There was a time not too long ago that if you trained for a race, whether a 10K or a marathon, you logged your miles in a paper notebook. Or if you wanted to really splurge, you’d pencil your numbers in a special runner’s log book. There you might log not only miles but your food diary, shoe notes, weather conditions, best trails, and everything relevant to your training.
Those were the days before wearable technology. You had to measure your heart rate by taking your pulse: counting your pulse beats against a watch timed for a minute.
Why? Well, some liked to diary their progress or map out a path for the next race. Others used the data to improve their time by finding what worked and what didn’t. Today, with smartwatches and fitness trackers that measure your sleep, heart rate, exercise, food intake, blood pressure, stress level, blood oxygen, and steps, your data stream is endless. And not just about exercise. There are apps that track your cycling, skateboarding, menstrual cycle, and even your sex life!
What good is all this data? If it’s merely another distraction, like your Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter feed, then it’s another form of wired destruction. It becomes that steady drip of dopamine, like a shot of cocaine for each like or ping of recognition you get, except it’s high fives on your leaderboards or reaching your daily numbers. The addiction is real.
But if all these numbers contribute to self-knowledge and health improvement, it’s worth the potentially addictive side effects. Data is a valuable tool for reaching goals.
The Quantified Self
The Quantified Self, dubbed “llfelogging,” is a movement characterized by the technological data collection of all aspects of your life inside and out: food, air quality, mood, blood oxygen levels, exercise performance, and more. It’s a whole lot of your input and output.
Through wearable technology, GPS devices, and smartphone apps—on your wrists, ears, and legs, or in your clothing or under your skin—you can monitor and learn about your activity (or inactivity) all day and night. The object, hopefully, is to change your unhealthful behaviors and reinforce your healthy ones. Like a budding scientist, you can observe your physical and mental self to predict and change results.
Though data collection is not new, the term “the quantified self” was coined in 2007 by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelley of Wired Magazine and creators of Quantified Self Labs. Their slogan, “self knowledge through numbers,” encapsulates their aim of tracking the trackers. They’re all about the numbers people track but not merely for the sake of numbers.
In 2010, Gary Wolf gave a five minute TED talk on “the quantified self,” without mentioning the term. He reviewed the basic components of tracking devices, illustrating the smaller-than-a-quarter-sized sensor called the accelerometers used in tracking devices. His parting remarks, after opening with his own sleep, heart rate, and other daily numbers, were these:
“The self is just our operation center, our consciousness, our moral compass, so if we want to act more effectively in the world, we need to know ourselves better.”
True? If livestreaming numbers is not just another way to isolate individuals inside yet another device, then quantifying the self is useful at the most primal level. This kind of numerical self-knowledge is empowering. It’s taking responsibility for the self, reducing risk, predicting outcomes, and tackling mental and physical wellness from all angles, all of which, sociologist Deborah Lupton notes, is hardwired into people. With respect to social behavior and health, she says quantifying the self is a “psychological salve to the fear of bodily degeneration.”
Those technologically-enhanced, behavioral impulses that drive us to battle our mortality are also what drive us to seclude ourselves or flock together. Yes, we have our smartphones to deliver us from social awkwardness, loneliness, and stillness in the chaos around us. That’s why we stare into those things in a crowded waiting room or in the grocery store checkout line. They isolate and protect us.
But with biodata, we also can enter the fitness world with others. Leaderboards and dashboards that report our weekly fitness stats to others encourages competition and social connection too.
Let’s face it, though. It’s mostly about convenience. Technology makes ordinary processes and tools faster and more convenient. So, as long as you’re not beating yourself up over your numbers, partnering up with other quantifiables or competing with your own stats is a fun way to stay in the know, stay energized, and get healthy.