What’s the 'quantified self'?


Attendees visit the FitBit booth at the 2014 International CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center. FitBit makes devices that allow you to monitor your sleep patterns, calorie intake and activity level. See more everyday tech pictures.
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"This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man." -- William Shakespeare, "Hamlet"

The bard wasn't just whistling Dixie when he penned this line in his classic tragedy of betrayal, incest and greed. There are shelves upon shelves of self-help books, scores of meditation guides and an entire army of psychotherapists out there dedicated to helping people get a handle on just what's going on inside their own heads. You can't be true to yourself, without knowing who that self is.

"What a piece of work is a man!" Hamlet exclaims in the midst of one of the play's more psychoanalytic passages. More than four centuries later, advances in modern technology are providing more opportunities for humans to examine their own particular pieces of work. This is the era of the quantified self, a personal-monitoring movement that just may change the way we live.

The beauty of modern technology is the depth and range of information that it makes available with a few keystrokes, finger swipes or voice commands. Want to know what that song is playing in your local coffee shop? There's an app for that. Lost somewhere outside of Barstow, on the edge of the desert? Ask Siri for the quickest route back to civilization.

And what if there was an app for just for you? The quantified self is the idea that people can use modern technology to better track themselves, to monitor sleep, work and exercise habits, mood shifts, sexual activity, how they spend their money and what they eat and drink, among other subjects. Through this so-called "data-drive life" quantifiers can use the information to attain a wide variety of goals, from losing weight to improving the efficiency of their household chores. For some, the data is both the end and the means, a way of learning things about yourself that you might have never known otherwise [source: Wolf].

How (Why?) to Quantify Yourself

Popularized by technology writers Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly (Kelly also co-founded Wired magazine), the quantified self is a broad term used to encapsulate all of the different ways in which people are using increasingly effective and available technology to track their daily lives. Whether it's to simply achieve a certain goal or reach some sort of Buddha-like higher level of what Wolf calls "self-knowledge through numbers," there's no shortage of tools out there to track everything from your exercise and sleeping habits to heart rate, glucose levels and blood-oxygenation sensors [sources: Antephase, Wolf].

Like many movements before it, the idea of the quantified self came about at the intersection of a recognized need and the technological advances necessary to meet it. Humans have long been into measuring stuff, but until fairly recently gathering data was a protracted process that required manually entering information into spreadsheets and other software and then using it to build individual charts and graphs. It was also susceptible to human error and subjectivity, dependent on both the data gatherer's focused efforts and variation of observation and gathering cycles to paint a complete picture [sources: Wolf, Wolf].

Then came automated technology, smarter and smaller sensors, cloud computing and social media. Small, battery-powered sensors can now be used to collect data, which Web-based apps and sync-able devices compile and store automatically and present in readily understandable packages [source: Wolf].

Take FitBit, for example. These paper clip-sized activity tracking devices continuously sync to smart devices and computers to give a wide range of fitness-related info, including the number of steps a user takes in a day and the distance the user travels by foot, as well as calories burned, total activity time, weight and body fat changes. It also allows users to log the calories and food they intake each day. An accompanying app presents this data in easy to read charts and graphs and awards "badges" for achieving personal goals. Similar sensor-based devices can be used to track length and types of sleep [sources: FitBit, Wolf].

But the quantified self isn't limited to physical fitness goals. Self-knowledge seekers are using data gathering tools to add endless variables to their logs, from focusing ability and mood to caffeine consumption and menstrual cycles.

Pros and Cons of Self-quantifying

Michael Nagle is the leader of a quantified self group in Boston. He tracks his meditation time and also his sleep.
Michael Nagle is the leader of a quantified self group in Boston. He tracks his meditation time and also his sleep.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It's easy to see the draw of some of the basic quantifying technology, which can be used to keep accurate and up-to-date records in support of a slew of self-help projects: Wean yourself off of coffee! Track your weight-loss program! See if there really is a correlation between watching Tyler Perry movies and your recurring sense of dread that world is simply a vapid, unfunny wasteland (that's just my opinion, of course)! It's a discovery tool, one that can also help people record and better understand their mental states, for example. If used correctly, personal data tracking is the most accurate mirror ever invented, one that has no bias and is immune to emotion, common opinion and outside influence.

On the other hand, maybe there can be too much of a good thing. Some self-trackers are put off by the cold, emotionless, numbers-driven nature of the beast. When the quantified self becomes a way of life, self-trackers may tend to equate their self-worth to the various numbers they're computing each day. Those numbers don't lie and they can be unforgiving. Do you feel depressed if you didn't do your daily workout or exceeded your calorie count with that tasty piece of chocolate cake?

The good news is that tracking system designers are working to make their programs more personable. A digital smoking cessation system, for instance, calls users' phones on a daily basis and asks whether they've smoked in the last 24 hours. If so, the automated voice at the other end of the line tries to reassure the user with a message about "taking it easy" and trying again tomorrow. Surprisingly, computerized reassurance does make us feel better [source: Wolf].

For those who like some personal interaction along with their technology, the Quantified Self Institute hosts open meet-up groups where people get together to share their self-tracking projects. There are also Web sites like MedHelp and CureTogether where you can view projects undertaken by other people as well as post your own.

Author's Note: What's the "quantified self"?

Maybe I don't want to quantify myself. Perhaps what makes life so grand is the not knowing. Sure, if I wanted to achieve a specific goal -- kick a bad habit, get in better shape, etc.- – I can see how all of this data gathering and analysis could be a big help. But it would have to be a concrete goal, and the self-monitoring would have to be temporary. Some say the quantified self is the wave of the future. I say it's one small step for man, one giant leap in the evolution of mankind into machine. If walking around with all kinds of monitors strapped to me like Alex when he goes through the Ludovico technique in "A Clockwork Orange"is what I have to look forward to, then pardon me while I work on building my bunker in the woods.

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Sources

  • Antephase. "QS & The Macroscope." (March 9, 2014) http://antephase.com/themacroscope
  • Antephase. "Quantified Self." (March 9, 2014) http://antephase.com/quantifiedself
  • FitBit. "The FitBit Story." (March 9, 2014) http://www.fitbit.com/story
  • Wolf, Gary. "Know Thy Self: Tracking Every Facet of Life, from Sleep to Mood to Pain, 24/7/365." Wired. June 22, 2009. (March 9, 2014) http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/17-07/lbnp_knowthyself?currentPage=all
  • Wolf, Gary. "The Data-Driven Life." The New York Times Magazine. April 28, 2010. (March 9, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0