Some data about our lives is (and why is and not are is a whole new article coming up at some point…) collected automatically by interconnected networks of systems tracking us day by day. Largely without our knowledge, or so we like to say. But every single day we also volunteer vast amount of data, we give it up because we don’t mind or we even want to. Did you say you needed my full name, address, email *and* date of birth for this free loyalty card? You’d like to know my location to send me better recommendations? Oh, so now you’ll be emailing me receipts so I don’t have to carry these useless bits of paper anymore? I actually opted out of all three, but many see it as a fair exchange.
There’s another way in which we voluntarily surrender our data: to hundreds of applications helping us keep track of our runs, weight, nutrition, goals, you name it. This trend, dubbed sometimes personal analytics or the quantified self movement, has been gaining traction with the rapid increase in the amount of fitness trackers and wearable devices. But it’s not entirely new. As early as 2012, some people were tracking their average daily emails received and sent:
An even broader scope of personal analytics is shown in this video:
My own quantified self pales in comparison. I only use a few of these tools on a day-to-day basis, and a few more every now and then. I record, track and check: my runs, my steps, my nutrition, and sometimes my Google activity. Offline, I also use a reusable water bottle with a hydration tracker (not only because it looks cool!).
I’ll be honest with you. It takes time and effort to keep up. I need to remember to insert everything I eat to an app, and sometimes I’ll opt out of a take-away or home-made meal if I need to record the exact amounts consumed. Once I really said to my running partner that if I didn’t turn the app on when I started, the run didn’t count. So what’s the upside? Why do I, and countless others, keep on recording my life in these applications?
Feeling in control
Quantifying your self gives you an increased feeling of control over your life. If I’m measuring what I eat and the app tells me how many more calories I have left for the day, I feel like I have more control over what I eat. It’s even easier now that my running app and my nutrition tracking apps are automatically synched – I don’t even need to add my runs manually. If I track how many dots of water I had, I’ll know if I’m properly hydrated or not. I’m in control in areas previously very elusive and difficult to track and regulate.
Because who doesn’t like the feeling of achieving a goal, or getting better at something over time? I can go back to my best runs whenever I want and nod approvingly, patting myself on the back. I can check how many days I managed to stay within my recommended calorie intake. I know I’m doing my 10,000 steps. All these little wins that help and give us a boost, especially in a world that moves so fast that other, longer-term projects seem to be moving painfully slow.
What’s counted, counts, to traverse Albert Einstein. If I just wanted to make sure that I get the right nutrients, or if I just wanted to go on a long-ish run, what would it matter? There would be no record, no trace of all my hard work and effort. By duly recording all my bites and steps in an app, I make it matter and I make it permanently recorded. It becomes a proof of my work, something I can look at and show to others. It’s permanent evidence of my actions, and it’s important.
The tricky relationship with quantification
So why is this problematic? For a number of reasons, but now I want to focus on one. If you know that you’re tracking different behaviours because you want to feel in control, accomplished and add some permanence to your effort, and it works – what if it turns against you? What if you don’t ever take your phone out of the pocket even at home to make sure it records *all* of your steps? What if you adjust your pace at what was supposed to be a leisurely walk in a park with friends to hit your daily goal? What if recording the data suddenly becomes more important than what it stands for? The very mechanisms that are attractive about quantifying some aspects of your life can quickly become counter-productive, or even destructive. Is there a balance to be achieved?