Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Capturing QSer’s mind – investigating human values in quantified self movement using cognitive linguistics approach


TBC (School of English, UNNC)
Prof Lucy Sargisson (School of Politics and International Relations, UNUK)
Dr Murray Goulden (Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute, UNUK)

1. Introduction

I have been carrying out a three-year cross-disciplinary research project on language use, cognition and values of the people in the quantified self (QS) movement, integrating the research areas of cognitive linguistics, corpus linguistics, ethics of information and utopian studies. I am currently in the second year of my project.

2. Introducing QS

In 2007, two Wired Magazine editors, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, started a blog quantifiedself.com, which later turned into a website run by their California-based social enterprise QS Labs LLC, to promote what they called the quantified self movement around the world.
According to sociologist Lupton, the QS refers to the practice of regularly self-tracking bodily functions and behaviours, using such digital devices as mobile phones and wearable computers with associated apps, and analysing the statistics thus generated for life-optimisation purposes. [1] The QS is considered a sociocultural movement because, under the promotion of QS Labs, a small-group activity has spawned into 196 QS meet-up groups in 40 countries and regions, according to quantified-self.meetup.com. It has now penetrated into everyday life in many developed areas.

3. New technology of the self

People have been tracking themselves, including their health, with pen and paper since Greco-Roman times, a practice Foucault called the care of the self (epimeleia heatou). [2] What is new about the QS are a) coinage of the term “the quantified self” in a bid to categorise those self-trackers who are identified with emerging digital technologies; b) use of media to propagate the QS ideas in a bid to associate new technologies with “prosumers” and everyday life; and c) the organization of online communities and physical show-and-tells to share self-tracking knowledge and experiences. [1]

4. Research framework & question

I am using Floridi and his colleagues' works on the philosophy and ethics of information, especially of biomedical information, as a reference framework for discussing the significance of my expected findings. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] Nowadays millions of self-trackers are taking various types of QS gadgets (including smartphones) into the human world. The wearable computers, the Internet and the analytics on servers form an infoshpere, where the QSers come to inhabit. They help the computers learn about many aspects of the human body and daily life, while also receiving from the latter behaviour-shaping, goal-oriented lifestyle recommendations, such as make 10,000 steps today, based on big (body) data. As Floridi has suggested that a big question is what the human project is going to be in the infosphere, I propose that it is relevant to study

What salient features of human cognition are likely to be in the QS infosphere ?

If these cognitive features can be found using rigorous cognitive linguistics measures, then, with Floridi, Mittelstadt and their colleagues works on ethics of biomedical information [8] [9], I expect that I can use the findings to infer some of the prototypical values the QSers hold and the ethical implications of personal well-being and lifestyle monitoring.

5. Methodology

I mainly study the QSers’ texts (diaries and blog entries) about their own self-tracking experiences, which are disseminated regularly online through the campaign website quantifiedself.com. I am focusing on identifying the conceptual metaphors in the QS texts/discourse, because, according to Conceptual Metaphor Theory, clusters of linguistic metaphors (or metaphorical expressions) can reflect the underlying concepts in people's mind and reveal the hidden beliefs they hold. [10] [11] [12] [13] To do so, I make use of Steen's and Pragglejaz's metaphor identification method, which is explicit and systematic, thus rigorous. [14] [15] [16] My metaphor analysis is also informed by critical discourse analysis. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] I am also considering applying the text world theory from cognitive poetics to the analyses of extended metaphors, in addition to the study of metaphor clusters. [22] [23] [24] To facilitate my analyses and buttress my theory, I am also constructing a small corpus (under a million words) of the QS discourse, from which I can select representative samples within a manageable size for detailed qualitative analyses. [25] [26] [27] [28] The impact of the dominant culture on the QS movement has also been taken into account through the lens of utopian studies. I use Sargisson’s model of utopianism, which treats utopia as a thought experiment, or what Levitas labels as the imaginary reconstitution of society (IROS), to identify certain types of utopias manifested in the QS movement. [29] [30] [31] Given that utopias reflect the dominant culture [32], I use utopia as a method, as proposed by Levitas, to deconstruct such culture in the QS movement, revealing its hidden normative assumptions (i.e. archaeological approach). [33] [34]

6. Research progress

I have done literature review on cognitive linguistics, cognitive poetics and philosophy and ethics of information. I presented my research design to leading cognitive linguists from the UK and US in Guangzhou, China in late 2015. I also established contacts with the QS meet-up organisers in London and Oxford through participating in their events. QS Labs LLC in California has given me permissions to use the information on their website and, when possible, set up a QS meet-up group for research purposes. I am learning by doing corpus linguistics, and expect to get some meaningful results from the corpus in mid-2016. I prepare to exchange views with and get feedback from more cognitive linguists, corpus linguists, philosophers of information and utopian scholars.


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This work was carried out at the International Doctoral Innovation Centre (IDIC). The authors acknowledge the financial support from Ningbo Education Bureau, Ningbo Science and Technology Bureau, China's MOST, and the University of Nottingham. The work is also partially supported by EPSRC grant no EP/G037574/1.