If asked to demonstrate how well you know yourself, you might confess to an endearing behavioural quirk or some minor personality kink. But do you know your REM average and glucose levels?
At around the time you’re reading this, more than a hundred data fiends will be gathering in London to share tips on acquiring the kind of numerical self-knowledge that until recently has been the preserve of professional athletes and fitness freaks. The occasion is the 13th “Show & Tell” session of the UK chapter of the “Quantified Self” (QS), a global movement founded in San Francisco five years ago by Wired magazine journalists Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly.
Today, its followers top 12,000 worldwide, living everywhere from Bangkok to Beirut. Among them are academics, tech developers and hobbyists; some grappling with serious health problems, others seeking nothing short of perfection in their quest to eliminate inefficiency in their daily lives. All are determined to glean a deeper understanding of themselves through data, declining the analyst’s couch in favour of the scientist’s lab bench.
These “self-trackers” are merely extreme examples of a widespread and growing fixation with personal data, fuelled in large part by the rise of the app. Such software has made quantitative assessment accessible to anyone with a smartphone.
We can follow our alcohol consumption, the amount of tossing and turning done during sleep, and even our mood swings and meditation practice, un-Zen though that may seem.
Perhaps you have yet to witness friends whipping out their phones to compare ovulation calendars or look on with a sinking heart as a date feeds the cost of dinner into his expenditure app, but if you know anyone who runs you’ll probably have noticed their distance, time, pace and speed digits sliding across your Facebook newsfeed.
For QS-ers, gathering information about themselves becomes an obsessive pastime. “Self-knowledge through numbers” is their rallying cry and much counting is involved, paces per day and hours of sleep per night being just the beginning. Self-monitoring can probe more abstract variables, too—an hourly photographic self-portrait, for instance, is intended to chart happiness. There is even some old fashioned dream journaling, though pen and paper have largely been replaced by automatic data-gathering. At the QS annual conference in Palo Alto in September, wearable electronics, biofeedback widgets and sensor-equipped gizmos were all big, offering fresh ways to monitor everything from smile frequency to posture.