Current consumer culture is producing a surge of new technologies designed to optimize mental and bodily well-being and capability, such as cosmetic surgery, meditation techniques, substance intake, dietary advice, and, most recently, a variety of technological devices for tracking and optimizing the self. The aim of the project is to explore technologies for optimizing the self in the everyday in contemporary Denmark, while casting light upon the historical roots and cultural evolution of such optimization. As such, the project operates at the intersection of anthropology, science and technology studies (STS), and consumer culture studies, exploring optimization in three empirical contexts:
Through these three empirical sub-projects, we shall explore the different ways in which the respective technologies fuel and shape processes of self-optimization, that is, how people today give shape to what they aspire to become. The project is innovative as no previous studies systematically explore and analyze the term optimization in different empirical contexts. It also aims to be theoretically groundbreaking by developing Michel Foucault’s notion of “technologies of the self”. Methodologically, the project seeks to contribute to debates on native anthropology, self-experimentation, and autoethnography. Finally, by exploring and describing the benefits and challenges associated with these technologies and people’s practice of them, the project will contribute societally relevant information about human impacts and technological implications.
Optimization and substances
This sub-project seeks to understand the role that substances play in people’s lives, the relations between persons and substances over time, and how people perceive the self in the process of trying to better their lives. The substances used fall into two main categories: prescription stimulants (usually used to treat ADHD) and psychedelic drugs (micro and macro doses of LSD, magic mushrooms, ayahuasca, and MDMA). Fieldwork takes its point of departure in people’s lives, following their substance use first through interviews and increasingly through participant observation in selected parts of their lives depending on what substances they use, and how, when, and where they use them; not least is a focus on use during collective ceremonies and rituals, and people’s ensuing reflections and sharing sessions as they try to integrate their experiences into regular everyday life.
Optimization and self-tracking
This project focuses on phenomena associated with self-tracking, whereby users track their lives, visualize the generated data, and try to learn about and improve themselves on the basis of the connected numbers and data patterns. All kinds of self-tracking tools are examined, from pen and paper, through excel and digital tools, to photographs on Instagram, in different empirical settings from the Quantified Self community to mainstream users of gyms and fitness programs.
The project explores the experience and practice of self-tracking and the interaction between mind / body, self, other, and technology. A further aim is to explore the co-evolving of self and technologies: how self-tracking technologies become participants in “the self as a laboratory”. Seeing and interacting with data becomes a starting point for reflecting upon human values. The project analyzes what matters qualitatively in terms of metrics and personal data, and how metrics open and close options and restrict or improve practices.
Optimization & spirituality
This sub-project focusses on spiritual technologies through which leadership is striven for and practiced. The project takes its point of departure in two recent findings: how spirituality and leadership have become coupled in the last couple of decades, explicitly by business and spiritual gurus (e.g., Sharmer 2010, Droiun 2018, see also Salamon 2007); and how the understanding of leadership in contemporary Denmark involves not only the leading of organizations and people, but also of the self and one's own life (Smith 2017). Building on and exploring these tendencies further, this project examines how contemporary Danish people use spiritual technologies such as meditation, silent retreats, mediumship, clairvoyance, mindfulness, connecting with nature, tarot cards, and the like to explore themselves and better their lives by taking leadership of themselves. The main questions revolve around how people’s practices with technologies affect their experience of themselves, of their bodies, minds, spirits, relations with other people, nature, and the world, and how the technologies themselves become agents in these laboratories of the self.