24 Mar 2014
By Belle

Ramifications of the Quantified Self

While there are some of us who love to track everything about our lives (Nicholas Felton comes to mind as a good example), it pays to look at what the downsides of self-tracking might be, and what the future could look like if this trend continues.

Our aim with Exist is to bridge the gap that Quantified Selfers currently experience between the close-to-raw data output from their trackers and the simple, actionable suggestions they really need to make a difference in their lives. Pie charts and bar graphs and spreadsheets don't translate into real-life actions without a lot of effort put in by the user. We want to build a platform that puts the effort in for you and spits out small adjustments you can make—based on your own, personalised data.

Our plan is to focus on the little adjustments that can build up into healthier habits, like taking the stairs instead of the lift or going to bed half an hour earlier each night. With Exist, you should be able to see the effects of effort you put into making changes in your life and understand which areas of your life are connected, and how.

However, we've come across more than one person who's pointed out the potential issues with tracking everything about your life. A lot of detractors tend to focus on extreme examples, but there are some pitfalls that are worth looking at more closely, in case we can avoid them as the movement progresses.

Making use of the data

One of the biggest deterrents for people so far seems to be simply the lack of utility of all the data we're tracking. Jeremey Duvall wrote a blog post about this exact issue, in which he talked about his own reasons for not buying a fitness tracker. He said he realised a fitness tracker would be no use to him because he had no idea what he would do with the data. I don't think he's alone.

This is exactly what we're trying to solve with Exist. As the Quantified Self movement heats up, it seems that the novelty factor is drawing people in to track their lives for the sake of it. At least until they realise they don't benefit from it at all.

Not only is the data we get from fitness devices and tracking apps not applicable to our lives (at least, without a lot of effort from us to interpret the data and work out how to put it into practice), but we're also falling into the trap of trying to translate everything we can into numbers.

Another great point from Jeremey, who is a personal trainer, is that we can often pay too much attention to numbers without appreciating our incremental progress. Jeremey has had to talk numerous clients "off of the ledge" when they didn't hit their weight loss goals. Jeremey said the more important factor in those cases was that each client "came to the gym five times that week and met their goal of eating five vegetables each day." In the long-term, it's those every daily habits that will stick and help Jeremey's clients to build up healthy lifestyles, and he wants to ensure that's what people are focusing on, rather than arbitrary goals measured by digits.

Personally, this is one of my biggest complaints so far with the Quantified Self movement, at least as far as fitness trackers go. Jonah Berger explained the problem well when he said, "Why do people obsess over LinkedIn Connections or Twitter followers? SAT scores, golf handicaps, or even gas mileage?" Of course the answer is that these are measurable numbers. We can't measure how interesting someone is on Twitter, but we can measure how many people follow them, so that's what we focus on.

Jonah used an analogy to point out the potential trap of tracking whatever Nike, Fitbit or Jawbone tell us to. He recalled the old adage of a drunk man looking for his keys under a streetlight—not because that's where he dropped them, but because that's where the light is. In terms of fitness trackers, we track our step count or how many floors we've climbed in a day not because those are the most meaningful aspects of health and fitness, but because they're measurable. Those are the data points fitness tracker manufacturers have shone a light on, so that's where we look.

In Jeremey Duvall's post that I mentioned earlier, he mentioned a similar issue: the amount of metrics we could track related to our health and fitness are numerous, and "to avoid insanity," as Jeremey said, "we need to focus on just the most important aspects." I have to agree with him that "steps taken during the day is pretty far down the list."

Tracking and living—can we do both?

Julie Wittes Schlack used the same analogy of the drunk looking for his keys in this post, where she posited that some things may be best left uncharted.

Julie argued that being "goal-driven in every domain of life" may lead us to lose the spontaneity of enjoying life without measuring it. Regarding happiness, which many people track through subjective scoring, Julie wrote that it misses the point. "The idea of inching up my contentment average from a 3.9 to a 4.1 doesn't really make me happy," she said.

Although I can see Julie's point about losing sight of the enjoyment we can get from living without measuring anything, I think her assumption that measuring happiness will lead to a negligible improvement—if any—is standard of many QS dissenters; measuring your life doesn't necessarily lead to obsessing over tiny changes like moving your mood from a 3.9 to a 4.1. Using an extreme, potentially obsessive example of self-tracking in your argument is dangerously close to presenting a straw man argument against QS.

I can attest to feeling like I'm tied to my phone lately (I use it to track things my Fitbit doesn't cover), and I sometimes wonder how much more free I'd feel if I simply stopped tracking everything. However, from some minimal tracking and through using Exist, I've found some clues as to what affects my mood and my sleep, which are helping me to make small adjustments to my daily habits. That's a win, in my book.

Buster Benson, a proponent of self-tracking for the purposes of life improvement has also found ways to adjust his daily routine based on information gathered by tracking his life. Buster doesn't buy into the idea of tracking for the sake of it, but rather focuses on finding actions he can take based on what the data tells him. He said in a blog post, "Self-tracking is only useful if it leads to new self-knowledge and—ultimately—new action."

Buster's aim for self-tracking is pretty much the same as mine, and how I envisage Exist being used in the future: he tracks his life purely for the sake of improving it. Not just his happiness and enjoyment in life, but his health as well.

Unfortunately one of the drawbacks I've noticed people talking about is worsened health caused by self-tracking.

Michael Allen Smith posted on his blog about his experiment with tracking headaches for over two years. Michael aimed to find the cause of his headaches and diminish or remove them completely, but after years of tracking he was frustrated with not finding any answers.

What's really interesting about Michael's post is that although he didn't expect to see any difference in his headaches when he stopped tracking them he actually stopped getting headaches at all, briefly. For the first three weeks after he ceased to keep track of when he got headaches and possible causes, he didn't get a single one (after having them daily during the experiment).

Although he didn't spend a lot of time on the tracking itself, Michael said, "the stress of daily tracking and trying to affect an outcome was likely a cause of the headaches."

Arwa Mahdawi looked at the Quantified Self from another angle, focusing on the potential for the movement to normalise neurotic behaviours. Arwa's experience with anorexia led her to argue that self-tracking could be a problem for those struggling with eating disorders. She said, "apps that facilitate calorie-counting and food-logging are an anorexic's best friend and worst enemy." As self-tracking becomes more mainstream, Arwa said we are rewriting compulsive behaviours as normal, and "it is becoming easier for people with serious eating disorders to pretend there's nothing wrong."

This is dangerous territory, and certainly not something we would want to encourage. It also makes me wonder what other health concerns might arise from consistent self-tracking. What if we could point out correlations in moods to someone with depression or bipolar, but we couldn't suggest a way to improve them? Is being aware of your health a good thing if it points out limitations that you didn't know were there?

John C. Dvorak made an interesting argument in this piece about the competitive nature of self-tracking. Gamification and social interactions are utilised in most fitness tracking apps, and could potentially be a problem, according to John. He argued that health and fitness metrics may be "the new competition," now that schools are trying to limit competitiveness among students. "There is no real sense of accomplishment in school any more," he said, so we're instead competing around blood pressure or steps taken per day.

I'm not sure competition is a bad thing if it drives us towards more healthy habits, but John's point echoes what pretty much everyone who dislikes the Quantified Self movement has said: the real problem we should be worrying about is letting this become obsessive. Almost every scathing account of the dangers of self-tracking focuses on extreme examples. Not that I'm saying these don't exist, but I think there's a lesson to be learned here: rather than worrying about any one particular problem the movement could lead to, perhaps we should focus on not taking self-tracking to the extreme, in any way.

In the future, we envisage Exist being an easy-to-use app that delivers small insights about your life that you can act on right away. Our aim is to focus on passive tracking (e.g. wearing a wristband tracker or scrobbling the music you listen to), so that users can put in as little effort as possible to the actual tracking and save their energy for taking action to improve their lives.

We also want to build Exist into a full platform for other developers to build on top of, so that more niche sections of the self-tracking community can be served. For instance, those who are tracking chronic disease symptoms could work with a specific app built on top of Exist to help them understand trends and insights in their data.

Although big data is the more trendy phrase right now, what we're aiming for is more like "little data." Danny Sullivan explained this well in a post for CNET, where he explained that the "little data" on his wrist that showed real-time stats was the most useful of any data he tracked about himself.

I had a particularly inactive day recently, and I remember walking to the post office to pick up a parcel. As I left the post office, I stood outside for a few seconds, considering walking another 10 minutes or so to the supermarket before heading home. I picked the lazy option and went straight home, not bothering to look at the step count on my Fitbit. (I stopped looking at that about a week after I got it. Numbers have never been enough to motivate me.)

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. I knew it was a relatively lazy day, and I knew I'd picked the lazy option. The next morning, however, I found an insight waiting for me on my Exist dashboard that said yesterday was my lowest step count day for a week. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was just the right nudge I'd needed yesterday to make me walk a little longer. I was already considering it, I just wasn't quite motivated enough.

Eventually Exist will be much closer to real-time, and we'll be able to warn you that you're heading towards a worst step count insight if you don't jump up and go for a walk. I'm looking forward to getting those little nudges.

Of course, security is a huge concern when it comes to personal data. Particularly in the case of building something like Exist, where we're dealing not only with very personal data like your weight, daily activity, diet and sleep, but a lot of that data stored in one place. We're taking security seriously and doing everything we can to keep our data safe.

But should we be worried about security as a general rule when it comes to Quantified Self?

Michael Carney wrote about the potential issues with tracking data about our lives for PandoDaily. He pointed out what most of us should realise: "as we document and share more of where we go, what we do... we create more data that companies can and will use to evaluate our worthiness—or lack thereof—for their products, services, and opportunities."

Michael said that health insurance companies will probably be looking to use the data we're voluntarily tracking for health risk profiling. In fact, Sam Lustgarten even wrote that health insurers should hand out trackers for free in order to encourage healthy life choices.

Michael continued in his PandoDaily piece to point out examples of personal data being used or collected by companies that could hold back services based on what they find. Most importantly, Michael didn't rail against the Quantified Self movement completely, but argued for users to be more aware of what they're agreeing to when signing up for a new service. Unlike "those who consciously make [the] decision" to share their data, Michael worries more about the users who don't put in the time and effort to understand what data they're giving up, and what terms of service they're opting in to.

"Data is powerful, and just as it has the power to enhance our lives, in the wrong hands it can also harm us," he said. He also included snippets of several privacy policies from fitness tracker companies to show that they all have clauses included allowing them to share users' personal data.

I agree with Michael's concerns, and I think a lot of us are less informed than we think.

Self-tracking has been around for a while, but as a technology-based, mainstream concept, it's still quite new. We have a long way to go before we see which devices and services will stick with mainstream consumers and what value we can get from tracking our lives. We're excited to see where Exist goes in the future and what the most valuable applications of it could be, but we're mindful of the need for making well-informed decisions about personal data and focusing on self-tracking in moderation.

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