An Exploration of the Quantified Self
Adapted from the original blog post here
“It's sort of turned my life into an ongoing video game which is really fun”
- Sharif Shameem of Super.io
Catch Me Up
While the “Quantified Self” may sound like a cool sci-fi novel, it’s a phenomenon that humans have been doing for centuries and anyone with an Apple Watch can do with a glance. The Quantified Self is the pursuit of self-knowledge through data. Anything you can track and measure about yourself, from hours slept to blood glucose level to tacos eaten, can count as a metric. The term was coined by writers Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf in 2007 and has bloomed into a global movement, with over 95k members of Quantified Self Meetup groups around the globe.
The Upside ⇡
The beautiful thing about data is that it reveals trends and provides insights that can help you decide how to live your life. Ben Franklin famously tracked his adherence to 13 virtues of character including cleanliness, frugality and chastity that he wanted to embody. Blogger Tim Urban quantified his life into the number of times he would experience something before he died—from Red Sox games to hours with his parents. Many of us have quantified our experiences at some point, whether by keeping a food log or glancing at the activity data on our Apple Watches. If you track your mood and find that it dips every day at 9am and rises again when you leave work, you might look into picking a new career, which is exactly what one QS follower did. Folks at QuantifiedFlu have begun noticing a heart rate increase trend days in advance of people getting sick, an insight which may help us catch cases of COVID-19 before symptoms arise. While it’s been noted that Health Apps aren’t very effective on their own, the Quantified self movement brings people with similar interests together to support each other in the pursuit to peak performance.
The Downside ⇣
Sounds great; what’s the catch? Well... there are a few things, data privacy being the largest concern. In 2018, fitness apps 8fit and Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal were both the subject of data breaches where a combined 159 million consumers’ personal information later went up for sale on the dark web. Google, now the owner of Fitbit, has already been in hot water over violating consumer privacy. Even anonymous personal information can in some cases be easily re-identified. Health information is sensitive and logging or tracking data with a third party service inherently exposes it to hackers. Other downsides? Hardcore Quantified-Selfers can be intense. They’re known to track their burps and farts, and won’t touch your famous 7-layer-dip with a 10 foot pole. But hey, depending on what they’re tracking, they might just be healthier (and happier?) than your average human.
The Future ⇢
In alignment with Moore’s law, the hardware that captures body metrics is getting smaller and faster by the day. The Oura ring, a tiny finger band that measures sleep and activity, already looks futuristic, and the technology is always getting smaller. Expect smart threads to line the insides of your shirt that can monitor your vitals and vibrate to give you alerts. Soon enough, we’ll have to stop referring to smart products as “wearables” because they’ll likely be embedded inside our bodies. In the next 50 years, technology will enable most people to capture and measure extensive data about their bodies and behaviors, allowing for increasingly customized medicine practices and life choices. While the quantified self community right now is small but mighty, we’ll all be joining the ranks soon enough.