Essays on Technology and Culture

The Un-Quantified Self

It’s possible now, for only a few hundred dollars, to learn nearly everything about your body. You can get a fitness tracking device to monitor how much you move, how well you sleep, and how many calories you burn. You can get a WiFi enabled scale to track and plot how much you weigh. You can get a Bluetooth monitor to measure your pulse, and your blood pressure. You can get an app that pulls all of this data together. With all these tools in hand, you can generate the data you need to make a Nicholas Felton style annual report on yourself.

Proponents of the Quantified Self movement suggest that measuring everything you do is a pathway to better health, and a better life. I’m not going to say they’re wrong, either. The facts say they’re right. If you can see that every time you go to bed at three in the morning, because you were out at the bar the night before, you wake up late and feel terrible, you can then decide to not go to bed at three in the morning. This is an extremely simple and reductive example, but the point remains that knowing facts about yourself and your body does give you an extra layer of perspective towards making behavioral changes. Now, the technology is there and reasonably priced enough to put it in reach of people who can afford a couple hundred dollars in gear.

This works well, if you’re the sort of person for whom gamification is made for. In the parlance of role-playing games of old—the sort with pen, paper, and character sheets with numbers representing stats—someone who strove to max out there character in all aspects was known as a munchkin. There’s plenty of Quantified Self adherents who are in it just to know more about themselves, but I worry if the Quantified Self movement may lead to the same phenomenon to grow in the real world. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to imagine it, either. Go to the gym and look at the muscle-bound guys showing off for each other, and ask yourself if the munchkin qualifier may not apply.

Of course, there’s also the parts of the self that aren’t so easily reduced to numbers. You can know the number of steps you walked, but there’s plenty about us that is more nebulous. To be blunt, you can’t quantify “happiness”. It lacks a scale, or even a sense of the baseline. What does it mean to really know one self? Quantification of the quantifiable is a start, but the only measurement that counts in the end is how you feel. Hacking the body is a start, but hacking the mind and the soul is another. One day, perhaps, the data scientists will team up with the philosophers—there’s enough looking for work—to build the tools needed for the Quantified Soul movement. Then, things will get interesting.