Technology has revolutionised what we measure about ourselves. But is all that tracking good for our health?
TODAY, I’ve been on the phone four times, for an average of 24 minutes a call. My last phone call was 22 minutes 23 seconds long, according to the digital time device on my landline.
It took me exactly 45 minutes and 10 seconds on the train to get home the other night: I counted the seconds on my smart phone.
My average mile when I ran 5K yesterday was 8 minutes and 45 seconds that showed up on the pedometer (nothing to boast about, I know).
As I was on deadline for this piece, I walked only 4,000 steps, not the advised 10,000. I know I am exactly 45% through my friend’s excellent nonfiction book, thanks to Kindle (in the past you could have estimated that you’d read more than half).
I am able to hold my plank at the gym for 54 seconds rather than the minute I always thought I could, which I know thanks to my phone’s stopwatch. My optimal sleep time is seven hours and 20 minutes and I wake up twice a night: I discovered that from a wristband that measures sleep duration and intensity. I now know for certain what before I only assumed: I always sleep lightly unless I take an Ambien.
Welcome to my biography, 2013-style. It includes more data points than it possibly could have 20 years ago. And it’s part of a obsession of a people who, literally, number our days.
According to a recent survey for Pew Research Centre, 7 out of 10 people self-track regularly — using everything from human memory to a memory stick — some aspect of health for themselves or for someone else. Among the 3,000 adults questioned, the most popular things to monitor were weight and diet. A third of the people surveyed also track more esoteric elements of their health, from blood pressure to sleep to blood sugar.
While many of them keep this information “in their heads”, a full 50% actually keep a written record of the data, either using technology or on paper. Earlier this year, marketing firm ABI released a report that estimated that 485m wearable computing devices — like smart watches and smart glasses — will be shipped annually by 2018.
What happens to who we are when we can’t stop ourselves from counting on our digital abacuses?
It’s not just diabetics who monitor blood-sugar levels to survive. It’s a more day-to-day shift to becoming scientists of our own lives. It’s the friend who whipped out her smartphone at a restaurant last week and showed me her (quite poor) sleep habits discovered via her UP wristband monitor.
And that woman’s colleague, who for a while spent her free time running the numbers on her computer to determine which city was optimal for her and her new husband. It’s also a belief that excellence and sometimes even transcendence means becoming an expert in yourself. In Fitness for Geeks, Bruce W Perry writes that “measuring, whether it be with the Fitbit, Zeo, Endomondo, their own software, or a simple text file, is a big part of a fitness geek’s obsession (healthy obsession, I’d say).”
According to Perry, we should “reboot” the operating systems of our bodies. “When a geek focuses on fitness,” he writes, they “absolutely do not automatically accept the bland marching orders of some officially anointed expert”.
What do people count in their everyday lives? True believers in the power of measurement go one step further — tracking every bite, step, or REM, but also sharing what they’ve learned. A male friend sends his BMI from his gym scale to the cloud. A cousin counts her steps on a pedometer and posts them on Facebook.
If our life stories used to be reducible to a shoebox full of old photographs (that could, presumably, be lost in a flood), now we will remember ourselves by Fitbit at the gym, a shoe sensor called Amiigo, a wristband device called Basis, indoor-environment monitoring systems, Jawbone’s UP for sleep and fitness, Google Glass and other wearable cameras for “first person” recording and video lifelogging, or even a once-esoteric heartbeat-variability monitor called the emWave2 that was recently available on the sales site Groupon.
We collect this information on the pretext of health, self-knowledge, organisation, or efficiency. We believe we need to know it so that we can better ourselves. But what happens if the upsides have downsides to match? What happens to who we are when we can’t stop ourselves from counting? And are we giving up some of the shreds of privacy we have left by recording ourselves and sending it to the cloud?
When Lisa Betts-LaCroix was having her first child, a home birth, her husband was not always by her side. He would watch her intensely when she’d have a contraction, then dart off to log the information about that contraction on an Excel spreadsheet. He wasn’t doing this for medical reasons. He was doing it for eternity.
This year, Betts-LaCroix returned the favour by creating a program to quantify her and her husband’s relationship. After reading the book His Needs, Her Needs, she decided that certain things contributed to a positive relationship and other things eroded a marriage.
The guiding concept for her study was a bank account: Year after year, each partner makes “deposits” into a marriage — kindnesses, generous acts — and if they acted selfishly or cruelly they were making equivalent “withdrawals” from the joint account.
These withdrawals included negative things she or her husband did or said. If he acted out, he’d get a “negative three”, as she put it. If she picked a fight, he would take away points from her side of the ledger. If she cooked him dinner, she’d get a plus number. She charted the two of them for months, measuring their progress.
Betts-LaCroix is no computer scientist. She’s a 48-year-old actress, originally from Toronto, who educates her two children at home in the Bay Area in San Francisco. She wryly described herself as “a totally disorganised person enamoured with the idea of being organised.”
She and her husband call themselves self-quantifiers, part of the Quantified Self movement. It was founded by Wired magazine editors Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf originally coined the term, in 2008, to describe the myriad attempts to “hack the self” for optimum living.
One neuroscientist is assessing how his brain function and metabolism fluctuate over a year.
Five years later, for the thousands of hard-core trackers there are Quantified Self meetups scattered across the world, plus millions of people dabbling in self-quantifying.
The more modest quantifiers include a diabetic attempting to send the data from his blood-glucose monitor to his smart watch, or a guy measuring daily whether increasing his butter consumption improves his mental performance.
Others measure their BMI, track their every location, sequence their genome, or psychologically self-assess. There are people trying to get stronger doing a few push-ups every day or tracking how long their commute is and whether biking is more efficient.
There are those who quantify their pets’ activities with GPS collars and, in Japan, they have the benefit of Fitbit for pets. There are those quantifying their infants, including their baby’s state of mind, by measuring skin temperature and movement. One man even monitors his stool samples.
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body, has forced his body hacks onto the bestseller list. For the more literary, there’s the website 750words.com. People can journal daily on the site and then run word and mood analyses over their texts.
There are rigorous quantifiers like Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist and imaging expert at the University of Texas who self-tracks through multiple weekly brain scans (MRIs) and weekly blood draws. He’s trying “to characterise” how his own brain function and metabolism fluctuate over the course of an entire year.
“I have become very interested in understanding the dynamics of brain function over a day’s — month’s timescale and how they relate to cognitive function and bodily metabolism.”
Then there are more lyric self-quantifiers — parents who take daily photos of their children in the same pose and create eerie time-lapse records of their children’s growth.
When you add it all together it could be called “DIY Big Data.”
Betts-LaCroix runs the Silicon Valley Quantified Self Meetup, where dozens of people get together every other month to exchange their latest self-tracking activities, where they share strategies that work. At home, she and her husband have charted their sleep, wearing Zeo bands (now defunct) on their heads to better understand when they go to sleep and when they wake up. They chart their weight. He has charted his vitamin intake.
“I hack my relationship, my learning, my kids’ education, my body, and my house,” says Betts-LaCroix.
Often, she attempts to “just let the data be the thing — it’s easy to get mired in emotions”. So instead of getting agitated about her weight gain or marital spats, gathering data insulates her from their emotional power.
Two other self-quantifiers, Leigh Honeywell and Amelia Greenhall, become aware of the subculture by reading an announcement of a local meeting. They began attending meetings every other month and also monitoring their weight and sleep.
“I decided to figure out what keeps me up and makes me stay up late,” says Honeywell, a 28-year-old computer-security expert for a major software company in Seattle. Her experiments were fairly simple.
Once she figured out the base amount of sleep she needed was seven-and-a-half hours a night, she started falling asleep at 11 and waking up without an alarm at 6:30 in the morning, after years of being exhausted. “I fixed a lifelong sleep disorder.”
“The catchphrase for those of us QS is N=1,” explains Honeywell. “That means that the sample size in experiments is one-in-one, not one-in-2,000. It’s just you.”
Hard-core QS-er Rachit Shukla talks about eating a chocolate sundae, and the extra steps he has to take to compensate for it.
Greenhall, 26, a programmer at a startup in San Francisco who runs the Quantified Self Meetup group there, calls QS a “mindfulness practice”; For seven years, Greenhall has tracked her weight every day and then calculated a 10-day running average.
“If I am losing weight or gaining it, if I am stressed out or not sleeping enough, I’ll know,” she says. She also keeps a long text document entitled: “Read, Done, Accomplished,” that she keeps updated, including things like the books she has read in a given year.
The founder of the Quantified Self movement, writer Gary Wolf, called the information he gathers about himself — how many times he wakes up while sleeping, his heartbeats per minute, the amount of caffeine he swallowed in a day — a form of “self-knowledge.” Self-tracking, in other words, is a kind of wellness philosophy that is also a philosophy of the self; a belief that the more you know, in numeric detail, about your everyday life, the easier it will be to improve it.
It’s true that some of this data may be useful. If you track your food consumption and digestion, seeing the numbers may inspire you to eat better. If you track your blood sugar, you may maintain better control of it.
A person who uses Asthmapolis, a wireless sensor in an asthma inhaler that records the GPS of a person experiencing an attack or shortness of breath, could be recording details of the attack that would help all of us learn what nearby plants or chemicals in the air contributed to the attack.
Of course, everyone from bodybuilders of the 1950s to compulsive diarists of the 18th century (hello Samuel Pepys!) could be said to be the forerunners of QS. Benjamin Franklin and perhaps even Andy Warhol, with his eight hours of filming the Empire State building, were proto-QS-ers. But the mass high-tech appeal of self-tracking is utterly contemporary, and only possible because the technology abounds. Electronic sensors are better. Mobile phones are omnipresent and often used more for tracking everything than for actually calling people.
Andrew Paulus keeps a record of how long he meditates each day, an average of 5 minutes and 9 seconds.
All of us — billions of people worldwide with access to mobiles who produce streams of location, motion, video, photo, voice, and even medical, information by the petabyte hourly — are a part of the quantified world, together sending nearly three billion emails every day (most of them spam).
“Self-quantifiers absolutely fit into ‘big data’, says Kenneth Cukier, author of Big Data, an optimistic book about today’s gathering, storage, and analysis of information on a massive scale.
“Big data is not just about size, it’s about doing new things with data. We are collecting material about ourselves — respiration or heart rate — that we never collected before and crunching the numbers without a big research lab.”
The idea is that self-quantifying is a way of being an expert on yourself, at a time when studies can tell you about percentages and probability for everything from drug efficacy to your vote, but cannot tell you about you in particular.
‘It’s empowering... We don’t need to be told by some doctor what we should be doing,’ says one QS-er.
For Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of Who Owns the Future?, it can be societally productive when normal people are forced “to act like scientists, challenging their biases”, and clearing their perceptions.
Also, having been “blind to our own insides”, Lanier says, he sees the value of “seeing in real time some things that go on in my body. Now I am in my 50s, I am just starting to learn how to use my own body”.
“Quantifying is mostly a way to take care of ourselves,” says Cukier. He tells me his new UP band was being charged as we spoke so that he’ll be able to monitor his sleep and set his alarm for the optimal time to wake. “In the past, experts did vast studies in lab hospitals to discover this: Now we can use $100 UP bands.”
As Betts-LaCroix puts it, QS-ers are “not asking for approval from someone else. It’s empowering. I am reclaiming my health. We don’t need to be told by a doctor what we should be doing. That’s what this subculture is saying.”
For Cukier, the dark side of QS is Woody Allen–esque: Hypochondria. If people are constantly monitoring themselves, they may imagine they are encountering the onset of a disease when their symptoms are really “statistical noise”, as Cukier puts it.
When I asked New York psychologist Steven Reisner about how quantification has affected his patients, he says: “The tendency to quantify is such a given that I always try to move people away from doing so: That includes a couple who came to see me, complaining that they weren’t ‘value added’ for each other.”
QS-ers Honeywell and Greenhall both questioned why achieving a low body weight is the desired outcome of dozens of new sensors now on the market. That’s not to say it doesn’t work: Thanks to QS, Greenhall says she lost 40 pounds over two years. Honeywell, on the other hand, gets too thin when she gets stressed. “I’d like to tell all of these companies that offer ways to measure yourself, that consumers should have the option to turn off all the diet talk,” said Honeywell. “I’d love Fitbit to have an option to keep your weight above a certain amount as well as below.” “Calories are so emotionally loaded for people with eating disorders,” chimed in Greenhall. It’s possible that all this quantification might be able to help with some sorts of eating and other disorders, but the reverse is also possible. After all, obsessive bodily measurement can be a fundamental symptom of anorexia or bulimia. Diana Freed, a therapist specialising in eating disorders, wrote last year about the way “the proliferation of apps that obsessively quantify eating and fitness … have radically transformed the way anorexia afflicts patients” (the piece on the website The Fix was called How Cell Phones Are Fueling Anorexia). “Even if you are quantifying your own data, if it goes through the cloud service, you may be exploited.” Sensor manufacturers have clearly not read Fat Is a Feminist Issue. But body-image ignorance aside, I did wonder about the other potential downsides of all of this tracking and aggregation. Might all of these numbers eventually be used against all of us self-quantifiers? Sure, the most serious QS-ers were autonomous imaginative geeks, quantifying from the bottom up. But their employers might be quantifying them as well. “The invasion of privacy is an issue,” says Lanier. “A company in Britain has asked its workers to wear wearable computing to monitor how healthfully they are living. This seems like lunacy. In the American context, when you use self-quantifying stuff to improve your health you are also sending this information to data aggregators and someone might one day deny you insurance because of it.” This is far from hypothetical; three years ago, “scrapers” from the Nielsen company tried to go in and get health information from mentally-ill people posting on a site’s private online forum. “Even if you are quantifying your own data, if it goes through the cloud service, you may be exploited,” says Lanier. “You are making yourself vulnerable.”
If you join all this DIY Big Data with the other data out there — not only all of our emails and Google searches, but also the sensors in the water system, in medical implants, in stoplight cameras and sound-activated street gunshot detectors — there’s so much of it that one security expert, Bruce Schneier, recently suggested that “the internet is a surveillance state”.
The broader context was brought home to me with particular force as I thought about self-quantifying recently after the US’s international surveillance program of millions of internet and telephone communications by the National Security Agency was revealed.
Governments and corporations are now battling privacy advocates and each other for control over this murky cascade of digital information. Yet, so many of us now create incredibly-detailed information.
Betts-LaCroix, Honeywell, and Greenhall, however, are either willing to take their chances or know how to safeguard the information they have out there. “QS shows us we can design our own lives, to create them any way we want and change them in any way we want,” Betts-LaCroix says. “If you are self-employed, you can feel without structure. QS helps you retether yourself.”
I found myself drawn to the more extreme quantifiers, compelled most intensely by their broad impact. Like so many things in our period, some of the most societally-redefining concepts now emerge from edge-thinkers, who are increasingly visible, organised, and effective, in part due to the web.
Even so, whenever I spoke to them or read their blogs, at some point I always wondered, why? I recalled the short story Funes the Memorius, in which Jorge Luis Borges writes about a man with a perfect memory who was “determined to reduce all of his past experience to some 70,000 recollections, which he would later define numerically”. But the man’s pristine self-quantifying memory was also strangely limiting.
As Lanier puts it: “There are two dangers of self-quantifying: One is compromising privacy and the other is its participants can narrow themselves. Its extreme adherents hyperconcentrate on certain kinds of numbers about themselves, and it can make them a little more robotic than other people.”
It may be too soon to know exactly how and what QS has transformed. Our memories were once defined by a wooden childhood toy or a grainy picture of a lost lover, a graduation dress or a passionate postcard. In the future, that record could be dominated by our sleep patterns or the record of our respiration.
Instead of saving a high-school football jersey, will we remember our pulse? Cukier wonders.
We were both entirely sure, though, that quantifying is the mode of our time. “QS is not a bunch of weirdos,” says Cukier.
“Today, we call it Quantified Self. Tomorrow, we are going to call it health care. In the future, quantifying ourselves is not going to be done by some people but by all people.”
- Alissa Quart is a journalist and author of the forthcoming Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels (The New Press)