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.


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