Quantified Self: The algorithm of life

Prospect Magazine

Quantified Self: The algorithm of life


Will the search for self-knowledge through numbers bring greater self-awareness or drive us to ultimate distraction?

With January over, the spirit of self-improvement in which you began the year can start to evaporate. Except now your feeble excuses are under assault from a glut of “self-tracking” devices and apps. Your weakness for saturated fats and alcohol, your troubled sleep and mood swings, your tendencies to procrastination, indecision and disorganisationall your quirks and flaws can now be monitored and remedied with the help of mobile technology.

Technology offer solutions not only to familiar problems of diet, exercise and sleep, but to anxieties you weren’t even aware of. If you can’t resolve a moral dilemma, there’s an app that will solicit your friends’ advice. If you’re concerned about your toddler’s language development, there’s a small device that will measure the number and range of words she’s using against those of her young peers. 

Quantified Self (QS) is a growing global movement selling a new form of wisdom, encapsulated in the slogan “self-knowledge through numbers”. Rooted in the American tech scene, it encourages people to monitor all aspects of their physical, emotional, cognitive, social, domestic and working lives. The wearable cameras that enable you to broadcast your life minute by minute; the Nano-sensors that can be installed in any region of the body to track vital functions from blood pressure to cholesterol intake, the voice recorders that pick up the sound of your sleeping self or your baby’s babbletogether, these devices can provide you with the means to regain control over your fugitive life.

This vision has traction at a time when our daily lives, as the Snowden leaks have revealed, are being lived in the shadow of state agencies, private corporations and terrorist networksoverwhelming [AW1] yet invisible forces that leave us feeling powerless to maintain boundaries around our private selves. In a world where our personal data appears vulnerable to intrusion and exploitation, a movement that effectively encourages you to become your own spy is bound to resonate. Surveillance technologies will put us back in the centre of the lives from which they’d displaced us. Our authoritative command of our physiological and behavioural “numbers” can assure us that after all, no one knows us better than we do.

Sifting through the talks, blog posts and articles daily uploaded by Quantified Self disciples, you soon become aware of an anxious insistence on numbers as a means rather than an end. All this data is meant to spur us to love ourselves better and run our lives more efficiently. And yet it’s hard not to hear, lurking in this promise of self-possession, the threat of numbers dispossessing us, of becoming a feverish addiction we can’t kick. Can even the most adept multi-tasker really live the life that they’re simultaneously tracking?

That question is addressed by the tech entrepreneur Charles Wang in a talk posted on the website of a California-based company called Quantified Self Labs which acts as a global hub for the community. Wang is the co-founder of Lumo BodyTech, a company that produces pioneering devices designed to enhance a user’s posture. Their lead product is the LUMOBack Posture Sensor, which triggers warning vibrations the moment you slouch. Given that poor posture is a key symptom of compulsive absorption in our laptops and phones, this product is not merely a physical corrective, says Wang, but the harbinger of a new “mindfulness”, a means of awakening the self from its high-tech slumber.

So, our mortally anxious distraction by tracking devices is to be finally arrested by…a tracking device. You can only be struck at this point by Wang’s genial indifference to what he’s actually saying. Self-tracking, he declares at a conference promoting the practice, corrodes social and emotional ties, engenders helpless dependence on technology and endangers physical health. But thank goodness I’ve patented a new self-tracking device, he concludes, impervious to either the irony in his catastrophic diagnosis of collective technological alienation and his proposed remedy of a posture sensor.

Perhaps the QS movement is nothing more than a problem masquerading as its own solution. “Self-knowledge through numbers” can surely only exacerbate the malaise it claims to cure. In the vain hope of realising the goal of a fully quantified self, new tracking devices are invented, marketed and implemented, more data accumulated and shared, which in turn highlight new gaps in self-knowledge, engender more devices and create more gaps in a torturously repetitive infinity.

What if the posture sensor, instead of alleviating the distracted panic induced by the overload of technology, only makes it worse? What if its reproachful vibrations only amplify the sense that you’re getting it all wrong, that you still don’t know yourself well enough?  Might it not be worth being curious about the panic itself and what it’s trying to tell you, rather than rushing to silence it with a new app?

Perhaps the panic starts at the very point you take the numerical route to self-knowledge. Perhaps it registers a doubt that your interior life can be reduced to an unending stream of snapshots and metrics, and an intuition that there is, and must always be, something irremediably lacking in your knowledge of yourself. Perhaps the self you really want to know, and that always eludes you, is the one that can’t be quantified.


The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen is published by Granta, £20



  1. February 6, 2014

    Jim Jozwiak

    OK, since you brought up saturated fat which has
    been pretty conclusively proven to not be harmful,
    consider this scenario instead. You do not
    “track” saturated fat; instead you plan to eat
    certain amounts of it, such as very little or
    really a lot, and pay close attention to what
    happens to you. Are your moods different? Do
    you gain or lose weight? Does your skin look the
    same? At the end of this exercise you actually
    know whether it is best for you to avoid it or
    not. Obviously this is only possible for someone
    who is truly interested in his personal nutrition, but this would be a rather sane interest as nutrition is so fundamental.

  2. February 6, 2014

    Terence Hale

    The word algorism comes from the name Al-Khw?rizm? (c. 780–850), a Persian mathematician and probably meant an algorithm, the step-by-step procedure for calculations as we know today. Quantified Self: The algorithm of life aligns people unintentionally to the set theory in mathematics. Existing in a similar form in In India, the caste system is a system of social stratification and which is now also used as a basis for an affirmative action. People are classed as a collection of objects to which an affirmative action can be applied and binaryallize people become robots of society with whom ”colour become pallor, man becomes carcass, home becomes catacomb, and the dead are but for a moment motionless.”

  3. February 6, 2014

    Chris bot

    good job on another premature and hyperbolic screed, showing to all the consequences of a B.A. in English and a commitment to making a fragile, egotistical living through cultural commentary. Premature, in that we have literally millions of writers constantly lookin for the next thing to write about, to panic the public with, adding to our manic fears and sense of never being able to get it right, never able to be ahead of or even keep up with the curve.

  4. February 6, 2014


    Far from self-knowledge it sounds more like a recipe for paranoia, anorexia, depression and narcissism and all the anxieties the modern social app user is heir to. Thinking about oneself too much leads to disconnection…

  5. February 6, 2014

    Jonathan R

    Self-tracking assumes that the self being studied remains the same, a hard view to reconcile with the perceived effects of aging.

  6. February 6, 2014

    Jim Lilly

    David Foster Wallace explored this in some of his fiction (meta-awareness) and the problems it presents to humans. If “Infinite Jest” is too much to bite off, try his short fiction (stories in “Oblivion” or “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”

  7. February 6, 2014


    Unfortunately, there’s no real insight here as the first commenter observed. Gayle Greene’s book “Insomniac” provides an excellent counterpoint on the malignity of the spared at the hapless (yet indispensible) self-obsessions wound around the afflications of others.

  8. February 7, 2014


    Poor Chris bot: He wants to argue against the article, but the best he can summon is an insult to English majors!

    Pace the bot, the article is very thought-provoking, at least, for those who are capable of being provoked in that way. What struck me is how relevant Cohen’s observations are to the negative side of certain Eastern practices of self-observation, or their Western equivalents (Gurdjieff/Ouspensky).

    Note re. Allan, who blathers,

    “[...] provides an excellent counterpoint on the malignity of the spared at the hapless (yet indispensible) self-obsessions wound around the afflications of others.”

    Even if the article were lacking in insight, that still beats lack of even rudimentary coherence.

  9. February 11, 2014

    Peter Davis

    All this technological quick-fix panacea is additional and unnecessary distraction. The techniques for cultivating self-knowledge are ancient and have rightly survived the test of time, particularly in the various forms of meditation, but we are talking about a deeper, less defined self – not the egocentric personality that seems to be commonly confused with self in our modern narcissistic revival. Freud didn’t help, as wise as he was on many matters.

    It is ‘self-knowledge’ in the first-person sense of learning our deeper ‘human nature’, not self-knowledge in the shallow sense of: ‘I’m John Smith, and I’ve finally learning that I like the colour blue, jazz music, reading books and I’m prone to blushing when asked questions and I need to lose weight off my waist.’ – although this might become more evident in the shallows of increasing awareness. But this is just our personality talking and ‘it’ is the very hurdle to deeper self-knowledge.

    The whole point of ‘mindfulness’ is to be absent of this false self by simply being present in non-opinionated awareness, which requires the cultivated cessation of thought by regular practice and is a form of letting go, of self-forgetting – not constant reminders of quantities of data to be analysed by our self about our self.

    Regular practice of meditation, without expectation of results, can help subtly reveal the permanence of a still background of silence in which our sense of self rests. Our anxieties arise when we become disconnected from this deeper awareness by becoming unanchored and too self-conscious or prone to egotism, which leads to all sorts of problems.

    It’s so simple and could be easily taught. But a widespread educational foundation of meditation being introduced in schools from this point on, though having the genuine potential once having been invested to radically improve society’s well-being and reduce the future costs of healthcare, welfare and mental health to suggest only a few, would also undermine a very profitable (and not always scrupulous) industry that relies on the perpetuation of anxieties, maladies and their profitable remedies and might unnerve corporations that rely on our constant distractibility to draw our attention in the direction of their products.

    And this is the real war for hearts and minds – forget terrorism’s claim. It’s all about ‘attention’, and where we ‘spend’ it. All advertisers know this. The worth of our whole life is really only what we pay attention to and the energy this exacts. We’ve only so much energy, so best spend it attending to the worthwhile…

    Forget numbers, it’s just more counting, which is more thinking – and that’s the problem.
    We need only cultivate and include in our day regular moments of gently letting go of our thoughts and following the rhythm of our breath, for example, and just being present and then getting up and on with life, to cultivate self-knowledge. You will naturally come to know yourself and what you should do for the best and to respond appropriately to the worst. And save a fortune – and possibly a wasted life.

  10. February 12, 2014

    Iain Murdoch

    I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Charles Wang.
    Self tracking is another form of hypochondria, and takes a person further from self awareness towards neuroticism.
    However, his device to detect slouching is an excellent idea, as we only slouch or otherwise move out of alignment because we lose awareness of our bodies and become focussed on the outside world, be it computer screen or demanding parents, boss, nagging wife, etc.
    Awareness of posture brings you back into your body, which is the most healthy place to live your life.
    Of course you don’t need to purchase his product. Just take up the practice of meditation. It just takes three or four seconds of self-awareness out of each minute to completely change your life.

  11. February 13, 2014


    More apps and products being marketed to those keeping up with the Joneses (or the Wangs). This article provides an interesting counterpoint to the first one I read in this issue of Prospect about Hunter S.Thompson.
    An honest friend and a mirror (unless you’re blind and require technical assistance in visual feedback – narcissists are usually ‘blind’ in some respects) is all one needs for a good start in self-appraisal. . Talk to your health-practitioner and your confessor (or therapist as fashionable secular society dictates) for assessing physical, mental and spiritual health. Ask Siri if you have an Apple product and you’re too shy to ask a friend or a professional for their opinion.
    I’m sold on fighting gravity in trying to displace a saggy bottom a few inches higher by emulating this hot Brazilian Butt Lift workout I saw on TV last night. Fight inflammation and free-radical damage in our brains to avoid neurodegenerative disease that’s associated with old age. If we can track molecules in our bodies that cause cellular damage associated with old-age then maybe we’re winning the war and ultimately saving money on health-care. Mens sana in corpore sano!

  12. March 9, 2014

    Joseph Ting

    Rational assessment of metadata will benefit community health in enabling the detection of early patterns of epidemic outbreaks. Satellites provide surveillance data that delineate the global impact of human activity the natural environment and public health. The geophysical correlation of malaria surges with climate warming and local flooding allow targeted interventions to be delivered to communities before predicted outbreaks.

    However, mining Big Data has also been turned into a fractious political football. Real world data and informed prediction models that warn of the triumvirate threats of anthropogenic warming, thinning polar ice and rising sea levels continue to ignite acrinomious denial and heated debate.

    The consequences of real-time collection and review of personal, emotional and physiological data remain uncertain. Life-logging capability to monitor a person’s minute-to-minute physiological and psychological status is fraught with adverse health risk. Although favourable feedback hold potential to enhance positive mood and reinforce health seeking and promoting behaviors, adverse data that becomes permanently imprinted could be harmful. A high once-off blood pressure reading could lead to needless worry in the highly strung. As for life events, who wants to be reminded of broken marriages and health crises on a weekly or monthly basis? Once a year is sufficient for most and a calendar serves that purpose well

    Lifelogging only benefits persons capable of responding constructively to, and learning from, the permanent imprinting of adverse events in one’s life record. On the other hand, vigilant surveillance risks aggravating those inclined to anxiety or hypochondria. There is something oddly robotic about being a mobile docking station that constantly transmits and receives information. It could also be argued that obsessive measurement distracts from living a mysteriously rich non-quantified or non-quantifiable life.

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Josh Cohen is the author of The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark 

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