Can “lifel­og­ging” for 30 days change your life?

ELLE (Canada) - - Content - By Christina Gon­za­les

What it’s like to log your ev­ery heart­beat, calo­rie and step for 30 days.

IT’S ABOUT 8:30 P.M. on a win­ter evening, and I in­tend to spend the next few hours watch­ing re­runs of Come Dine With Me while sip­ping green tea. As I place the ket­tle on my stove­top and turn the burner up to max, I’m jolted by a suc­ces­sion of vi­bra­tions pul­sat­ing through my left arm. “Geez,” I mut­ter, star­tled, as I look down in an­noy­ance. Like a wide-eyed child pulling at his mother, my Fit­bit Surge de­mands my at­ten­tion: I took 10,000 steps to­day. Sud­denly, I’m less an­noyed. How can I be mad at some­thing that is ul­ti­mately a re­flec­tion of how well I’m do­ing as a hu­man?

For the past 30 days, I have been “lifel­og­ging”—a type of non-stop per­sonal-data col­lec­tion that has be­come as­so­ci­ated with what ex- Wired edi­tors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly call the “Quan­ti­fied Self (QS) move­ment.” The term was coined back in 2007, when Wolf and Kelly rec­og­nized that the mass adop­tion of mo­bile devices, along with data-stor­age en­hance­ments and im­prove­ments in bio­met­ric-sen­sor tools, was cre­at­ing the per­fect storm for peo­ple to start track­ing and an­a­lyz­ing their ev­ery­day lives. To­day, QS has bal­looned into an in­ter­na­tional move­ment led by Wolf h

and Kelly, with ac­tive Meetup groups in 125 cities across the world.

Some 10 years into the QS move­ment, there’s an app for just about any­thing you’d want to track: Ap­ple’s Health (found on iOS 9) is equipped to col­lect data on ev­ery­thing from your pat­terns of sex­ual ac­tiv­ity to your body tem­per­a­ture; Start, an app that helps you de­ter­mine how well your pre­scrip­tion an­tide­pres­sants are work­ing, en­cour­ages you to log your moods; Checky gives you stats on how of­ten you peek at your phone; and Chronos tells you where your hours go (in tran­sit, work­ing over­time, be­ing spon­ta­neous). This year, the lat­est wear­ables in­clude smart jew­ellery, like Bellabeat Leaf, which can be worn ei­ther as a neck­lace or a brooch and tracks stress lev­els as well as men­strual and ovu­la­tion cy­cles; hear­ables, which are ear­buds that mon­i­tor your heart rate; head­bands that mea­sure your brain­waves; smart cloth­ing that helps pre­vent in­juries by de­ter­min­ing if you’re putting too much pres­sure on cer­tain body parts; and in­vis­i­bles, a.k.a. bio­met­ric tat­toos.

If the QS in­dus­try seems health fo­cused, it’s be­cause phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity and pro­cesses are the eas­i­est to quan­tify. The global wear­ables mar­ket is ex­pected to reach a value of $26 bil­lion by 2018, with the Fit­bit be­ing hailed as king. But why track at all? What can we re­ally learn from know­ing ev­ery minute de­tail of our ex­is­tence? Even Wolf asked in his 2010 TED Talk (through which many first learned about QS): “What is the Quan­ti­fied Self for? What should it be for?” While it has pri­mar­ily been used for prod­uct mar­ket re­search and de­vel­op­ment and bio­met­ric se­cu­rity (like Ap­ple’s Touch ID sys­tem), Wolf ar­gues that the quest for self-knowl­edge is what’s truly driv­ing this in­dus­try.

Eric Boyd, Toronto-based cre­ator of wear­able-elec­tron­ics com­pany Sense­bridge, used to live in San Fran­cisco and at­tended early QS Mee­tups run by Wolf and Kelly. In 2010, Boyd be­came one of the found­ing or­ga­niz­ers of Quan­ti­fied Self Toronto. “[Dur­ing early QS meet­ings], we at­tracted peo­ple who were more in­ter­ested in fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about them­selves,” he says. “It was peo­ple who were track­ing us­ing spread­sheets or pen and pa­per. The core of the Quan­ti­fied Self move­ment has al­ways been peo­ple who are try­ing to fig­ure out some­thing about their lives and use track­ing in or­der to ac­com­plish that.”

“What the Quan­ti­fied Self does is make what you do more ex­plicit,” says Alan Ma­jer, an­other co-or­ga­nizer of the Quan­ti­fied Self Meetup group in Toronto and the founder of Good Ro­bot, a cus­tom IT firm. “Whether it’s ha­bit­ual or a pat­tern, you have a greater aware­ness over­all. It’s re­ally valu­able to have that kind of self­aware­ness be­cause well-be­ing is cen­tred on this be­lief of self-ef­fi­cacy—that, ac­tu­ally, what you do makes a dif­fer­ence. QS is those dot­ted lines—the con­nec­tion be­tween your be­hav­iours and your out­comes.”

Crit­ics of the QS move­ment, like El­iz­a­beth Lopatto, a 32-year-old sci­ence editor for on­line mag­a­zine The Verge, are du­bi­ous. “To me, the most trou­bling as­pect of the Quan­ti­fied Self is that there’s the ten­dency to judge the num­bers as if they’re the most im­por­tant thing—and they’re not.” The an­cient Greek maxim “Know thy­self” wasn’t about Socrates count­ing his steps, she quips. “In terms of self-knowl­edge, it’s fine to know that you want to walk five miles a day, but that doesn’t strike me as hav­ing the same kind of sig­nif­i­cance as un­der­stand­ing that you have a cer­tain be­havioural pat­tern that you re­peat in re­la­tion­ships.”

How­ever, Toronto-based Sacha Chua, a 32-year-old con­sul­tant, pro­gram­mer and blog­ger, thinks that self-track­ing is far from trou­bling. In fact, for her, it has been down­right life chang­ing. Dur­ing her grad­u­ate stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Toronto, Chua was fas­tid­i­ous about track­ing her fi­nances. Fru­gal by na­ture, she be­gan care­fully track­ing her cash ex­penses and trans­ac­tions. This gave her the tools to op­ti­mize her sav­ings, and at 28 she quit her job as a con­sul­tant for IBM and be­gan a five-year jour­ney in semi-re­tire­ment.

“It’s pos­si­ble to en­joy col­lect­ing data and ask­ing ques­tions, and you can ap­proach all this with self-kind­ness,” says Chua, who now tracks ev­ery­thing—from the time she spends on ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties and the clothes she wears to old mem­o­ries and where she leaves dif­fer­ent items around the house—on her life­log­ging site, quan­ti­fiedawe­ h

Based on her blog, and get­ting to know Chua my­self, it seems to me that her on­go­ing “datafi­ca­tion” is driven pri­mar­ily by the pur­suit of a life with pur­pose—and won­der (an in­ten­tion QS crit­ics would ar­gue isn’t pos­si­ble with just num­bers alone).

“I’m not try­ing to wring out ev­ery last se­cond of ef­fi­ciency here,” ex­plains Chua. “I’m just test­ing: ‘This is pretty good, but I won­der what bet­ter would look like. I won­der what lit­tle thing would help me un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate more. How do I play with this in or­der to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties?’ And when you do that, I think you en­gage with life a lit­tle bit more.”

The funny thing is, though Chua en­gages in what many would con­sider a rig­or­ous form of data col­lec­tion, she doesn’t ac­tu­ally own any wear­able self-track­ing devices. The kinds of ques­tions she’s in­ter­ested in an­swer­ing re­quire self-con­structed mod­els she builds on her own, start­ing with hand­drawn in­dex cards. Th­ese mod­els even­tu­ally be­come dig­i­tized thanks to her pro­gram­ming savvy. For ca­sual adopters like me, on the other hand, wear­able tech­nol­ogy and apps are the best place to start.

Like Chua, I delved into the QS move­ment out of sheer cu­rios­ity. I wanted my Fit­bit to an­swer ques­tions like: What kind of work­outs garner the most in­ten­sity? How ac­tive am I dur­ing the day? Do I eat enough food on week­days when I’m busy work­ing? And, like many peo­ple jump­ing onto the wear­able band­wagon, I had one pri­mary fit­ness goal: to in­crease lean mus­cle mass.

But my Fit­bit didn’t un­der­stand that I wanted to gain weight, not lose it. Af­ter all, the first met­ric you see when you open the app is “calo­ries burned,” which, in my case, was ir­rel­e­vant. It’s a tech­nol­ogy that seems born out of the eter­nally di­et­ing woman— the tools as­so­ci­ated with weight watch­ing are cer­tainly all there.

“You can ar­gue that anorex­ics were, in fact, onto the Quan­ti­fied Self move­ment be­fore it ex­isted as they are very rig­or­ous about track­ing calo­ries in and out,” says Lopatto. “For peo­ple who are in re­cov­ery from eat­ing dis­or­ders, have ac­tive eat­ing dis­or­ders or are sus­cep­ti­ble to them, th­ese tools let you ob­sess, and they make your ob­sess­ing eas­ier.”

So­ci­ol­o­gists have been study­ing the ef­fects of self-track­ing tech­nol­ogy on so­ci­ety, and while the over­all con­sen­sus is that wear­ables may help to make peo­ple health­ier, is­sues like ex­treme calo­rie count­ing are only part of the prob­lem. With the ex­trac­tion of health data en masse, su­pe­rior health isn’t just mea­sured against one­self; it’s mea­sured against a col­lec­tive.

Christo­pher Till, Ph.D., a re­searcher at Leeds Beck­ett Univer­sity in Leeds, Eng­land, stud­ies the in­ter­sec­tion of health, gen­der and tech. He ar­gues that wear­able self-track­ing devices ap­peal to peo­ple in part be­cause they can be ranked against each other. “We’re al­ways be­ing com­pared,” he says. “To me, that’s one of the fun­da­men­tal things that th­ese [tech­nolo­gies] do. They kind of ob­jec­tify your ex­er­cise be­hav­iour to some­thing stan­dard­ized.” With im­pos­si­ble stan­dards of beauty, health and fit­ness al­ready in place, wear­ables only seem to am­pli­fy this idea that there’s al­ways a big­ger, bet­ter goal to be reached and that there’s al­ways some­one else you need to beat.

“I think women in par­tic­u­lar, his­tor­i­cally and maybe to­day as much as ever, are en­cour­aged to com­pare them­selves with other women in terms of their achieve­ments,” says Till. “Men are too, but not, I think, to the ex­tent that women are. This idea of the woman who has it all—who is suc­cess­ful at work and in her home life, looks glam­orous all the time, ex­er­cises all the time and eats ex­tremely healthily—seems to fit into the nar­ra­tive that is of­ten pre­sented through th­ese [wear­ables] of be­ing able to achieve all your goals: the idea that it’s not just about help­ing you ex­er­cise more; it’s about man­ag­ing this busy life.”

Two weeks into lifel­og­ging, I ran into a friend who also wears a Fit­bit; she sug­gested that we add each other as friends on the app. I can tol­er­ate this type of friend-to-friend in­for­ma­tion shar­ing with some­one I know, but daily re­minders to link my ex­er­cise stats with my so­cial ac­counts al­ways felt off. Though all of my data was housed on the app and only shared among a hand­ful of peers, I h

still felt un­easy about it. iCloud could al­ready rec­og­nize my face and per­son­al­ity via my Face­book, In­sta­gram, Twit­ter and Snapchat ac­counts—but now it could po­ten­tially have ac­cess to the way my body works too?

One of the fore­most re­searchers in the QS move­ment is Deborah Lup­ton, a so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Can­berra, in Aus­tralia. I sug­gest to her that Mil­len­ni­als, who are nat­u­rally in­clined to share de­tails about their lives on­line, don’t seem too ap­pre­hen­sive about giv­ing away bio­met­ric data to cor­po­ra­tions and “the cloud,” but she be­lieves oth­er­wise.

“Two and a half years ago, we had the Ed­ward Snow­den rev­e­la­tions, and since then, we’ve had all sorts of scan­dals: the Face­book na­tional-mood-ma­nip­u­la­tion-ex­per­i­ment scan­dal, the Ash­ley Madi­son scan­dal, the celebrity-nude-pho­tos hack­ing on iCloud,” says Lup­ton. “Th­ese got a huge amount of me­dia at­ten­tion. So what my re­search is show­ing is that peo­ple—re­gard­less of their age—are slowly be­com­ing aware of how their data can be ac­cessed by oth­ers. But it’s a grad­ual process be­cause peo­ple are only start­ing to use [th­ese tech­nolo­gies] and think about their im­pli­ca­tions.”

“I see stuff on Face­book all the time, like peo­ple’s run­ning routes, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, don’t share where you’re run­ning at night by your­self!’” cries Jen­nifer Thom­son, a 30-year-old Nike+ Train­ing Club (NTC) trainer from Toronto, who be­gan self-track­ing us­ing a Po­lar heart-rate mon­i­tor dur­ing her un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies in phys­i­cal education. Thom­son’s fit­ness track­ing has since evolved (she even uses an app called Bloom to re­mind her to drink wa­ter) as she works to­ward her first Olympic weightlift­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Yet the one thing that all of Thom­son’s self-track­ing wear­ables and apps don’t take into ac­count when she doesn’t hit her weight­lift­ing tar­gets is that she is only hu­man: “That’s where us­ing a spread­sheet comes in handy,” she ex­plains. “I keep a notes col­umn, and it might be some­thing like ‘Only got four hours of sleep,’ so I know why I was hav­ing a bad day—that hu­man as­pect al­ways has to be there.”

As part of Lup­ton’s re­search on self-track­ing, she asks sub­jects “What can’t the de­vice tell you?” “And one man said, ‘You know, it can’t tell me whether I had a fight with my wife or whether I’m just in a bad mood,’” re­calls Lup­ton. “We wouldn’t want to reach a point where the only knowl­edge about our­selves that we con­sider valu­able is the kind of knowl­edge we get from dig­i­tal data be­cause it’s in­cred­i­bly re­duc­tive. It leaves out a lot of el­e­ments of our lives that can’t be mea­sured by dig­i­tal devices.”

When I look back at my 30 days of lifel­og­ging, I’m some­what sur­prised to re­al­ize that the reg­u­lar buzz from my Fit­bit Surge—telling me, say, that I’d hit my step goal or that I’d gained a few pounds—wasn’t as sat­is­fy­ing as I thought it would be. To be hon­est, it started to feel more like a shackle than a knowl­edge­able best friend, slowly turn­ing into a war­den of my day-to-day life (the nag­ging coach when I was ex­er­cis­ing or the giver of use­less bio­met­ric stats when I was bored at work).

In­stead, what truly gave me joy was re­mem­ber­ing how many times I laughed, how many words were spok­en or how many times I ran into some­one I knew. I’m aware that th­ese tid­bits of my life can be turned into chunks of data to be an­a­lyzed and op­ti­mized, but I’d rather they not be. My self-knowl­edge tells me that th­ese things make me bet­ter, whether they’re quan­ti­fied or not. n

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