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At the end of the 19th century, weight scales in France were advertised with the message that those who weigh themselves, know themselves well; and those who know themselves, they live well. Many decades later, Jawbone used the slogan ‘Know Yourself Live Better’ as a way to convince potential customers to use the UP wearable to track their physical data, such as calorie consumption and sleep patterns.

The link between physical performance and moral evaluation is not new. Someone who cares for themselves and makes a physical effort is often praised for discipline and self-control. People who use self-tracking apps or devices, such as the Jawbone wearable, track mainly physical activity, diet and weight. The accent is thereby on managing the body in a quantitative and measurable way. Yet does this also benefit us in the moral sense of the word?

Keeping a diary was a precursor to modern self-tracking, just as Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) did. When he was twenty, he wrote down thirteen virtues which he wanted to cultivate. Every day he reflected on his successs and failures with the help of two questions. At the top of the page of his diary was written: “What good shall I do this day?”, which he pondered upon in the morning. At the bottom was the question “What good have I done today?” In the evening, he went over the day in order to answer that second question. A Fitbit or smartwatch automatically tells you whether you have reached your daily 10,000 steps and whether you were ‘successful’. But what Franklin did was also a form of self-tracking, albeit a much more complex one. Franklin kept a record of his efforts. The diaries provide insight into how he held himself responsible for becoming a better person. By keeping a close eye on his objectives and intentions, he took steps so as to accomplish good deeds. For Franklin, it was not about self-improvement in contemporary terms of optimization, productivity or efficiency, but about moral self-improvement.

Deeper self-insight

A similar emphasis on moral self-improvement can be found amongst the Stoics, such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. In the many discussions about ‘quantified self’, most attention is paid to quantitative measurements. How many calories did you consume? How many hours did you sleep? How many steps did you take? And so on. But there are also apps on the market which make the most of Stoic philosophy. The apps ‘Stoic Meditations’ and ‘Stoic Self-Reflect Journaling’ are examples of this. Their goal is less ‘measurable’: a deeper, more complex self-insight through daily quotes, exercises and mastering of Stoic techniques

This also involves forms of self-tracking, such as keeping your thoughts in a digital diary, in order to get a grip on them and figure them out. Self-examination is crucial for Stoics. “Vindica te tibi”, Seneca wrote, “own yourself” or “spend time with yourself”. Seneca called for a fundamental investment in self-knowledge and examination of one’s conscience.  If you know what you stand for, you will not lose yourself if something happens to you. Those who know themselves are also less receptive to the judgment of others and do not let their lives depend on (the approval of) others.

The latter is crucial, because the Stoics encourage you to focus only on what is within your control. By definition, what others think about you lies outside of this and is therefore a waste of time. The Stoic apps help the user to focus their thoughts on what is within their control. In short: you do not always have control over what happens to you, but you do have control over your reaction to it, therefore pay proper attention to that. Contrary to popular belief, the Stoics have no aversion to emotions. It’s about getting a grip on things, in part through self-analysis and mental discipline.

Favorite quotes

Every morning the apps offer a quote from a well-known Stoic which the user is able to reflect on. Favorite quotes may be saved, so that you always have them on hand. One exercise you may get, is to leave something out for a certain period, like showering for a week with cold water instead of hot water, in order to get a better appreciation of what you have. Another technique for learning Stoic habits is the ‘premeditatio malorum’ or negative visualization: think silently about the different ways in which life could disappoint you. Imagine that you lose something which you consider valuable. This will also help you to appreciate what you have.

Physical self-care is vital. An assignment which the app could give you is to take a long walk in nature. Quantitative forms of self-tracking are not at odds with a Stoic lifestyle, as long as you keep in mind that a healthy body is at the service of a healthy mind and not vice versa.

The Stoic self-tracking apps can be a valuable complement to the works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Of course, the apps cannot replace the Stoic books which are full of wisdom. Yet suppose on one rather miserable morning you get to see this quote from Marcus Aurelius on your smartphone: “Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”

That’s when you receive a comforting thought to start the day with.

About this column:

In a weekly column, written alternately by Maarten Steinbuch, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline van Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So that tomorrow is good. Here are all the previous articles.

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About the author

Katleen Gabriels is a moral philosopher specializing in computer ethics at Maastricht University. She conducts research into the relationships between morality and computer technologies.