Our Bodies, Our Quantified Selves

Mood-tracking from the study Mobile Therapy: Case Study Evaluations of a Cell Phone Application for Emotional Self-Awareness

How well do you know yourself? How well, quantifiably?

At one time these questions may have prompted self-reflection or even deep, psychological analysis. But new technologies are now affording a completely different take on this old question. A growing movement in self-tracking--most commonly known as Quantified Self or Lifeblogging--explores this riddle with the gimlet-eyed clarity of an actuary accountant, poring over Excel spreadsheets and Processing data visualizations.

The Quantified Self movement is a hyper self-reporting strategy that sheds light on our everyday habits by quantifying them, visualizing the results, and publishing them on the Web. And the level of detail and self-scrutiny is obsessive. Imagine data that tracks--down to the minute--when a person has brushed her teeth, gone to the bathroom, finished her coffee, or had sex (a Web tool called Bedpost) can help with that one). While in its granular version this information is numbingly trivial, it can become wondrous and insightful when depicted graphically as longitudinal slices across days, months, or years.

By using proprietary software and assistive technologies such as Gordon Bell's MyLifeBits or Nicholas Felton's Daytum, participants can instantly port data to spreadsheets and upload it to blogs and Web sites, making hourly Tweets seem both slothful and archaic.

A "personal dashboard" in Nicolas Felton's Daytum software

In many ways this kind of journaling is not a novel activity (Remember Tucker Show, who got a book contract out of documenting everything he ate?)

What is starkly new is the push to publish so much "private" information publicly to almost anyone with access to the Internet. A generation of heavy Web-users is pumping out content that flaunts the twentieth century’s prevailing wisdom about the threats of surveillance and hazards of giving up private information. As we plug ourselves more directly into data networks, is the guiding mythos of A Brave New World now old world? A quarter of a century after the year 1984, is the era of Big Brother over? It feels as if we've entered a moment when even intensely private information wants to be free.

It's easy to dismiss this phenomenon as being just a group of shut-in exhibitionists clamoring "look at me!" because they’ve lived their adult lives with barely any social contact beyond Facebook. But there may actually be some meaningful upsides to this radical transparency. Clearly, the risks are not trivial. Government and criminal abuse of private data is still a huge problem; but this group of users is developing keen instincts for what they do and do not need to keep private.

The data generated by this micro-physics of the everyday has the potential to create unprecedented, massive databases available for projects from a dizzying array of fields. Imagine what researchers studying disease epidemiology might do with this information, or anthropologists exploring changing social patterns within the digital proletariat. It’s likely that these self-organizing databases will unearth discoveries that were unimaginable before.

Ben Lipkowitz tracks his sleep over the course of a month

Health care companies are already exploring the potential of self-monitoring for better prescription drug use, for ways to help patients lose weight, or for inspiration on more motivating fitness regimens. And innovators like Jay Parkinson (of Hello Health and The Future Well) are looking to compile real-time personal health data and medical bills to create crowd-sourced alternatives to the actuarial risk tables of big insurance companies.

We are undoubtedly in the midst of a shift away from Orwellian paranoia and toward a more transparent sensibility—though it is still in a nascent stage. And along with this evolution comes some fallout as well, as not all self-trackers find the self-scrutiny psychologically bearable. But as we put more of ourselves out there, the question will become, do we have more to gain by making our private lives more visible, or are we giving away the last vestiges of a sense of privacy that many have fought hard to protect?

Blogpost completed at 9:43am…click.

Jamer Hunt's blog SuperNormal
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Jamer Hunt collaboratively designs open and flexible programs that respond to emergent cultural conditions. He is the Director of the new graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons the New School for Design. His practice, Big + Tall Design, combines conceptual, collaborative, and communication design, and he is co-founder of DesignPhiladelphia an initiative to foreground the city as a laboratory for innovative design projects. With MoMA and SEED Magazine he collaborated on and co-hosted MIND08: The Design and Elastic Mind Symposium as well as the project Headspace: On Scent as Design in 2010. He has consulted or worked at Smart Design, frogdesign, WRT, Seventh Generation, and Virtual Beauty. His written work engages with the poetics and politics of the built environment and has been published in various books, journals, and magazines, including I.D. magazine, which published his Manifesto for Postindustrial Design in 2005.

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1 Comments

  • Alexandra Carmichael

    Hi Jamer,

    I think your opening question sums up Quantified Self excellently. It's basically using data to explore ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of how we work, think, feel, and behave. People who start tracking often report learning things about themselves that they didn't know before, and using this knowledge to make positive changes in their lives.

    I appreciate you linking to my post on why I stopped tracking - yes, tracking 40 things a day for 1 1/2 years was harsh, but I learned a whole lot in the process, and I'm still a huge advocate of self-knowledge by numbers. Taken to an extreme, QS can overrun your life, but used as one tool in the toolbox, it's incredibly helpful.

    Thanks for spreading the word!
    Alexandra Carmichael
    Co-Founder, CureTogether
    http://www.curetogether.com