Digital life

Meet the data hoarders
October 17, 2012

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 There is even some old fashioned dream journaling, though pen and paper have largely been replaced by automatic data-gathering.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.

Yes, the geek factor is off the scale; the line between enlightened self-awareness and blinding self-absorption can seem extra fine at times, too. But there are some promising applications to all this.

Among the guest speakers at September’s QS conference was computer scientist Larry Smarr, director of a research centre at the University of California. Smarr’s self-tracking began with an attempt to lose weight and eventually led to an early diagnosis of Crohn’s disease. Along with diet, rest and exercise, he now monitors his own blood and lavatorial doings. Within the next ten years, he predicts, medicine will have been revolutionised, resulting in not only more effective preventative care—your doctor may yet prescribe you an app—but also ultra-personalised treatment plans.

In becoming their own lab rats, however, the QS-ers risk missing some larger points. The unexamined life may indeed lack value, but what of the over examined life? Surely, the poets will cry, the “self” is more than the sum total of our eating, sleeping and working habits? Is there truly no aspect of the human experience that cannot be expressed as a pie chart?

In such a connected world, the truth is that our data is already being mined for us, whether or not we elect to don wearable electronics. Our mobile phones function as tracking devices; Google is watching as we browse online; store cards log our purchase histories. The information generated in these and myriad other ways is constantly being used to profile us. Looked at from that angle, the QS-ers are at least seizing command of their own data narratives.

Of course, data gives us a sense of control; that’s what makes it so seductive—and so unnerving when our personal information works its way into the hands of others. But it’s worth remembering that in its raw state, data is merely information, and that is something quite distinct from knowledge.