Lifelogging. Geotracking. DNA sequencing. The trend of collecting data on yourself is becoming more prevalent every day. And with smartphones and self-monitoring devices collecting more personal data than ever, the potential of this deluge of information to influence our lives is staggering.
More than just glorified journaling, the movement known as the ‘Quantified Self’ (QS) is all about using technology to acquire and track data about your daily life. Everything from the food you consume to your happiness and physical wellbeing can be tracked using a variety of wearable sensors and computers.
It all sounds a little Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its origins are a far cry from the totalitarian Big Brother regime of Orwell’s dystopic novel. The movement began after two journalists, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly (two of the brains behind Wired magazine), realised the huge possibilities that capturing vast quantities of personal data could offer.
Wolf and Kelly could see the potential benefits and felt that if they could provide a name – an umbrella term for the immense personal quantification that was about to take place – it would help the movement grow coherently.
And grow it did.
There are now around 17,000 members in 31 countries around the world, including a group that meets regularly in Sydney. These groups exist as a ‘show and tell’ platform for people engaged in self-tracking to share lifelogging tools, tips and techniques.
It is a relatively recent phenomenon though. The QS movement only really took off a few years ago. Before that, though, we’d never had an issue with keeping track of data when it came to science, medicine and politics. Outside of the sporting world the thought of monitoring every aspect of an individual’s life seemed kind of sterile.
The advent of the smartphone changes all of that. Now that most people are walking around with a smartphone (packed with an array of self-tracking sensors like GPS, gyroscopes and accelerometers) and the markets are flooded with cheap, personal monitoring tools, the concept of using tracking to understand more about your behaviour and the self is gaining popularity.
In the video below, Quantified Self co-founder Gary Wolf lists some of the devices people are using for self-tracking and what the data can be used for.
And as we continue to generate personal data and begin to understand what it means, the influence it could have on our lives is staggering. And it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Here’s an example: Using flashcards, Robin Barooah (a formerly overweight early adopter) tracked what he had for lunch and whether it left him feeling energised or lethargic everyday for 18 months – and lost around 20 kilograms. At a QS conference in Amsterdam he explained that “the act of paying greater attention has an effect on your behaviour”.
This seems pretty obvious. But if Barooah could use something as simple as flashcards to lose 20 kilos, imagine what could be achieved in healthcare if professional medical practitioners and scientists got to the kind of data that more advanced self-tracking devices provide.
At this year’s SXSW, Leslie Ziegler presented her talk ‘Quantified Year: 365 Days of Tracking Everything‘. Ziegler first began tracking aspects of her health after she was diagnosed with a disease with no known cure. According to Ziegler, tracking will enable doctors to make the shift from reactive to preventative measures:
“It’s re-thinking the entire model – about tracking the number of steps you’ve taken and the number of calories you’ve burned, but then combining that information with the medical knowledge that allows you to successfully prevent things like diabetes. If you have pre-diabetes, there’s absolutely no reason you need to get it full-blown, and it’s situations like that where this technology could be a game changer – to know the dangers, and the preventative steps you need to make, and then pairing all that with your tracking, to ensure you hit your marks. It will be a whole new era of preventative empowerment.”
In her self-experiment, Ziegler ended up with a huge amount of raw data. In some circumstances an overload of data can create more problems than it solves, and while knowing more about yourself opens up a world of positive possibilities, it also raises the issue of deciding what’s important – and what’s rubbish.
And on top of that, what will it all be used for? Could it be that QS data will become the next cornerstone of society, in the same way that the internet and personal computers are today?
On theregister.co.uk, Canadian entrepreneur Alistair Croll looks at what might happen if QS continues to grow and becomes a ubiquitous tool in western civilisation. The proliferation of QS devices, he says, is:
“…very quickly equipping humans with prosthetic brains that can monitor and measure just about everything in our lives. It will create feedback loops that will optimise your life, and by algorithms tell you how you should be leading your life, [and how to] be more productive.”
The problem, he says, is that some of history’s greatest figures (think Galileo, Einstein, Jobs) excelled as a result of living outside the norm.
If Steve Jobs was self-tracking in his early years would he have realised his wacky diets might not have been the best choice for his health? Would he have identified his infamous bursts of rudeness and anger as inappropriate? And though it seems like self-tracking might have improved Jobs’ longevity and even enjoyment of his own life, who knows whether we would now be living in a world without the MacBook, the iPhone and Buzz Lightyear.
Undoubtedly, self-tracking presents exciting possibilities. The potential benefits for the health sphere alone make QS worth exploring. But of course the potential downsides are also huge. Ever seen the film Minority Report? Well, QS could lead to a scenario where the state – or other organisations – know our propensity for certain behaviours before we do. And prosecute us for them.
So it’s worth asking yourself whether you want to live in a world where you’re aware of all of your flaws, where the occasional sleep-in will totally throw out your carefully crafted sleep charts, where you struggle to enjoy your burger and fries because you know exactly how much damage it will do, and where individual quirks are a distant memory.
What do you think? Do the potential positives outweigh the dangers? Let me know in the comments below.
Richard Parker is the head of digital at strategic content agency Edge, where he has experience working with leading brands including Woolworths, St George and Foxtel. He previously spent 12 years in the UK, first at Story Worldwide then as the co-owner and strategic director of marketing agency Better Things.