Global judgements and ideas.
I was a visiting researcher at the Quantified Self Institute in Groningen, Netherlands on the 15th January 2015. It is a fascinating institue that was founded in 2012 in collaboration with QS Labs LLC (San Francisco). The Institute is very much at the cutting edge of research on self-tracking, health and wellbeing, focussing on the Big Five for Healthy Life .
Wearable sensory technology is making significant impacts on the possibilities for the future of work and leisure, and applied and social scientists, psychologists, health specialists at the Quantified Self Institute are at the cutting edge of debates about the possibilities and pursuing innovations that drive this movement forward.
On the 14th evening, Margreet Schurer, research projects manager and Henk Hindriks, innovation technologies project manager and founder of the Insitute took me to a really excellent restaurant Schuitendiep for a lovely dinner, eight courses of tapas style dishes with an artisinal flair, making me feel very welcome indeed. Margreet had put together an action-packed programme of events for me starting the next morning at 10 am. First, four of the institute’s researchers came to meet me over coffees and Dutch sweetmeats in Margreet’s office. Specifically, I met Hugo Velthujisen, professor of New Business and IT; Louis Polstra, professor in Labour Participation; Dr Martijn de Groot, research director; and Dr Hilbrand Oldenhuis, social psychologist and lecturer in applied psychology. We discussed our backgrounds and research concerns, and colleagues discussed their I-Age project that looks at the employability of the elderly and sensor technologies to aid as retirement ages along with several other fascinating projects.
Henk Hindriks then gave me a tour of Hanze University of Applied Sciences. The sports building particularly is remarkable, a multilevelled, appointed modern one with a large raised pod complete with ceiling level video screens where students can relax or study in groups. The Institute itself features a meeting room whose table is surrounded by chairs that refuse to let you sit like a slob: one is a half bicycle, so while your top half sits above the table with no change, you may cycle away as you sit through a meeting with your legs. One chair wobbles, meaning you must support yourself with one leg (a very nice feeling on your back as it turns out), and one simply requires you to stand but supports your back with a curved pad. I was impressed with the coherence of commitment to wellbeing at work!
After a lovely lunch of Dutch sandwiches, Mirjam van Ittersum gave me a talk about a project starting now with employees at the University in cooperation with Pim Mulier. This integrated project will be piloted with a range of employees and includes meetings with coaches and tracking personal activities to potentially gain prospective data to tell people what health futures look like if one keeps up specific activities. Then, I met with Martijn de Groot and Hilbrand Oldenhuis again to discuss our research interests, including the Unintended Consequences of quantifying the self.
I told colleagues about my background and how I arrived at the point I am now, writing and researching about the quantified self. I mentioned my commitment to looking at social justice issues particularly concerning work and working people and ‘decent work’. My interest has grown out of a concern with severe global inequality, probably starting with a very personal experience of growing up in the ‘third world’ and seeing llived ‘poverty’. I realised at a very young age that some countries just seem to consume a lot more than others, people seem to want/need a lot more in the ‘developed’ countries. My very young ideas grew into what have now been intellectual pursuits in doctoral and postdoctoral work. I want to know: what is production when one is producing for oneself, one’s community, one’s team? Given the history of technologies only used to monitor workers, how does tracking technology for wellbeing change employment relationships and working practice (causality not being fixed)? Why do some people have better experiences at work than others, and why is it that in some countries, expectations are permitted to be higher than others? How does technology mediate these experiences?
Given these questions, in line with researchers’ work there, I spoke to colleagues about my interest in the internationalisation of the concept of employability and how this has changed in the knowledge economy era. This took me to my current work that looks at a relatively recent phenomenon involving people’s interest in self-quantification, asking whether it signals a social historical moment, asking questions about the implications for many philosophical and social questions we have been asking over time: the body/mind relation, individualism V collectivism, personal information and accountability, but also of interest for me: what will this movement/phenomenon mean for production?
I was particularly impressed with researchers’ genuine commitment to working across disciplines and disrupting methodologies, overturning theoretical straightjackets and pursuing research through mutual concerns. This is no ‘normal’ Institute. In particular, researchers’ interests in work and employability in the changing world of work where new types of quantifying technologies are being introduced, are not seen in any research group I have seen. These concerns reflect a lot of the concerns in my own research so naturally I was very interested to visit colleagues and talk about these increasingly relevant psycho-social-technological issues. The commitment to applied and social theory research in particular stands out and I was continuously impressed with the projects they are doing.
Researchers at the Quantified Self Institute are putting the concerns of self-quantification on the map and in particular with the emphasis on working lives. Employers across Europe and the world are taking an increasingly keen interest in the technologies people use to self-quantify: sensor wearable technologies to track health, happiness, productivity. Work monitoring devices are not themselves new, but the new dimension is related to ownership and psychological association. The other question that drives my work is how wearables are being used to influence wellness and well-being for work, and whether these types of programmes are exclusive to white-collar working places and if so we should be tracking the tracking so to speak, look for whether the emancipatory and wellbeing related aspects are only available to those already in professional positions. My research investigates these questions and I discovered quickly on Thursday that colleagues share many of my interests and concerns. The Quantified Self Institute is at the top of its game and merits significant recognition in the field.