“Have you heard of the quantified self?” my coworker asked me. After a puzzled stare and a furrowed brow I assured her I hadn’t. So of course I immediately clicked over to a new tab and typed “quantified self” in the browser. Turns out I had heard of this concept, I’d just never put a name to it. In fact, I’d been partaking in this movement for years – tracking my whereabouts with Foursquare, logging my calorie intake with MyFitnessPal and recording my workouts with RunKeeper. I even had a stint with Saga, the app that tracked your every single move without you having to do anything! Just install the app and let ‘er rip.
There are a ton of apps and wearable devices dedicated solely to this purpose of tracking and quantifying oneself, all with the ideal goal of finding correlations and being able to improve upon your productivity, fitness, and overall well-being. The Zeo monitor straps to your head, monitors your sleep cycles, and comes equipped with a programmable alarm clock that wakes you at the optimal phase of sleep. Adidas has a chip called miCoach you place in your shoe and it will record your speed, subsequently breaking down your recorded data graphically on their website. Samsung hopped on this trend and partnered with Foursquare to visually capture your whereabouts with their Foursquare Time Machine. Of course curiosity got the better of me and I gladly gave them access to my Foursquare check-ins. Take all of my data, Samsung! Link all of my accounts? Suuure. The more the merrier. Just remember to spit back a cool interactive image so I can see all of my data.
I’m not alone in my curiosity. It was reported last year that wearable monitoring devices raked in an estimated $800 million in sales. And it doesn’t stop there. IMS Research projects that the wearable technology market will exceed $6 billion by 2016. People are buying into this self-tracking movement. So why the obsession?
It’s no secret people are fascinated by themselves. The sweetest sound to any person is the sound of their name. We enjoy documenting our lives. (Enter the sudden rise of selfies.) We’re fascinated by ourselves. Most people within the quantified self sector argue, however, that the main goal behind keeping a record of our activities and behaviors is to improve our quality of life. Tracking oursleves allows us to find interesting correlations we may not have seen otherwise, or rather gives us the big picture of our activities and behaviors. Another possible explanation could lie in Leon Festlinger’s social comparison theory, which is the idea that individuals are driven to gain accurate self-evaluations. They look at those around them to quantify the uncertainty of life and provide some type of framework to objectively measure their self-worth. Are we fascinated with quantifying ourselves to see if we measure up to those around us? The social sharing features within these devices definitely play into this idea.
And this may be a positive thing. Senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Dr. Robert Epstein, says, “Research shows clearly that heightening awareness of one’s performance virtually always improves that performance – smarter eating, higher productivity, superior performance in sports, and so on” (reference). In other words, tracking your every move leads to greater self-discovery and self-betterment. From personal experience, I know I tend to get lost in the everyday details and these apps let me look back at the big picture, putting all of the small puzzle pieces together and providing a larger, newer perspective on my daily activities.
On the flip side, is constantly quantifying yourself all it’s cracked up to be? Is this measured life in fact making us happier and healthier or more obsessed and hyper aware of measuring up to those around us? I don’t have the answer, but I tend to pitch my tent in the former camp, particularly when it comes to the health sector. The emergence of self-tracking devices has led to new discoveries in curing diseases and ways to improve our mood, diet, sleep, and productivity. Whatever the underlying factors for this wave of putting your life into numbers, devices and apps dedicated to doing just that aren’t going anywhere. They’re gaining ground and changing the way we interact and make decisions.
Author’s note: MIT’s Emily Singer, biomedicine editor for The Technology Review, has an entire magazine section dedicated to this concept. If you haven’t already, you should check it out and add it to your Feedly reader. The Measured Life is a section of MIT’s The Technology Review that covers the self-tracking movement looking at the tools and people who use them. Another great resource is QuantifiedSelf.com where they host weekly discussions and meetups surrounding this topic of the quantified self.