf, 14.2mb). By the way, this is the first time I've come across this mag, it boasts that it "covers technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing – and will change – human beings in fundamental ways." Love that certainty!

The basic idea involves creating personalised data sets, charting one's body through time. You can pick any variable that appeals to you, do collaborative data gathering, and play with the resultant datasets to your heart's content.

Gathering personal data is not a new idea, it's sort of common. I'm currently logging my peak flow because I'm being tested for asthma, for example, and dieters log their weights at weekly weigh-ins. What makes this trend different is the sheer volume and variety of data being collected, the number of variables offered, the emergence of software to support this endeavour, the hobbyist nature of the activity, and the desire amongst life loggers to present the data in ways that pushes the boundaries about what is known about our bodies and habits.

So of course I'm wondering what Quantified Self could mean for fat people. Could this herald a new age of methodologically strong DIY data gathering? I'm imagining low cost research into aspects of fat experience that would never be funded on a larger scale in the current war on obesity. There could be quantitative research that ditches traditional weight loss paradigms, or which builds an evidence base for Health At Every Size, for example. Not only could this challenge duff obesity science, it could provide a basis for information about fatness that recognises the nuances of our lives, and the impact of social factors. Swoon. And that's only the beginning.

Unfortunately, I suspect this is somewhat rose-tinted thinking. The samples offered by groups such as Quantified Self are currently ridiculously skewed. Although they are generating masses of data, they are unable to manipulate it usefully. I mean, I love the colours of Mimi Chun's dinners, the way she presents her data is pretty, but what are its further applications?

The cohort of life bloggers presented in h+ magazine take an individualistic view of health, it can be generated through a series of rote activities, with an uncritical acceptance of energy balance. I think for guerrilla data gathering to be truly radical or socially useful, it is necessary to have some kind of understanding about the limits of positivism, 'scientific knowledge,' or 'objective scientific truth'. I don't really see that in this one, brief article, though of course it may exist.

And yeah, there's the obvious question too: aren't we more than a set of numbers?

1 comment:

wonderful woman said...

This is an exciting idea ripe with possibilities. Qualitatively it could double as a huge collection of personal histories of our bodies: mix in journals, photos, scrap books, activisms, romances, etc etc. What great data would that be and could exist outside of number crunching.

BTW I mistyped data as fata but think it was apt!