Why we are tracking

26 Jan 2015

In this short essay, concerning why we are tracking, I will try to frame tracking as an evolutionary developed skill that humans need to survive. From an evolutionary point zero life must reflect upon itself in regard to its surrounding world as a kind of societal self-synchronization in this regard (Spencer 1890, Luhmann 2000, Tække 2014, 2011). I was inspired by Jill Walker Rettberg’s book: “Seeing Ourselves through Technology” and her presentation at the seminar: “Tracking Culture” arranged by Anders Albrechtslund in Aarhus January 2015.

Before language

Even animals have a kind of tracking themselves and each other. They have fixed action patterns for how to behave and if one in the herd behaves wrongly they are killed or excluded. You could say that this is a form of biologic based automatic tracking where a behaviour is seen through a pattern of biological selected legal behaviour.

Oral language

When language emerged humans began to install standards and norms for how to behave beyond the instincts in narratives and myths (Lévi-Strauss 1984, Habermas 1981, 77). These orally mediated myths made it possible to monitor how others in the tribe behaved as a standard for behavior (Ong 1982). We can imagine an evolutionary process where tribes with standards better adapted changing climatic etc. conditions have had advantages. When an individual was in a situation of choice it was possible for him or her to reflect over how to behave according to the orally stored standards. This is a kind of self-tracking and when the standards were used to monitor the behaviour of others it was a kind of tracking others, a kind of surveillance.


With writing the records was written down. Now society developed as hierarchies, people was counted in censuses, taxes was calculated, time was measured with sundials and water clocks. This was a huge acceleration of the societal self-synchronization. For instance people now were able to leave their hometown and travel to get resources and come back and receive back what was their belongings because every thing could be written down (Hallager 1997). The king in the center could send messages or laws out to the periphery, e.g. saying that men who owned this or that must pay tax and his soldiers could track citizen’s behavior in accordance to the law. In this period a few Greeks and later Augustine began to reflect over themselves as individuals in relation to the order of the world.


With the printing press it became possible to compare meaning from different books resulting in doubt like we saw with Descartes (Luhmann 2012, 249). Now standards was reflected back on people because now there were books saying how the prince or, for instance, the baker looked and behaved – or about how people from Florence were dressed (Eisenstein 1983). Now self-reflection in third person emerged as morally self-tracking like we see with Hume and Locke (Taylor 1996) and existentially self-tracking (Montanige). Especially puritans began to report about how they morally managed to live in accordance with their standards in form of diaries (Rettberg 2014). People began to draw themselves in paintings, and write diaries to try to observe themselves or track how they behaved in comparison to others, or to understand them self or to try to see themselves in different contexts (Rettberg 2014).

Analogue electronic media

With the analogue electronic media the societal self-synchronization again was accelerated, now even the lousiest TV series showed how every type of citizen was backstage (Meyrowitz 1985). Therefor people now had to be reflected on what could not be hidden from their backstage and include that into their behavior to present a self that were consistent over time. People used their knowledge from the electronic media to track the behavior of others and themselves. People took photos of themselves in mirrors to see themselves in different contexts and in this way try to understand themselves as humans (Rettberg).

Digital media

With the digital media we see that the need for tracking oneself and others find many new forms which generally seen is different kinds of automation of tracking. For instance tracking your blood pressure, how many steps you walk, or how you sleep. People also write about themselves on social media and blogs and get response in comments and likes from their social networks. For instance people write now I am together with this and that person on this restaurant on Facebook. People also take selfies to try to understand themselves by seeing themselves in different situations making it possible to comparer with pictures of other persons. Companies monitor what people are talking about and do and like to earn money on them. States monitor their citizens and sometime citizens from other countries to prevent terrorism or for instance to tax them.


After the printing press society have tented to be more and more dynamic and changing. For instance Zygmunt Bauman writes about liquid modernity, and Anthony Giddens about late modernity to express how every thing, technology and the social itself continually are altering character. In Medium theory, Innis formulated an important distinction between time bias and space bias. If a medium has a time bias society will be stable with few changes over time and the other way around with media having a space bias (Innis 1991). Looking at the historical developments media have tented to get a higher and higher degree of space bias resulting in changes in standards at different places in geographical space and increased asymmetrical self-synchronizations (Rasmussen 2003). At the same time we know that the self is a relational construction in need for accept and recognition form the social (Mead 1936, p. 204). If self-tracking is a basic inherent accessory in the human mind necessary for our survival performed dialectically between the individual and the collective it is not peculiar that individuals use automated digital ways to try to synchronize with the social using digital media to track themselves or that society tries to monitor its citizens. On the other hand it is important to discuss and reflect upon the implications – which is the idea behind the suggested research program: Tracking Culture, by Anders Albrechtslund.


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