Did you ever track your height growing up? Did you stand against a wall while your parents marked your height with a pencil, recording the date next to it? If you keep an active lifestyle, do you have a notebook in which you record all of your workout routines? This morning, did you get on the scale and weigh yourself before going to work?
From diaries to workout logs and everything in between, humans have a penchant for measuring and analyzing different aspects of their lives. This drive to measure the self has crystallized over the past ten years into a “Quantified Self” movement. This small, but rapidly growing community is using emergent technologies to define an exciting new “Science of Self”, ranging from happiness tracking to the contents of one’s gut flora.
“Quantified Self is the technique and technology that allows you to collect data about yourself and learn from it, and the QS community is the group that allows you to share that knowledge,” says Mark Moschel, co-organizer of The Chicago Quantified Self Meetup Group.
The group has over 450 listed members, and individuals meet on a monthly basis to present and discuss experiments, techniques and data that they have measured from themselves. Moschel, for example, recorded a “happiness score” every day for two years, and found that his happiness ratings were lowest on days when he had to travel for work.
Another QS member started tracking the quality of his sleep using a Basis Band, a wristband with a built-in accelerometer that infers whether you are in light or deep sleep depending on how much you move in bed. By testing different strategies like going to bed early and cutting out caffeine, the presenter was able to optimize the quality of his sleep so he could be more awake during the day. Despite the differences between Quantified Self and academic research – the most obvious being that the experimenter is also the only subject - the QS community represents a new breed of “civilian scientists”, seeking to integrate the scientific method into their day-to-day lives in the interest of personal growth.
Although the notion of personal recordkeeping has been around for centuries, the QS movement originally began in the late 2000s when a small group of tech entrepreneurs in San Francisco met to discuss the recent emergence of tracking technology and how they can use technology to increase their productivity and performance. They were the first bona-fide “biohackers” – those who sought to use science, technology and medicine to maximize their own abilities – but in order for people to improve on their abilities, they first had to conceive ways of measuring them. Thus, the Quantified Self movement was born.
Current technologies now allow curious QSers to track a wide variety of variables. The most popular devices are fitness trackers that act as pedometers and heart rate monitors, like the Fitbit, Nike+ Fuelband SE and Jawbone wristbands. There are even independent laboratory companies who will look for nutrient deficits in your blood (WellnessFX), chart the kinds of bacteria living in your gut (uBiome), or screen your DNA for genetic mutations (23andme).
But someone who is new to QS need not spend hundreds of dollars on fancy machinery or laboratory tests. Smartphone app stores are replete with sleep (Sleep Cycle), diet (MyPlate) and productivity (The Pomodoro Technique) trackers. RescueTime is a free browser add-on that tracks how much time you spend (or waste) on email and other websites. Lastly, the Quantified Mind website features a variety of cognitive tasks that people can use to measure their own attention and mental capacity, and even suggests experiments that you can conduct on yourself.
While the QS community has significantly shaped the development of emerging QS technology (having crowdfunded the development of more sophisticated tracking apps such as the Lumafit, Moschel thinks that the QS movement has gained enough momentum to allow new technologies to be developed in parallel as the community grows.
“One thing that the QS community is able to do is create demand for specific niches that are becoming popular,” he says. “When you hear about someone tracking sleep in a creative way, that creates demand, and demand leads to new products.”
That demand is now being extended to the medical community. Specialized tracking programs are now being developed for people with disorders like Parkinson’s disease to ensure they meet daily recommendations for activity and exercise. Self-tracking one’s progress when it comes to rehabilitation confers a bonus advantage; as the subject observes the data being tracked, he becomes invested in the outcome of the data and is thus more likely to comply with prescribed treatments. Benefits are seen immediately, and can be used as positive reinforcement.
But is it useful or dangerous for QSers to measure or conduct experiments on themselves without being scientifically trained? Tracking your weight is a harmless endeavor, but what if you’re trying to boost your memory with smart drugs, or measuring something as nuanced as “happiness”?
While it is imperative for academic science to be generalizable to the population in order to benefit mankind, self-measurement is done on the self, for the benefit of the self. While this decreases the overall risk, this also leads to the greatest flaw of the QS movement: one’s measurements can be entirely subjective, and therefore prone to bias, placebo effects, and misinterpretation.
Moschel says that it really depends on your goals and the measurement tools you’re using.
“[Many QSers] don’t care so much about the technique behind it so much as the outcome,” he says. “They want to find out, ‘Do I feel better?’ From a scientific perspective, that might be frustrating, because it’s so inexact. But, from a personal level, if you think you are feeling better, than it’s meaningful.”
This perspective is not unique to the field of Quantified Self, but hearkens back to the ethical debates surrounding the use of placebo effects in Western medicine.
Despite these issues (or perhaps in response to them), the increased demand for more sensitive and diverse tracking tools has spawned numerous start-up companies, as well as a Quantified Self Institute in the Netherlands, which specializes in developing tracking technology. Eager experimenters can now check out the latest developments at one of the two Quantified Self conferences held every year, one in Amsterdam and one in San Francisco. For the more casual tracker, Lifehacker is an endless repository for the latest and greatest in productivity, and fitness tracking apps for your phone or computer.
With innovative technologies being created at such a rapid pace, where might Quantified Self technology end up next? With the development of wearable trackers embedded in clothing, such as Google Glass or Athos, fitness wristband trackers like the Nike+ Fuelband SE may already be passé. But it’s clear that so long as we continue to measure everything around us, as humans are wont to do, the QS movement will continue to flourish. And perhaps, when you have kids, you won’t have to track their height with a pencil – a Smart Wall will do that for them.