So Appy Together
A few years ago, some very smart people started to wonder what would happen if we tracked ourselves as closely as do the marketers who scarf up the digital breadcrumbs we leave with our every move on the Internet. (Our credit card purchases, GPS usage, and DVR activity are just a few of the other ways corporate America keeps tabs on us.) Could the same kind of data big business is always collecting help us learn more about ourselves? That question gave rise to the Quantified Self (QS) movement, a term coined by Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2008. QS was modeled on the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of Silicon Valley tech hobbyists whose biweekly gatherings led to the creation of the personal computer (Steve Jobs was a member). Early QS adherents made elaborate Excel spreadsheets or developed their own computer codes to keep track of life in minute detail. They measured things like precisely how much caffeine they needed to hit maximum productivity, or how diet and sleep affected their athletic performance. One member discovered that eating half a stick of butter each day enhanced by 5 percent his ability to do simple math problems. Life is messy, they reasoned, whereas data is efficient, rational, and beautiful.
The group at NuVu is one of more than 40 QS chapters that meet regularly in 18 countries. And, just as the Homebrew Computer Club brought forth the PC and Mac, QS has influenced the creation of apps and gadgets that have brought tracking to the masses. A movement that was once the domain of hackers and techies is now available to all of us, and it’s spreading. MobiHealthNews estimates that there will be 13,000 health-related apps in the iTunes store by this summer. And according to Wellesley-based BCC Research, the health technology industry, which was valued at more than $7.4 billion in 2011, is projected to more than double to nearly $17.5 billion by 2016. Body sensors littered the floor of the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January. That same month, a little company called Nike unveiled a new activity-tracking device — the FuelBand.
“Starting QS was about anticipating that this boom was coming, and wanting to produce a context for intelligence and reflection,” Gary Wolf tells me when I get him on the phone in California. He says QS is not about finding answers, per se, but about asking questions and learning more about yourself in the process. He goes on to explain that this convergence of technology and personal data is creating a “new way of being human, and it’s something that we should think and talk about and work out together.”
A NEW WAY OF BEING HUMAN? That’s certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I began my own self-tracking about a year ago. I downloaded one of the most popular health apps on iTunes, RunKeeper, which was designed by the local startup FitnessKeeper. As I jog, it tracks my pace and uses my phone’s GPS coordinates to calculate my distance, while its internal coach gives me my splits and tallies my calories burned. RunKeeper’s been called the gateway drug for self-tracking, and after getting the initial bit of data, I did feel a dopamine surge in my brain. As I kept using the app, I got hooked. I’d receive e-mails when I hit a new distance goal, and would share my runs on Facebook, where friends would cheer me on, adding to the warm-fuzzy feeling. Later, I learned that I was experiencing what researchers call the Hawthorne effect: the idea that test subjects improve upon an observed habit simply because it’s being watched. Socrates famously said that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. And sure enough, I began to feel like I needed to run with my phone for my workouts to really count.
Then last summer, I noticed that all of the maps of my runs were being logged online, and made searchable by Google. Realizing that someone could easily deduce where I lived, I quickly changed my settings to private. It was a bit of a buzzkill, and feeling slightly betrayed, I began jogging without my phone. But I got off easy. This past July, users of the Fitbit, a clip-on device that monitors your physical movement, were surprised to learn that after logging their sexual activity (the average person burns 150 to 200 calories per go, so why not count it?), the information was available online, including how long, how vigorous, and how often they got busy.