Is "quantified self" a buzzword, or is it here to stay?
Simple concepts wrapped up in snappy buzzwords seem to flit in and out of the health, wellness and fitness space.
For example, ever heard the term DOMS being bandied about on the lifestyle pages? Is it some new way of causing agony, like HIIT or CrossFit? Well, no - DOMS stands for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. In other words, having an aching backside the day after cycling to work for the first time this year.
That one’s not so scary, then. Like most buzzwords, it’s used to get you to fork out for products (foam roller, sports massage, cold packs). This particular one can also serve as an excuse not to get exercise (“I can’t go out today because of my DOMS”).
But what about this one: Quantified Self. That sounds.. a bit 2001 Space Odyssey. Or maybe a tad 1984. Or Star Trek. Probably not very ET, though.
Sounds ominous, anyway. Who qualifies as Quantifiable? And when have they been Quantified?
What is the quantifiable self?
Depending on who you ask, the Quantifiable Self is either a term which describes the process of gaining self-knowledge through self-tracking or a movement of individuals who practice this process.
Basically, it is the act of purposefully using personal data to improve your quality of life. In practice, this usually applies to healthcare and physical condition, but it doesn’t have to stop there.
First made popular by writer Gary Wolf in 2007 (that’s over 12 years ago already!). He meant it as a way of describing the relationship between data and self improvement.
Whatever it actually meant back then, the concept of the Quantified Self has inevitably evolved. The best way to describe it in its current form is this:
The of tracking every detail of your life, analysing it (Or if you have the money, having your physicians analyse it) and then making strategical decisions based on the analysis to try to prolong your life and prolong quality of life.
Not that many years before Wolf came up with the term, it wasn’t really possible for most of us to collect the kind of data you need to become a quantified self. It was largely limited to clinical trials, certain types of hospital treatment and the measurement of CO Max in aspiring Olympic athletes.
Nowadays, though, so many of us have activity bands and sports trackers that can measure every heartbeat, step and snore that we are potentially all quantified selves.
So is that a good thing for us as individuals or for our societies in general? Is wearable technology a good thing for public health or is big brother sucking us in?
What’s the data?
Let’s get in our time machine and pop back over to the 1980s again. No Apple Watch there. We had the Apple Macintosh (my first work computer). We had Jane Fonda videos on VHS. We had pocket calculators. And I think Smart watches were a thing. Airport concourses with whole shops full of them.
We could actually measure a lot of the data that goes to make a quantified self with these very tools. You could tot up all of your calories in. You could work out how far you’d run or walked and then work out roughly how many calories you used on that Jane Fonda workout thanks to tables provided by the scientists measuring those Olympic hopefuls. You could take your pulse at any waking moment.
OK, so you couldn’t work out how long you’d spent in REM overnight, but an awful lot of the data was available to us back then, if we were prepared to go to the trouble of measuring it and writing it down.
Which we weren’t.
Back to the present in our time machine; calories spent:50, maximum heartrate: 120bpm distance travelled: 3 decades, elevation: -1m (global warming, I live in the arctic). What’s changed?
Wearable tech has been invented and sold to early adopters, the early adopters have been laughed at, the tech’s got cheaper and found its way into all the shops (yes, even Argos) and now we’re all using it. That wearable tech makes it so much easier to take these measurements and to keep them for posterity. Press a button and it’s done. The barrier is that low. We’re gathering data in our sleep - literally.
So each of us as individuals gathers more and more data - and the total sum of data available about individuals has exploded.
Are you a Quantified Self?
For a significant number of people, the niceties of whether their self is quantified or not is irrelevant, because fitness trackers and other wearable tech can be lifesavers. Doctors and hospitals can use their diagnosing and monitoring patients. In these cases it hardly matters what you call yourself and it is clear that any disadvantages of wearable tech are out weight by the advantages.
Those who self-identify as members of the Quantified Self movement would probably argue that you have to be very intentional about your measurements and data and use them very purposefully to bring about improvements in your life. I think they’d also probably argue that there’s some kind of consensus among them about what it’s worth improving and how.
For most of us (like me), this isn’t the case. On the whole, we’re looking to use the information to either lose weight or improve in a given activity, like running, cycling or swimming.
I dip in and out of it. I take quite an interest in the data my sports watch gives me. In fact, it’s a bit of a hobby to follow it. But would I identify as a Qualified Self? No.
At this stage in my life, I don’t have the patience (and won’t make the time) to research how the data I can potentially collect can lead to marginal gains in my health. I actually believe that doing so would lower my quality of life by causing me stress.
What’s more, I don’t have a “hacky” personality and I don’t believe that improving aspects of your life according to someone else’s standards is a) desirable or b) a matter of applying willpower or “wanting it enough”. To me, improving quality of life is an organic process that works more in waves than in a straight line and trying to knock it into shape with willpower doesn’t work in the long term.
And finally, however much I enjoy looking at spreadsheets, it doesn’t define any part of my identity at all.
So: there are some people for whom quantified self data can be a life saver, others who see it as central to their life philosophy and then the majority who collect it and get some kicks out of it but don’t see it as central to their identity.
Is Big Brother watching you?
Which brings us back to that exploding amount of data floating around there in the ether - and back to Big Brother. Is he watching us through our Quantifiable Selves?
Well yes he is, because we upload all of our data from one piece of tech to another so that we can store it and visualise it. We do this automatically with the apps that belong with the kit we buy: Garmin, TomTom, FitBit and so on. We like to share, so we upload data to apps like Strava, MapMyRun and MyFitnessPal. We post it on Instagram and Facebook. It’s as if we want to play Big Brother on ourselves.
It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, either, that we are collecting data that we can share with the medical and research communities. But what about insurance companies? How do we feel if our insurance companies want to use our data to set the cost of premiums? And what about our employers? Should they be able to access our data?
The need to have a conversation about public policy and even legislation is here. We are starting to get to the point where general data privacy laws and medical confidentiality are being stress tested and without a transparent discussion, who knows what can happen with that data.
Ultimately, very few of us are Quantified Selves - but more and more of us are quantified selves. Personally, I’d count myself as a quantified self, as I record a lot of fitness-related data which I like to look over, but I don’t record everything about every second of my life or build a medical strategy on it. I’ve decided that for the time being the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
If only we could take that time machine to 2050 to find out what the consequences turned out to be.