It began with a small group of digital obsessives recording their every heartbeat. Today, the ‘quantified self’ movement is a gadget-fuelled fitness craze. But where to start?
Know thyself, advised the Greeks. Quantify thyself, reply the geeks, before snapping photographs of their breakfasts, analysing last night’s sleep data, wirelessly updating their weight, comparing their tooth brushing with the previous week’s efforts and striding out with pedometer, heart monitor and electronic posture corrector to face the world.
The Quantified Self began as a baggy sort of movement. A pair of American tech journalists, Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, came up with the name to cover the activities of a disparate bunch of people tracking different areas of their lives – chiefly their health – with simple technology. Its motto was “self-knowledge through numbers”: using data to hold a mirror up to ourselves and make improvements to what we see. This was in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released, a gadget whose GPS capability and accelerometer and apps would help to make self-tracking increasingly plausible even for non-geeks.
Five years on, there are QS groups in 78 countries, with some 14,500 members, but it’s still a somewhat nebulous beast. At the 13th London meetup, held a couple of months ago at the industrial-chic Google Campus in Shoreditch, one speaker talked about an app he’d developed to help snorers record and diagnose their night-time eruptions – “This data is unique and important,” he said, “and who else is going to collect it?” One speaker, a diffident young man, gave a talk about his arcane yearlong project to collect and categorise ideas. He wore a tight black polo neck that showed off his contoured torso: a body built by data.
If QS is still in essence a fringe movement, its effects are being seen in mainstream culture. Nike, for example, has co-opted the QS approach with their Nike+ FuelBand, a bracelet that uses movement to tot up “Fuel Points”. Launched earlier this year, Nike has a huge advertising campaign planned in the run-up to Christmas; fitness apps and gadgets are the vanguard of the movement.
None of this is exactly new. Think of Benjamin Franklin. As a young man, Franklin formulated a list of 13 virtues, the enumeration of which was part of his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection”. Every day he would mark with a little black dot the virtues he’d failed to live up to. Technology has made the process easier. Abstract ideas (I don’t get enough exercise) become concrete data (I spend 90 per cent of my day sitting). Apps and gadgets are designed like games: upload your exercise statistics and compete to get higher scores than others. Something psychologists call the Hawthorne Effect comes into play: you know you are being observed, and work harder because of it.
The road towards self-knowledge can be painful. People do burn out. In April 2010, Alexandra Carmichael, one of the directors of the Quantified Self, posted a poem, Why I Stopped Tracking, on the QS website: “I’m starting to realise,” she wrote, “That I need to/ Trust/ Listen/ Accept myself/ That I’m more than the numbers.” But it’s addictive, too: by the end of 2010, Carmichael had started to track her life again. And with the apps, gadgets and websites listed here, you can too.
By Horatia Harrod Telegra[ph.co.uk