According to Khullar, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, self-tracking needs to be easy enough to carry out routinely, but not so easy that it can be ignored. Having to convert miles into kilometres so she could figure out how much she had run required just enough effort to get her invested in the process, with an incentive to keep running more. “I could not have imagined I could run more than 5 miles,” she proudly told her classmates. But, these tools were way more successful in behaviour-enhancing than in controlling bad habits, she admitted.
And perhaps this barrier to participation is key to whether self-tracking will fully make the leap from tech obsessives to the mainstream public. “It’s a question of when does it become easy and when does it become useful,” says Stephen Wolfram, creator of the technical computing software Mathematica. He says he’s been self-tracking for a quarter of a century – everything from his personal health to his e-mail to the use patterns of every room in his house. But there are some things even he declines to measure. He doesn’t bother with skin conductivity measures, for instance, because he doesn’t like wearing the devices. He doesn’t wear a camera around his neck, “because it’s not socially realistic for the life I lead – maybe if I were much younger.” And he doesn’t record his side of phone conversations because speech recognition software still isn’t good enough to provide an accurate transcript. Why would he want a transcript of every conversation? “Am I repeating myself? You can immediately check,” he says.
The next crucial step for self-tracking, several people said, will be the ability to integrate different data streams. Right now, the wifi-enabled scale doesn’t talk to the program that monitors blood pressure, diet or sleep – but such integration will come eventually. Maybe someday it will even link up with “smart” toilets that can read shifting microbial populations and warn of impending illness. The key will be finding ways to make the data meaningful, rather than just overwhelming. And to keep it private.
Yale’s Gerstein says he worries a lot about the privacy aspects of all thins data. Right now, it seems harmless to share information about our sleep patterns, genes and microbial populations. But one day, that information could be more meaningful – and could be used against us. Sleep patterns could be relevant, say, in a court case about a traffic accident. People who post genetic information now are revealing things about their future children and grandchildren. “I think the fear is people will pile up a lot of information about themselves and share it without fully seeing the implications,” Gerstein says.
Robinson says there’s no question the Quantified Self movement she is part of will have to address privacy issues. “Let the people who want to share their data in a way that maintains their privacy, but also helps other people,” she says.
And doctors are going to need to learn how to deal with all the data their patients are beginning to bring them. Right now, Robinson says, people in the Quantified Self movement “want to share their information with their doctor, but their doctor doesn’t really know what to do with it.”
Wolfram, the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research and founder of the technology company Wolfram|Alpha, thinks the data will eventually redefine what doctors do. A doctor would be hard-pressed to make sense of the data once people are wired to track their heart rate, blood sugar levels, blood pressure and dozens of other measures. But computers will be able to easily spot patterns and trends, diagnosing far more accurately than doctors can today, and far earlier in the disease process, says Wolfram, who is developing analytics to meet this need. He thinks that eventually we’ll go from sensor-based data to being able to treat whatever concern the technology diagnoses.
If so, perhaps a Quantified Selfer will figure out a way to measure whether this actually improves our health.