Another New Year, another list of resolutions to make… and no doubt break. For some, 2013 may begin by going to the gym, or giving up smoking. But what about a more thorough and personal approach towards self-improvement, like monitoring your thoughts, e-mails, or even your bowel movements? If the answer is yes, then perhaps this is the year that you’ll be joining a growing group of people who are using technology to measure their lives in extraordinary detail.
Probably since the dawn of humanity, people have been fascinated by even the most minute details of their lives, and kept track of what was going on in their bodies and minds. The Roman philosopher Seneca tracked the food he ate and what he dreamt at night. Benjamin Franklin consistently recorded his performance on 13 measures, such as cleanliness, frugality and overindulgence, believing it would keep him virtuous. Engineer and architect Buckminster Fuller nicknamed himself “guinea pig b” and kept a diary on his daily life and ideas.
But in the past, record-keeping was time-consuming, requiring a commitment that only a very few had the patience to muster. Others cared, but not THAT much. Today, that’s changing, as it becomes easier to track everything, from diet to mood to sleep quality. Smartphones come equipped with features like GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes that can record your activity, location and other vital statistics. Millions of fitness-focused or diet-conscious people track their workouts or their desserts with apps and devices like Fitbit that track physical activity or calories burned. New technology also makes it easier to share results with others – who doesn’t want to brag the first time they run more than 5 miles (8km), or be praised when they’ve managed to lose 10 pounds (5kg)?
A growing band of devotees centered in the United States, called the Quantified Self movement, has taken the effort to another level. Its members track a whole list of measures and push the technology available to keep tabs on their ideas, their mental health, even their microbiome – the colonies of bacteria that live on or inside their bodies. Some might scoff at their efforts to keep spreadsheets documenting their mood, diet or sleep patterns. “But the insights that we could learn from having all this quantified self data available are almost unfathomable,” says Amy Robinson, an organiser of Quantified Self Boston, a group that includes about 650 members and holds bimonthly meet-ups to share ideas and progress.
“Quantified self helps you keep a reference to how you lived not only the day before but two weeks before or a year before,” Robinson says. “You know when you achieve your best, you know when you exceed your best and it makes that possible by simply having the numbers there.”
Yet such lofty personal goals come down to something that couldn’t be more mundane: manually recording the number of daily bowel movements or every bite of food consumed.
Lawrence David spent a year tracking 300 measures about his health and behaviour – including the microbes in his digestive system – while he was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. David created a self-tracking system by tinkering with an iPhone app designed to record and manage business cards. Every meal became a new “card” entry, with hundreds he had to type in by hand over the year – one night’s entry could be cheeseburger and fries, the next pepperoni pizza. “One of the few datasets out there is going to be full of junk food,” he says, confessing to a personal weakness.