He got to the point where he hated the process so much that he didn’t want to eat because then he’d have to record it. “It was terrible,” he admits. “Super tedious.” But when his boss, associate professor Eric Alm, got food poisoning while self-tracking, it was the first time the microbial pattern of human diarrhoea had been followed in real-time. Sounds gross, but understanding the progress of food poisoning in such a manner could be an important step toward developing treatments for it.
And other than confirming his love of junk food, he did learn some useful things about himself. David discovered that he wasted a lot of time on e-mail during the day, and wasn’t as productive as he thought he was late at night. Now, he saves most of his e-mailing for the evenings – instead of disrupting his research to respond – and doesn’t feel guilty when he takes a night off. He’s stopped tracking most of the other measures, though.
Like David, others who use technology to self-track rely on a mix of mind-numbing and automated measures, and they talk about the greater good, as well as what they’ve learned about themselves. The Quantified Self movement originated in San Francisco, after it was first proposed by Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. As of October 2012, the Quantified Self movement counted more than 70 meet-up groups worldwide with over 5,000 members – of course, they keep track of that sort of thing. (There’s actually a greater number of self-tracking apps on mobile phones than members – around 7,500 at the moment.) Many of these self-trackers are researchers, computer scientists, or simply tech-savvy, 21st-century Benjamin Franklins who think the act of collecting so much data has the power to transform themselves and the rest of society.
Meet-ups are part 7-minute show-and-tells, part social hour. At her first meet-up, in Alabama, Amy Robinson was the only one who had tried quantifying anything, while other attendees were just curious about the idea. In Boston, as you might expect from being an academic and tech hub, many of the participants have developed their own hacks and want to trade tips on how to maximise their record-keeping.
Robinson says she has long been fascinated with where ideas come from, so she started sending herself an e-mail whenever a good one popped into her head. Recently, she collected six months of these e-mails – 770 in all – analysed them, and presented the results at a Quantified Self meetup in Boston in October. Among the themes that came up most often were “science”, “beautiful” and “health.” She found that she had the most new ideas immediately after attending an inspiring conference, travelling or experiencing something new. Doing this exercise helped feed her fascination with the human mind, she told the group, as well as “discover more ways to think about myself and discover how my mind works relative to other people’s.”
Melanie Swan, founder of DIYgenomics, a California-based non-profit that promotes personalised medicine, has presented her findings at several Bay Area meet-ups, and she says meet-up attendees have changed as the movement has evolved. At first, the typical person was obsessive, “someone who is really rigorous about self-tracking either because of a health reason or they’re compelled to improve their mental performance or whatever,” she says. “But who’s now at the meet-ups is a much broader slice, though I would say it’s still a pretty tech-forward thinking kind of audience – anybody interested in improving an aspect of their health.”