Watching you watching: Does data help us know more about ourselves?

“525, 600 minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?” - Seasons of Love, Rent.

There are many ways that the passing of time can be measured. The characters in Rent relied on daylight, sunsets, midnights and cups of coffee. But as we walk around, constantly attached to our devices, there are plenty more complex ways to measure our lives than these straightforward indicators. 

From our phones and wearable devices, we are able to see how far we have travelled in a day, with an almost terrifying level of detail revealing not only the number of steps taken, but the location of said steps. The time spent online can be tracked through browser and watch histories, as well as screen time services. Services like Spotify Wrapped or Apple Music Replay help measure user’s yearly listening habits in total play counts and playlists, while browser extensions like Netflix Wrapped offer similar opportunities for self-analysis of watching habits. 

The promotion of many of these technologies is premised on the idea that we all want to know more about ourselves – understand ourselves, even. But does this come through ‘knowing’ our “quantified self”? The term “quantified self” has been used to describe these kinds of practices where individuals use technology, like wearable fitness devices, to log parts of their day to day lives, often with the hope of using this information for greater self awareness or improvement.

The quantified self tries to position the user as the figure in control of the collection and analysis of data, yet many of these technologies require the collection of this information to be stored in their own database. As such, individuals often have limited access to whatever information is being harboured about them at any time.  There is an asymmetry here: the control of individuals is being traded off for the control of tech companies, who we are primed to trust, but often do so naively. 

These kinds of practices demonstrate what author and scholar, Shoshana Zuboff, terms “surveillance capitalism.” As a market form, surveillance capitalism prioritises the translation of human experience into data that can be collected, analysed and sold. Under this model, the experiences of our year — moving around, listening to music or watching a television series or a movie  —  becomes material for the creation and extraction of data. Agreeing to the terms and conditions often means we are agreeing to whatever tracking is entailed. 

According to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner’s 2020 survey on Community Attitudes to Privacy, 62% of Australians are uncomfortable with digital platforms and online businesses having extensive databases of their personal information.. Despite this discomfort,, we keep using these digital platforms, even if we tacitly know that they are tracking our online activity. 

This seems to be in conflict with the idea of the quantified self and the promise that we could learn more about ourselves by analysing the data from our activities. However, not all data collection is accurate. It isn’t difficult to accidentally, even intentionally, influence the accuracy of the analysis. If an account is shared between people or signed into a shared device, or even left playing without the individual watching or listening, it is unlikely that the results will really summarise the individual’s activity. Some platforms try to minimise this impact by giving users access to their viewing history where they can delete or download the information. Even the website for Spotify Wrapped encourages visitors to listen more to increase the accuracy of their yearly summary.

When Netflix tried a similar approach with a tweet about users repeatedly watching their film A Christmas Prince, the response included considerable backlash as it reminded users how much information was really available to Netflix. It seems that there is a delicate balance to be struck between portraying data collection to users in a way that is received as acceptable and not leaving participants uncomfortable and reluctant to continue using such platforms. 

How well do we really want our devices to know us? Some forms of data collection are packaged as fun ways to know more about ourselves, like Spotify Wrapped or Apple Music Replay, but others serve as reminders about how much organisations know about how people are spending their time. Viewing your own internet history might be a way to get an insight into how you’ve spent your year, or it could be a reminder about how ubiquitous digital surveillance is.
Perhaps, it is time to listen to the suggestions of the characters in Rent and find another way to measure a year.