The Quantified Self
‘I was giving birth to our son, and instead of holding my hand and hugging me he was sitting in the corner entering the time between my contractions into a spreadsheet.’
Joe and Lisa Betts-LaCroix, self-trackers
There is a new logic afoot. It is a meme of staggering proportions that capitalizes on using the endless minutiae of everyday life to inform and enlighten us. From DailyBurn, a web site where you can track your body information (weight, body fat percentage), including workouts, nutrition, and challenges; to Sleep Cycle, an iPhone alarm clock app that analyzes your sleep patterns and wakes you when you are in the lightest sleep phase, the quantified self holds a compelling promise: to know yourself, quantify yourself.
Also called self-hacking, advocates like Tim Ferris and Kevin Kelly assert that data about a broad array of quantifiable activities becomes meaning. We know it is meaningful because actionable insight leads to a wealth of enhancements: viewing myself as data I can change, improve, grow, learn, evolve.
This is Metalife as a torrent of numbers, self as a merry quant. We should not take this assertion lightly. It is both highly useful and remarkably seductive. Information has become identity. It is also a new way of seeing ourselves in a world eye-ball deep in tool-accumulated data.
Here is Larry Smarr’s story of how he changed his health by monitoring his blood chemistry:
Realizing the efficacy of quantifying my weight, what I eat and drink, my exercise, and my sleep, I started quantifying my blood chemicals. I began to see the blood as a “window” into the well-being of many of my organs … a pinprick of blood reads out the state of 50 key chemicals in 50 organs (2,500 markers); in today’s world, however, I must have 3 to 12 vials of blood drawn to get the approximately 60 markers I track. I have blood test four to eight times per year and keep a spreadsheet with all the values…. [Now] I routinely use food and supplements to “tune my numbers” to more optimal levels. For instance, when blood tests showed that my vitamin D had dropped to 30, I took vitamin D3 supplements till my tests showed it had come back up to 50. I must say I am not nearly as comprehensive as Ray Kurzweil (who takes 250 supplements a day), but I do believe that my program has greatly improved my health over what just eating well and exercise had done.
[Larry Smarr, Quantified Health: Towards Digitally Enabled Genomic Medicine: A 10-Year Detective Story of Quantifying My Body]
Adriana Lukas, self-hacker and founder of the London Quantified Self group asserts: It’s not about the data, but about how we change, tweak and hack ourselves based on the findings of that data. But surely that is incomplete. Self-hacking is data as a useful mirror or surrogate to be sure; but it is also a way of funneling perception through the data, asking perception to adopt the logic of the data and data-gathering tools. In this regard, the quantified self is another in a lengthening line of Metalife incarnations that create a version of us that starts to define (and occasionally delimit) us. Said differently, this self-knowledge is insufficient without a meta level; we need to broaden our narrower intent to know ourselves by the numbers and include the Metalife process of knowing ourselves as we bend our perceptions and behaviors to our tools.
KNOW, KNOW, A THOUSAND TIMES KNOW
Footsteps, sweat, caffeine, memories, stress, even sex and dating habits—it can all be calculated and scored like a baseball batting average. And if there isn’t already an app or a device for tracking it, one will probably appear in the next few years.
April Dembosky, FT Magazine
“Know thyself” was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Now that knowledge is inscribed in an app. Gary Wolf, arguably the originator of the quantified self, calls this “a new culture of personal data.” The reason for the rise of this culture, says Wolf, is obvious:
New tools … made self-tracking easier. In the past, the methods of quantitative assessment were laborious and arcane. You had to take measurements manually and record them in a log; you had to enter data into spreadsheets and perform operations using unfriendly software; you had to build graphs to tease understanding out of the numbers. Now much of the data-gathering can be automated, and the record-keeping and analysis can be delegated to a host of simple Web apps.
Tweet What You Eat is a Twitter-based food diary that lets you broadcast, in real time, everything you eat and how many calories you’ve ingested. Literary agent Rachel Gardner tells her wannabe authors, “It’s all about the numbers,” saying that publishers are focused on your Klout score, Twitter followers and page views as much as (or more than) your prose. We are witnessing a wholesale embrace of data empowered to tell us not only what to do, but what we are worth—in the eyes of the world and in our own self-evaluations.
The issue here, as it always is when a new tool provides another way of looking at the world, is wholeness—sometimes referred to as whole systems thinking. Using a digital scale to measure weight and body mass, logging calories and carbs, collecting and correlating data on bodily inputs and outputs, self-knowledge takes on the mantra of computing:
“One cannot change or control that which one cannot measure.”
While true at one level, say when trying to lose weight or log more miles training for a 40k, is it true at all levels? Especially at the higher and deeper levels, whatever that may mean to each of us? And how likely is it that we will fully embrace the logic of measurement when applied not only to external events and milestones in our lives, but when applied to our lives themselves?
Robert P. Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and the author of “World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement,” writing in the New York Times describes two different ways of measuring: outer (ontic) things and, the more complex inner (ontological) things, and our tendency to confuse the two:
Confusing the two ways of measuring seems to be a characteristic of modern life. As the modern world has perfected its ontic measures, our ability to measure ourselves ontologically seems to have diminished. We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself. We are tempted to seek all meaning in ontic measuring — and it’s no surprise that this ultimately leaves us disappointed and frustrated, drowned in carefully calibrated details.
INFORMATION IS CHEAP, MEANING IS EXPENSIVE
For the last five years EMC and IDC have collaborated on the Digital Universe study. This year (2011) they forecast that we will generate and consume 1.8 zettabytes of information as a society. That’s up from an estimated 1.3 zettabytes in 2010, with 35 zettabytes forecasted by the end of this decade. According to EMC and IDC, astonishingly enough, the rate of information growth appears to be exceeding Moore’s Law.
We love logistics, the UPS ads intone. And now a two-minute Google Ad, “Search On”, tells the story of a music teacher who used Google to quantify baseball stats in order to pitch a perfect game in the 2K Sports Major League Baseball game (MLB2K11) and win $1 million:
Madison Avenue is paving the way for Main Street acceptance of the new order. But things are not so simple. It is not only that we are running headlong into E.O. Wilson’s aphorism, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” We are facing a new day. Now we must continually ask ourselves—and create new ways of understanding as we ask ourselves—how much wisdom is inherent in all this information?
In a recent interview with The European, George Dyson,a historian of science with a special focus on the internet and artificial intelligence, said:
We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.
Quantifying the self, we extract that meaning with new tools and apps. The merry quant mantra is that meaning comes through the data, it is there in the data waiting for us to uncover it. While that is true at one level, there are other levels. The Metalife meaning is that we are altering our identity and focus as we adapt to the data. This is what we have done with every new tool and technology since the advent of alphabets; we would be wise to bet on it happening again here. Moreover, as Dyson goes on to say, today we are in a very new place where different dynamics are present:
The degree and the speed of change are so large that they really have the potential to usher in something that is very different from anything that had been before. That’s what Barricelli saw in 1953 with the first computers, that evolution would never be the same again.
Quantifying the self seen in this light is a search for enlightenment in the face of massive change. Yet it is also a search that has gone on for thousands of years before we had more wireless devices than humans and is particularly well documented in the Zen tradition. In Zen the self is suspect, considered a figment of the ceaseless striving of the ego and mind. Striving to quantify that figment, we are suddenly confronted by the dubious wisdom of trying to measure the unmeasurable:
“Everything comes out of emptiness. One whole river or one whole mind is emptiness.”
The wisdom we require is the ability to know that which we can measure and that which we cannot; to respect them both and not to confuse them.
In this new place at which we have arrived, what matters is that we realize quantifying and whole systems thinking are equally necessary even if their coexistence is arduous, the measuring ultimately inexact.
The first post on this topic was entitled The Blind Men and the Elephant Stampede. Next: Why information and religion have a common root and how the big data dynamics of mining, analytics, finding patterns, and finding-as-learning are the key dynamics of flow. Taken together this tool set of flow is a new grammar of understanding and ultimately, a new worldview.
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