The Quantified Self: Are We Tracking Ourselves Too Much?


The wearable device trend is taking off, recording everything from how well you sleep to how far you’ve moved. But can it improve your life?

Every morning I get up, put on some clothes (while trying not to wake my wife who will kill me if I do) and walk to the kitchen to get breakfast. Already, I’m being tracked by my Jawbone UP health monitoring bracelet, which is logging every step I take, every staircase I climb and every kilometre I walk. And if I slip off my Jawbone and sync it with my iPhone, I can see exactly how well (or not well) I slept the night before.

Welcome to the world of “Quantified Self” (QS).

Wikipedia defines QS as “a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life”. Now a cynic might immediately dismiss the QS movement as gimmicky navel-gazing by geeky workout nuts (like myself), but I think that’s a bit unfair.

The truth is that if you’ve ever used a scale or kept a log of your spending, you’ve self-monitored. And if we’re told it’s a good thing to keep track of our money, why wouldn’t we also want to keep track of our physical activity or our sleep – two incredibly important factors in someone’s health and happiness? What’s more, many studies have shown that better information about your actual exertions makes for more informed decisions. And this is as true of exercise as it is of personal spending. As Dr. Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioural Research and Technology, says:

“Research shows clearly that heightening awareness of one’s performance virtually always improves that performance — smarter eating, higher productivity, weight loss, superior performance in sports, and so on.”

Little wonder then that, as monitoring devices become smaller, cheaper and better integrated with smartphones, more people are embracing their quantified selves. With an estimated $800 million in sales of wearable monitoring devices in 2012, this sensor-happy gluttony of self-tracking is shaping up to be a biological metric of the future.

So where is it all heading?

Well, only time will tell, but here’s a few things I’ve stumbled across:

Of course it’s still very early days for implanted technologies, so don’t expect to be swallowing Nike+ pills or injecting a Fitbit under your skin any time soon, but, when the day comes, the amount of data we’ll be able to collect about ourselves is likely to skyrocket.

With these new developments come concerns over data obsession and privacy violation, which I completely understand, but in my opinion the upsides outweigh the risks. When it comes to privacy, my view is that as long as I know who has access to my data, and I have access to all of it at all times, I say bring it on.

I have been using my Jawbone UP, along with my Garmin Forerunner 910XT with heart rate strap for almost two years now, and I can honestly say they have helped me tremendously to understand my body, my limits, my patterns, and my habits, thereby empowering me to change those very habits for the better.

Today QS may be reserved for geeky athletes who like to stare at graphs (guilty as charged), but in the future quantifying ourselves is not going to be done by some people but by all people.

Today we may call it Quantified Self: tomorrow we are going to call it health care.

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