Power of the nudge
While their interest in self-quantification is technological, another factor is a more general one: the growing obsession with self-improvement over the past few decades, says Natasha Schull, a cultural anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Weight Watchers has been telling people since the 1970s that if they want to lose weight, they need to track what they eat. The field of behavioural economics, which studies the connection between thoughts and financial decisions, has found that if you alter peoples’ social environment, they might be nudged into conducting more rational behaviour. For instance, if school cafeterias display fruit before fried chicken, students are more likely to eat fruit because they grab the first food they see. And having people track their actions makes a difference, says Schull, encouraging more people to make the effort to track.
Self-tracking might not have been such a fringe activity in the past, either. There were plenty of people keeping diaries and self-accounts in the 1800s and 1900s, says Schull. “Even having a watch and being mindful of time is a form of self-regulation that went along with industrialisation,” she says.
As long as there have been people tracking themselves, there have been people mocking those trackers, Schull adds. D.H. Lawrence wrote a piece making fun of Franklin’s self-obsession and the cockiness embedded in his 13 virtues, including this description: “He was a little model, was Benjamin. Doctor Franklin. Snuff-coloured little man! Immortal soul and all!”
Behind such insults lies the idea that tracking the minutiae of one’s life can be pointless, an end in itself. Others worry that it could be used for self-destructive purposes, like an anorexic tracking how little she eats. “It seems to me in the contemporary US example, the means and the end are blurring,” says Schull, who co-taught a class at Harvard University in the autumn called “Self as Data”. “I think people are still motivated – at least they say they are – by some kind of transformation, but it’s seen as something that doesn’t really end.” Like the Alcoholics Anonymous model, where people who were once alcoholics are always recovering, Schull says. “It’s a different model of what health is.”
Weight and see
For Mark Gerstein, a professor of bioinformatics at Yale University, tracking his weight helped him keep it under control. “If you watch things, you tend to do better, by virtue of being aware of them,” says Gerstein, who has a wifi-enabled bathroom scale that automatically records his weight and feeds it into a database.
Gerstein has also been tracking his asthma symptoms in hope of being able to reduce his medication. He says he sees a little correlation between his exercise and his peak air flow, and thinks the more he can measure about himself, the more he’ll know about what triggers his wheezing and the better he’ll be at controlling it. It’s not just Gerstein’s data that’s important, this kind of information from thousands of people who have asthma could become much more powerful when it’s aggregated. “There’s a whole other level of what happens when all this information flows together and you can look for patterns and trends,” he says.
But not all self-quantification efforts are successful. Schull’s student, Sneha Khullar, began – reluctantly – tracking several measures as a class assignment. In her final presentation to the class in December, she explained that she enjoyed using a pedometer to track her footsteps and an app called RescueTime, which showed she is most productive on Fridays – now that she’s given up partying. But writing down everything she ate was too much of a drag, and piling up chocolate wrappers didn’t help her moderate her sweet tooth.