Essays on Technology and Culture

Spying On Myself

Moves. RescueTime. Fitbit. MyFitnessPal. RunKeeper. Sleep Cycle. Swarm. Reporter. Lift. Mint. I do a lot of self tracking. I know where I’ve gone, how I got there, how much I spent on stuff while I was there, and what music I was listening to at the time. I know, down to the minute, how much time I spend on Facebook while using my laptop. Several times a day, my phone buzzes to ask me what I’m doing, where I am, and what app I used last. There’s data tracking how many steps I’ve taken for the last six months, and data on my sleep for almost that same amount of time. Every time I arrive at my office, and every time I leave it gets logged to a spreadsheet in Google Docs. There is precious little I do not know about my habits, online and offline.

The point of the Quantified Self movement is that once you have a bunch of data on yourself, you can identify patterns—and then things to change to improve yourself. Then, you check your new data, and if the change is working, keep at it. It’s about self-awareness, and then self-improvement. That’s the spirit, at least, with which I embarked on the step-tracking, location-logging, iPhone-buzzing, self-reporting endeavor. And, yes, it’s been useful in some ways. Knowing how many steps I take during a day has inspired me to move more. Logging my calories makes me want to seek out healthier lunch options, and helps me shed pounds. Since I’ve taken up Couch to 5K, RunKeeper’s been a useful way to track my workouts, too. Sleep Cycle doesn’t help me get out of bed, which is a problem, but I think it’s me, more than the app. These stay.

It’s the other data that I’m wondering if I need. Moves, for example, lets me know all the places I go during the day. I can see my travels on a map, day in and day out. And there’s not a whole lot of variation. I go to work, I go to lunch, I go home. That’s because I’m a 9-to–5ing Corporate Stooge. Before going with Fitbit, Moves did serve as a great pedometer, but now that feature is quadruply redundant between the Fitbit app, MyFitnessPal, DayOne for iPhone, and Reporter app tracking my steps. (Plus, there’s the whole Facebook thing.) As it stands, Moves is just one more thing sucking up battery. Deleted.

Swarm is another location-tracking app without the automation of Moves. Before it was spun out into its own app, Foursquare was worthwhile as a way to inspire me to find interesting spots and collect badges. As a stand-alone app, it’s lost its interest. With so few friends using Foursquare/Swarm, I don’t even get the social benefit of knowing where my friends are so I can hang out with them. I’ll know if I’ve been somewhere interesting, or important. Logging it publicly serves no useful purpose. I can always just write it down if I need to remember a great place. Gone.

RescueTime and Reporter are apps I’m using to keep track of how I spend my time on my devices. I’ve been using RescueTime on my Mac for a while, and my weekly emails are sobering. (I spent how many hours on Facebook? Even one is too many!) However, it doesn’t track what I do at work—there’s a Windows version, but I don’t think IT would like it if I installed it—so RescueTime is only useful for figuring out how much time I spend on personal projects. I’m still working on ways to ensure I do that. Reporter is a new piece of software that buzzes me to log a few pieces of data: “Am I working?”, “What am I doing?”, and “What iPhone app did I use last?” (For my own curiosity. The big winner is Tweetbot, so far.) There are more pointed questions I could use it to ping me about, but I’m still working out whether this is even going to be something useful. Not Sure Yet.

As for the rest? Lift is a habit tracking app that works best when I actually think to open it. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with the app, and I’m in the middle of giving it another chance. The social features are good for positive reinforcement, but I’m still unsure about it. Mint is actually very helpful, especially since I’ll be renting an apartment again and need to keep a closer eye on my finances. I’m of two minds on it… it’s a great way to discover new music, but I rarely think to check there when I’m looking for something new. I think it’ll have to go, despite years of use. I’m just not getting anything out of it, and don’t want to bother. Baleeted.

Before I dive into another service that automatically tracks some aspect of my life, I need to ask myself more questions about why I’m bothering. What do I want to know about myself? What am I trying to change? What happens if I’m successful, and what happens if I’m not? To just dive in and expect that some sort of pattern or sense will emerge from all the data I’m collecting about myself. That’s magical thinking. The same magical thinking that goes into big data, that enough data can overcome our own ignorance and biases.

Part of the problem is the “set it and forget it” nature of many of these services. Unobtrusiveness is important when you’re spying on yourself, but you still need to see what you’re collecting and decide if it’s of any use. I’m not trying to be Nicholas Felton, I just want to have a better sense of how I’m spending my time, money, and energy. I want to use this information to help me focus on the things that make me happy, and not to do more work, but do better work. It feels odd to just drop the bomb and wipe out years of data on where I’ve been and what music I’ve heard. Yet, I know the important things. My memories aren’t tied up in services, they’re in my head. For some things in life, that’s the only place they need to be.