Can The Quantified Self Go Too Far?

If Spreadsheets, an app for gamifying your sex life, tells us anything, it's that some things are better left uncharted.

The first step for calibrating Spreadsheets, an app that attempts to gamify your sex life, is to "place your phone face up on the bed and you know . . . bounce around a bit." I knock mine on a desk a few times. Then, it instructs, "Make some noise! Scream, shout, growl, or whisper sweet nothings to your phone." I whistle.

Spreadsheets also wants to know what kind of mattress I have, whether my ideal love life is "sophisticated," "cosmopolitan," "flirty," or "randy," and, at last, "Hey Baby . . . Do I make you horny?"

Uh, no, iPhone, not at all.

Couples who are using the app as intended answer "yes," and then leave their phones on their mattresses while they’re getting busy. The app keeps track of stats like total thrusts, duration, and decibel peak, which the couple can later review while striving for badges like "quick spread" (duration less than three minutes), "F Cancer" (21 times in one month), and The Lion’s Roar (in excess of 70 decibels).

With the variety of data points that Spreadsheets and other overly intimate apps are hoping to collect, it's time to ask: Has the "quantified self"—the process of collecting data about our lives and using it to draw insights or set goals—gone too far?

It wasn’t too long ago that many of us were afraid of inputting our credit card numbers online. And while nobody wants their credit card information to be public, it is something they regularly show waiters, shopkeepers, and airlines. Today's tracking apps keep tabs on (and in some cases broadcast) far more private parts of life.

In addition to tracking your every movement using devices like Nike+, Fitbit Flex, and Jawbone Up, apps will specifically keep tabs on your meals, automatically photograph you every 30 seconds of your day, watch you sleep, keep tabs on your relationship, and, yes, monitor your bowel movements. This is stuff even the most over-sharing among us probably don't share with friends, and yet developers are asking us to tell them everything.

As Spreadsheets cocreator Tyler Elick explains: "Our phone is our companion. We’re as intimately comfortable with our phones as we are anything else. And so, I guess the question is, why not?"

There’s much to be gained from allowing your smartphone to record everything. When you understand your own behavior, you’re in a better position to change it. And when companies understand your behavior, they can theoretically serve you better. Take Google Now, a feature in Google's search app that analyzes your current location and past behavior to guess what information you want. It makes search more convenient, surfacing, for instance, a traffic report just before you leave for work, game scores for your favorite teams’ games, or reminders for appointments. "In the future, you become the query," Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has said of the trend. "It’s what you type, your background, where you are, who you are."

Similarly, the more data you have about yourself, the easier it is to draw insights from your past. Stephen Wolfram, the founder and CEO of the search engine Wolfram|Alpha, offered up a vision for the possibilities of personal analytics in a blog post last year. "In time I’m looking forward to being able to ask Wolfram|Alpha all sorts of things about my life and times—and have it immediately generate reports about them," he wrote. "Not only being able to act as an adjunct to my personal memory, but also to be able to do automatic computational history—explaining how and why things happened—and then making projections and predictions . . . it won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is—and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner and hadn’t 'lost' their earlier years."

As beneficial as a trove of personal data can be, though, there are some things better left uncharted. Comparing our friend counts and vacations with others on Facebook is already making us sad. And it's unlikely that comparing our lovers' average duration and decibel volume to others' is going to make us happy. Analytics are creeping into the most intimate and unquantifiable parts of our lives. An app called Kanoodle, for instance, keeps tabs on nice things you do for your significant others (which it calls "filling the love tank"). Another product set to be released this summer, called Memoto, is a wearable camera that automatically photographs you every 30 seconds of your life. Niclas Johansson, who leads special projects at the company, says some possibilities for the resulting 2,880 photos per day include showing users how many friends they've seen this week or how much time they've spent outside.

The problem with gamifying relationships and downtime, however, is that these things aren't games, they're life. There are no points to be earned. There's no winning. "You can’t substitute gamification for those core things people strive for," social psychologist and CEO of mental health network Psych Central John Grohol recently told The Atlantic. "Filling up a love tank isn’t the same as having a personal connection."

If we are, as Mayer put it, the new search term, we might be wise to consider our future search results. There are some aspects of our lives that may be better left without a track record of our performance, some moments we shouldn't share with anyone—not even our future selves.

[Tally Marks: Stephen Rees via Shutterstock]

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