Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Media, Art, and Text

First Advisor

David Golumbia

Second Advisor

Susan Bodner-Deren

Third Advisor

Ryan Patton

Fourth Advisor

Semi Ryu


Personal analytics, aka self-tracking, is the practice of using a digital device to track aspects of behavior, such as exercise habits, heart rate, sleep patterns, location, diet, and a host of other data points. This dissertation is an exploration of “self” in self-tracking, informed by theories of subjectivity, autonomy, power and knowledge. As a technological intervention, self-tracking devices change how we experience our own body and behavior. They also serve as methods to digitize human behavior. This data is combined with other data and processed using computational methods. Self-tracking devices are both personal and bureaucratic. They are devices used for self-care and institutional processes. As mediating objects, they occupy a multifaceted position that they share with other forms of mediated experience. Like social media, which is both a form of personal expression and a way to track users’ behavior, self-tracking participates in changing attitudes about surveillance. People are willing to subject themselves to surveillance and are largely unaware or unconcerned with the ways in which self-surveillance is the same thing as institutional surveillance.

This study positions self-tracking as a practice of institutional population management, not simply personalized exercise tools. A Fitbit might seem to simply measure a “step,” an identifiable metric that exists regardless of whether it is counted. Yet, how can this metric be considered neutral and objective when its institutional purpose guides its development? Thinking of measurement as neutral ignores the process by which anything comes to be measured. All kinds of decisions—about what to count, how to count it, and what to do with the data—are made prior to the end user’s experience. Measurement is a cultural activity and thus the outcome of this data collection is never neutral with respect to power.

By looking at fitness-tracker privacy policies, workplace wellness programs, data sharing practices, and advertising materials, I trace the discursive practices surrounding self-tracking. As we surveil our bodies and behavior, we enact a focused attention upon the self. Understanding the consequence of this focus is crucial to understanding how data operates in today’s economy. My overall critique of data in this dissertation concerns how the focus on self obscures the institutional uses and abuses of data. The epistemic affordances of data flow in multiple directions. Self-tracking devices offer the promise to reveal hidden data about the self. They accomplish something different—they create the means to recraft the self into something else entirely. They make the self into an entity that is knowable and therefore able to be the subject of market transactions and manipulated by institutions.


© Neal Swisher

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Date of Submission