Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
This paper considers a range of ways in which so-called self-tracking technologies (apps, wearable devices, software programs) are designed to keep us attentive to various aspects of our daily existence – physical movement, eating habits, the way we spend our time and money, the rhythms of our moods. Some self-tracking technologies simply show us our information through a dashboard; others suggest or recommend courses of action, or ping us with automated alerts to keep us on track with goals we have set; some even gently vibrate (or even not-so-gently zap) to remind us of goals we are failing to meet. Drawing on fieldwork conducted among designers of self-tracking technology, I parse the attentional aims, temporalities of intervention, and conceptions of agency at play in this diverse array of designs for self-attention. I discern a shift in mass-market self-tracking technologies from those that scaffold attention in the matter of a compass to those that do so “in the manner of a thermostat,” as one device designer put it. I conclude by counterposing the thermostatic tendencies of mass-market self-tracking technology to the sorts of tailor-made self-tracking tools designed and used by members of the group Quantified Self, arguing that the latter can potentially support a more open-ended configuration of human agency, attentional capacity, and technological intervention.