Essays on Technology and Culture

A Few More Thoughts On Self-Tracking

Since writing my previous post on self-tracking, I’ve thought more about the data we collect on ourselves and why. A brief chat with The Typist on Twitter centered around the pleasure of data:

The recent launch of April Zero, a gorgeous public display of personal tracking data caught our eyes, as well. I can’t speak for Nicholas Felton, aka Feltron, but I suspect that half of his self-tracking is to provide data for him to experiment with data visualization and design as it is collecting the details of his life. Data can be gorgeous, and our lives are a gold mine of potentially interesting data to collect and visualize. Anyone who self-tracks as a hobby I can’t fault.

Some part of me approached life-logging and self-tracking from a hobbyist perspective, but I wasn’t getting any of the pleasures that come from a hobby out of it. If I flipped thought my Moves data, it was often the same basic route five days a week. Weekends had variation, but not a whole lot. I’m a creature of routine. I stop at the same set of lunch spots on Seventh Avenue, hit the gym three times a week, go to a writing group on the West Side, and occasionally go to a concert. My location data is the opposite of beautiful. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.

If I’m not getting anything out of self-tracking that’s worth the set up time, battery draining, and mindfulness of checking up on my data, is it worth it? Of course not. Each of these services I drop is one less piece of mental clutter, more space on my hard drive, and—yes—less data I’m giving up for free to some venture-backed startup company that’s just going to get eaten by Facebook or Google in a year or two. Which is why I stick with tracking stuff that focuses on actionable data. If I know I’m spending two hours a week on Facebook, or Tweetbot is my most used iPhone app, that’s actionable data.

Yet, the Quantified Self and Life-Logging movements are fascinating. There’s something incredible about the amount of accurate sensors we can cram into our devices—we’re almost to a Star Trek Tricorder in our phone. The biggest reason why I haven’t replaced my lost Fitbit is that I’m curious what Apple is going to in the fitness tracker space once iOS 8 comes out. We’re in early days and still learning what we should track, when, and why. Those answers aren’t going to be the same for all of us.