How Quantified Should the Self Be?

I recently came across an Austrian article that raises some interesting questions about the use of technology in “measuring” our lives (http://www.format.at/articles/1328/940/362012/die-vermessung-ich[in German]).  The scope of this technology continues to increase and there are more opportunities for its insertion into our lives than ever before.

Here are some examples of the latest technology:

- an armband that measures physical activity, including steps taken, distance walked, and calories burnt; length and quality of sleep; and with auxiliary links to mobile devices and a scale, meal planning and weight management (http://www.fitbit.com/)

- work productivity software that measures active computer use and trends very precisely (http://www.rescuetime.com/) [That's us]

- a strap-on device for posture and movement monitoring and correction (http://www.lumoback.com/)

- a fork that measures eating habits and mechanics (http://www.hapilabs.com/)

- an all purpose physical activity device for multiple kinds of exercise (http://www.runtastic.com/)

- a scale that provides body anaylysis by measuring weight, BMI, body fat, and heart rate (and also local air quality to boot) (http://www.withings.com/scales)

- a diabetes app testing blood sugar (http://mysugr.com/)

- comprehensive health management software (https://www.dacadoo.com/)

Those who embrace this technology often self-identify as members of the “Quantified Self movement,” which is characterized by the search for informative feedback from devices such as those listed above.  Some see in the wealth of available data a “digital reflection” of their lives – this is felt to be empowering, allowing individuals to achieve a greater degree of self-awareness and to take proactive steps to optimize efficiency, health, and happiness based on adjustment of recognized patterns.  Sometimes the motivation for self-monitoring is a desire for improvement, sometimes for identifying and solving problems.

There are potential negative consequences to the adoption of this new technology and the hyper-analytical mindset and lifestyle that can result.  Having such a wealth of data at one’s fingertips, and a feeling of overarching responsibility for this data, can lead a person to believe that they are accountable and culpable for everything that happens in their lives.  There is also a danger of misinterpreting data – a person can mistakenly identify correlations among metrics and activities where there are none, or miss important ones that do exist.  This misinformation can then be used to make lifestyle decisions with potentially harmful consequences.  There are also issues with ownership of this data, its security, and its potential uses by others.

This raises a number of questions for debate:

1.  Are there specific uses of self-measurement technology that you find seriously problematic?

2.  Do we need some degree of education about understanding certain data to draw out the positive benefits of self-analysis and avoid pitfalls?  If so, what would this education involve?

3.  What type or types of measurement are the most important in the search for self-improvement?


3 Comments on “How Quantified Should the Self Be?”

  1. Robby Macdonell says:

    Obviously it’s all relative to the individual (thus the “Self” in Quantified Self), but I definitely have a few places I can’t go with self-tracking. Biometric data freaks me out because I’m not a doctor and I find it entirely too easy to go down a rat-hole of wondering what every little anomaly in my data means. That’s unfortunate, because some of that data could be really valuable. I think getting the proper context for those types of things will be challenging. I’ve heard talk of a new “data coach” category of profession becoming necessary, and I think I can see a lot of value in that. Someone who isn’t a doctor, but is more skilled in giving individuals the context and skills to track and understand their own data. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

    All that said, the quantified fork sounds awesome and hilarious. :)

  2. Eric Jain says:

    Most people use self-tracking services and devices for motivation. I’m working on a service for those that do want to use the data for A/B testing; the problem is that you need to be very disciplined and patient to get enough good data.

    As far as education is concerned, I hope people become more aware of data ownership and privacy issues!

  3. I am working for a platform (projectaddapp) which allows users who track different aspects of their health & fitness to discover correlations. Obviously a correlation is not a causation. Therefore, users have to be very careful when interpreting their data. I see no harm, though, in people knowing more about their body. Noonce can replace a doctor like noone can replace a mechanic of your car. Knowing more, though, about your own health via data can only bring benefits for the users and in the long term for everyone.