Personal Informatics and Design

Design discourse is admittedly mostly technical in the sense of focusing on product development, marketing, and business planning. Nonetheless there is a deeper and, for the social scientist, more interesting background for questions relating to design. At stake is fundamentally a techné of the self in the sense of Foucault’s ethics and Heidegger’s interpretation of technology as poiesis. In a well-known book entitled Sciences of the Artificial, Herbert Simon developed a concept of design that can be traced from Greek techné and applied to Foucault’s technology of self as ethics. For Simon (1996)

“Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training…. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine, are all centrally concerned with the process of design.” (111)

Bruno Latour would agree to this and add that the concept of design today “has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and … to nature itself… (Latour 2008: 2). Furthermore, this extension of the idea of design to all aspects of reality means that the concept of “design” has become “a clear substitute for revolution and modernization” (5); those two ideals that have led Modernity into an inescapable responsibility for planetary ecology. Finally, for Latour “the decisive advantage of the concept of design is that it necessarily involves an ethical dimension which is tied into the obvious question of good versus bad design” (5). The ethical dimension that Latour finds at the heart of design joins Foucault’s idea of an ethical technology of self for “humans have to be artificially made and remade” (10). Understanding self-knowledge as an ethical and technical (in the sense of techné) task of design should not lead us into post-humanist speculations and the discussion of cyborgs. Instead, that which makes design both ethically good and aesthetically beautiful is its ability to take as many different aspects of what something is and can become into account, to respect all the different claims that can be made on someone or something, to insure that nothing important is overlooked, and to allow for surprises and the unexpected. To design something well, including oneself, in the functional, ethical, and aesthetic dimensions, is to take account of as much information as one can in the process of constructing. Latour proposes that networking, that is, the techné of constructing actor-networks, should be understood as design. This means that design is a “means for drawing things together – gods, non-humans, and mortals included” (13).

It is interesting to note that much of the research being done in the area of wearables and personal informatics systems can be classified as design. The well-known five phases model is used primarily for design research. The central questions asked by this research is what motivates, enables, and binds users to a particular constellation of hardware and software? How can automated systems help users set goals and monitor success? This research clearly demonstrates that the information being gathered, aggregated, and interpreted by body tracking technologies also change the parameters of what health and well-being are considered to be. This becomes apparent the moment we consider that information aggregated, shared and evaluated in large quantities can yield new knowledge about health. Health is not a given, but a goal that is to be discovered by practice of gathering data, aggregating, and sharing the data so that further research can discover new and unforeseen correlations. The influential President’s Report on Big Data (2014) claims that “Big data can identify diet, exercise, preventive care, and other lifestyle factors that help keep people from having to seek care from a doctor” (22). Big Data analytics “can … help identify clinical treatments, prescription drugs, and public health interventions that may not appear to be effective in smaller samples, across broad populations, or using traditional methods” (23). Big Data enable “predictive medicine” which “peers deeply into a person’s health status and genetic information, allowing doctor’s to predict whether individuals will develop a disease and how they might respond to specific therapies” (23). These possibilities raise important questions with regard to privacy. For example, predictive medicine “extends beyond a single individuals risks to include others with similar genes….” The Report acknowledges that current legal and cultural notions of privacy “may not be well suited to address these developments” (23), and concludes that “Using big data to improve health requires advanced analytical models to ingest multiple kinds of lifestyle, genomic, medical, and financial data” (23) all of which are needed to develop personalized health services. Despite the concerns for privacy, many patient community platforms are becoming major contributors to medical research and it is on the basis of this research that the parameters for data selection and evaluation are being adjusted and built into wearables and body tracking tools. It is from this research that the values of what counts as healthy with regard to vital data are set, that is, are fed back into the instruments as goals and markers of health. Not simply gathering more and more data from more and more sensors is the defining characteristic of personal informatics as a technology of self, but the sharing of this data in communities of research, consultation, support, and care. Only when personal informatics and body tracking are not confined to mere compliance to set parameters, but guided by new ethical values of transparency, participation, and authenticity actively and constructively engaged in creating parameters and defining health does the “quantified” self become a “qualified” self.  The qualified self is no longer subject to the morality of compliance, but is guided by the ethics of design.

The goal of design is not to pilot the “machine” successfully on the basis of a certain very limited instruments and within given boundaries – which is the typical meaning of morality as compliance with given rules – but also to question and change the parameters of functionality and the rules themselves. This goal and practice corresponds with Foucault’s notion of ethics. Ethics are not morality. They are much more a techné in the sense of design as proposed by Latour. The ethical life is lived with regard to designing the self as functional (healthy) as well as good and beautiful, that is, by taking account of all the available information and striking the right balance. The many tools and technologies of personal informatics make this possible in that they transform everything into information and draw this information together so that it can be compared, evaluated, correlated, and allowed to flow through networks in unforeseeable ways. Health and beauty are not given, either by God or by medicine, psychology, and sociology, but are constantly being formed, tested, revised, and (re)negotiated in the process of networking. Networking means not only connectivity and flow of information, but also communication, participation, transparency, flexibility, and authenticity.

Foucault, M. (1997): “Technologies of the Self.” In: P. Rabinow (ed.), Foucault Ethics Subjectivity and Truth, Vol 1 of The Essential Works of Foucault 1954 – 1984, New York: The New Press pp. 223 – 251.

Latour, B. (2008): A Cautious Prometheus? A few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), Keynote Lecture for the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society Falmouth, Cornwall, September 3, 2008.