What’s the 'quantified self'?

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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  • 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