The Technium

Data-Driven Lives

A few years ago Gary Wolf and I started a blog called The Quantified Self. It began with our observation that technology allowed people to track their lives in new ways. People would measure their weight, diet, fitness, sleep patterns, moods, genes, location, and so on in quantifiable units. But there was no clearinghouse for the tools, methods and reasons for self-tracking. We started the blog as a way to track our own investigations into self-tracking. We noticed that the small numbers of folks who were reading the blog were all very interesting in their own way — each had a different metric they tracked in their own lives and a different reason why. So we decided to host a little gathering of fans. The first meeting of what we called The Quantifed Self Show and Tell in the Bay Area gathering in my studio in Pacifica, California. The idea for that first meeting was that anyone who wanted to present about what they were doing would have 15 minutes to do so. I was shocked when 20 or so folks showed up.


First Quantified Self Show & Tell

Since then, we have had a Quantified Self Show & Tell Meetup every 6 weeks. The average attendence is now over 100. The trend has grown in other ways. At last count there are over 175 websites dedicated to self-tracking. There are dozens of self-monitoring and self-reporting devices. There are lots of university labs exploring the idea. And there are now Quantified Self Meetups in two other cities and more hatching.

So who are these self-trackers and why are they quantifying their selves? Gary Wolf just wrote a fabulous and very readable piece this week in the New York Times Magazine that explains why. In The Data-Driven Life he sketches out the general trend towards self-monitoring.

In science, in business and in the more reasonable sectors of government, numbers have won fair and square. For a long time, only one area of human activity appeared to be immune. In the cozy confines of personal life, we rarely used the power of numbers. The techniques of analysis that had proved so effective were left behind at the office at the end of the day and picked up again the next morning. The imposition, on oneself or one’s family, of a regime of objective record keeping seemed ridiculous. A journal was respectable. A spreadsheet was creepy.

We use numbers when we want to tune up a car, analyze a chemical reaction, predict the outcome of an election. We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves?

Sure, but that is geeky. Does this pertain to normal people? Gary answers:

Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery. People do things for unfathomable reasons. They are opaque even to themselves. A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words. Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.

As Gary notes, people have kept journals, diaries and logs for centuries. What’s new here?

Four things changed. First, electronic sensors got smaller and better. Second, people started carrying powerful computing devices, typically disguised as mobile phones. Third, social media made it seem normal to share everything. And fourth, we began to get an inkling of the rise of a global superintelligence known as the cloud.

Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are. Our memories are poor; we are subject to a range of biases; we can focus our attention on only one or two things at a time. We don’t have a pedometer in our feet, or a breathalyzer in our lungs, or a glucose monitor installed into our veins. We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines.

Lastly, the larger point of this piece (which is too short IMHO): You may think this is fringe obsessive stuff, but like many other fringe ideas from organic food, yoga, computers, or cell phones, it will go mainstream faster than you think.

“My girlfriend thinks I’m the weird person when I wear all these devices,” Bo Adler says. “She sees me as an oddity, but I say no, soon everybody is going to be doing this, and you won’t even notice.”

There’s more. I’ve only selected a few snippets. Read it yourself.

  • sheekus

    I had this idea for quite a while ago myself before I encountered your phrase “Quantified Self.”
    I encountered the idea from my daily night walk when I was thinking about the potential of a cyberized brain.
    Most individuals are not actively aware of their inner dialogue–and I thought, it would be neat if we could not only see the exterior/objective fMRI scan of our brain down to the neuron. But also tracking the interior/subjective whims, monologue, and repetitive self-talks.
    If the future were indeed to brood these kind of technologies, those of us who are keen on finding out more about the enigma of the subjective self would gain an enormously powerful tool. It would be like the auto-reflective technologies in the past–by auto-reflective, I mean the kind of technologies that allow us to look back at ourselves. For instance, when we try to rehearse a speech or a presentation, a tape recorder allows us to see from a different, and very useful perspective. How useful it would be! Just imagine, if you can track your inner dialogue from the longitudinal perspective, and through a tailored software, you can categorize them, put them on a “mood chat,” examine the source of the content of these self-talk! Just as the quantified self would be an engineer’s dream, the Tracked self-monologue would be a meditator’s dream!

    (of course, we would have to take heavy regulations against a 1984 scenario. But people are, already, doing it in a more primitive form, in microblogging/twittering. A tracked self-monologue has the potential to do harm, as well as foster a kind of Twitter spirituality–a tool that allows us to behold the reverse engineering of our own moment-to-moment personality)

    If those sophisticated self-tracker devices were made cheap enough, like the PCs were, we would see a revolution on a similar scale. As people who are able to view subconscious aspect of themselves they never have been before (both from exterior brain imaging, and records of their subvocalizations)Then, perhaps, psychology will no longer be so physics-envy. As biology matures into a rigorous science, then so can the human disciplines evolve.

    Wilber talks about the 4 quadrants. If we can have a tracker for all aspects of the 4 quadrants, there will be an explosion of self-insight… It is an exciting world indeed.

    What if then, we can use those insight of our recorded self-talk, dreams, whims, and construct a personally customized meditation program? To help us realize the eternal witness watching the mind-stream? What then? As Teilhard would recognize the satellites, undersea cables as parts of a noosphere, so would these cybercranial recordings foster a kind of polyphasic culture. Although I do not particularly like the term “theosphere,” but it is not impossible that something like it could happen. As people are more intimate with their subconscious, and perhaps there will be another conductor, human/or artificial, that weaves a collective dream from all the uploaded scraps of dreams, just like Eric Whitacre’s rendering of a virtual choir.

  • sheekus

    some typos correction for the comment XD :

    1)”mood chat” should be “mood chart”
    2) aspect of themselves they have never ____(seen) before.

    btw. to Kevin Kelly
    Are you aware of James Hughes’s notion of technoprogressivism? Transhumanism, over time, has become an ambuguous movement, with people from all sorts of spectrums promoting the causes of technologies. What do you see yourself in the trans0humanist debates?

    e.g 1)Life extension
    2)uploading/ distributed self
    3)social equality and human enhancement divide


  • Matthew Cornell

    I think this work is important, and Gary’s piece was seminal. I wrote about how this could generalize into a wider life-as-experiment perspective, and I’d like your permission to link to my response and outline here: The Experiment-Driven Life ( Great stuff!