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Tue, 21 Jan 14

The Immeasurable Self

Several devices and apps offer fitness tracking and are being promoted through movements such as Quantified Self, or under the rubric of Personal Analytics.

Whatever the term, the basic idea is to continuously monitor heartrate, glucose levels, sleep quality, blood pressure, oxygen levels, calorie intake and so on as proxies for mood and energy. The data is collected, and analyzed (typically in the cloud) to spot correlations and visualize activity patterns.

What is being promised is self-improvement through data-driven optimization.

Whether or not quantification and analytics can actually improve fitness, there are definitely deeper issues and dangers to consider.

Out of body, out of mind

Those who lead an active lifestyle cultivate an understanding of the body’s feedback mechanisms. You can hear your heart beat, feel the heat as you sweat, and perceive the tension in your muscles. You already know the intensity of your workout, without looking at some display or listening to a disembodied voice.

The mind also comes pre-equipped with habit-forming mechanisms. While we tend to see it in the context of addictions, they can be applied to healthy endeavors just as well. Mental tricks and simple tracking of chains and streaks are more joyful and effective when done purposefully instead of automatically.

Externalization is neither new nor without problems. However, previous writing and recording methods were driven by the urge to communicate meaningful and intentional thoughts. The goal was to foster communities spanning distances and time, not to feed neurotic self-concern.

Insights - but for whom?

The fine-grained tracking data, when aggregated over a large population, may be of use to medical researchers. They might highlight statistical correlations and discover intricacies of metabolic mechanisms. Many papers will be published. In the future, those stricken with disorders may get access to personalized diagnostic and intervention mechanisms incorporated into medical devices. Think of quantifiers as forming a large and altruistic study group to advance medicine.

Unfortunately, there are more lucrative and adversarial reasons for analyzing this data. To marketers and advertisers, this data has a lot of immediate value. By analyzing your fitness and rhythms, they can profile you and profitably match you with products and services. Or they can filter you from consideration for certain activities. This kind of profiling can be taken to its logical limit in pricing insurance policies and might affect your health insurance costs.

Quantifiers don’t just imperil themselves. They enable and give credence to other schemes such as “Corporate Wellness Programs” or “Employee Productivity Initiatives” which encroach upon the privacy of everyone else. Such schemes have a tendency to start as optional, but quickly become mandatory or impose penalties for non-participants.

The Mindful View

Gary Wolf, a proponent of the movement, writes:

“Many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are. … We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines.”

Many people would disagree.

Quite possibly, measuring everything might hold you back from making positive changes. Quantifiers, if they are not obsessive already, may become even more so. Autonomic activity charts may trigger, in some, tendencies for anxiety, self-flagellation and second-guessing.

Anyone engaged in creative endeavors knows that time spent is not a proxy for progress. Instead of reducing the self to a set of numbers and delegating discernment to algorithms, we must seek within us our own balance between mind and body, will and effort, habits and impulses.

There are no insights without introspection. Measurement is not a substitute for meditation. Data cannot supplant devotion. Focus cannot be forecasted.

For now, and for our human sake, forever.

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