Can you be­come health­ier and hap­pier by log­ging ev­ery snore, step and slight change in mood? As an Amer­i­can ob­ses­sion catches on in the rest of the world, Tim Ch­ester cov­ers his body in gad­gets to find out if self-knowl­edge is power

Friday - - Society Living Leisure -

Can record­ing ev­ery minute move you make im­prove your fit­ness? Self-quan­ti­fiers cer­tainly think it can.

Today I have climbed the equiv­a­lent of a tall gi­raffe. Cof­fee is my most fre­quent food. On av­er­age I walk 11,726 steps a day, burn­ing 3,089 calo­ries, over two hours and 40 min­utes of ac­tiv­ity. I sleep for six hours, nine min­utes a night. This week, my sleep ef­fi­ciency is 72 per cent and my food is 77 per cent healthy. My BMI is 23.5 – just be­low the me­dian for men my age – and my av­er­age daily Met score is 1.71, al­though I have no idea what a Met score is.

I am, it seems, noth­ing more than a bun­dle of num­bers and mile­stones, spurred on by LEDs and chided by pop-up mes­sages. I’m a wire­less ac­ces­sory for the iPhone; per­haps its most so­phis­ti­cated yet.

My arms are cov­ered in bands, my pock­ets aug­mented with ac­celerom­e­ters, my eyes numb from all the charts, my heart pump­ing to the beat of a heart rate mon­i­tor and forc­ing its ven­tri­cles to keep up with the na­tional av­er­age. My head is about to im­plode from all the pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tion and gen­tle nudg­ing, but it’s OK be­cause my mem­o­ries are be­ing saved to my hard drive and my mood swings are earn­ing me ‘hugs’ from strangers.

I am pro­duc­ing, analysing and so­cially shar­ing per­sonal data. I am be­com­ing fit­ter, hap­pier and more pro­duc­tive. I am stay­ing mo­ti­vated by earn­ing badges. I have be­come a Quan­ti­fied Self (QS).

The QS move­ment that I’ve tem­po­rar­ily joined be­gan, as these things tend to, in San Fran­cisco’s Bay Area in 2007. Two Wired magazine edi­tors, GaryWolf and Kevin Kelly, coined the term to de­scribe the grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple us­ing tech­nol­ogy to har­vest per­sonal data for broadly one of three aims: to ad­dress spe­cific health con­cerns or chronic prob­lems, for self-im­prove­ment, or merely as an ex­per­i­ment.

The pair sum up the move­ment as “self-knowl­edge through num­bers”, and it can en­com­pass a whole range of self-track­ing via wear­able de­vices and other un­ob­tru­sive giz­mos that qui­etly and obe­di­ently turn your daily life into data. Phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, food con­sumed, body tem­per­a­ture, blood pres­sure, blood sugar, mood and sleep cy­cles are just a few of the things that can be turned into num­bers for crunch­ing, while life log­ging – record­ing pho­tos, video and au­dio via wear­able cam­eras to create a sur­ro­gate e-mem­ory – is an­other branch.

This might all sound like the pre­serve of a clois­tered clump of nerds with a sur­feit of time on their hands that the rest of us wouldn’t mind hav­ing, but the QS move­ment is gain­ing trac­tion; splin­ter groups are form­ing world­wide, and the essence of QS – or body-hack­ing as it’s also known – is in­sin­u­at­ing

it­self into our daily lives.

A bur­geon­ing on­line com­mu­nity

While the Dubai con­tin­gent of self-quan­ti­fiers is still nascent, with just 17 mem­bers of its on­line group (­ti­fied-Self/), which was founded in 2012, the Lon­don di­vi­sion has seen its num­bers swell over the past few years. What be­gan as a group of around 15 peo­ple now to­tals more than 1,000 self-quan­ti­fiers, and monthly meet­ings al­ways have a wait­ing list. Its or­gan­iser, the unashamed data en­thu­si­ast Adri­ana Lukas, has been cham­pi­oning the QS cause for more than two years. She clearly loves

tech­nol­ogy – her email sig­na­ture reads, “The net­work is al­ways stronger than the node... but a net­work starts with a node”.

She pro­cesses nu­mer­ous stats on the group. “The larger pro­por­tion of peo­ple at each meet-up are new peo­ple; the core com­mu­nity is 30 per cent maybe and the rest are al­ways new; most speak­ers are men, though the au­di­ence is not ap­par­ently male dom­i­nant.” In fact, this is far from a man’s world, and Adri­ana ex­plains that most of the aca­demic re­searchers into be­havioural science and data she knows are women.

The meet-ups take place at Google’s Cam­pus, an op­er­at­ing-the­atre-bright space near Lon­don’s self-styled tech hub Sil­i­con Round­about (aka Old Street Tube sta­tion). Here, nu­mer­ous ‘nodes’ present their per­sonal for­ays into self-track­ing to a group ar­ranged in a cir­cle. The crowd is maybe 65 per cent male, with a me­dian age of around 35. The dress code is unas­sum­ing: while coder chic (hoody, T-shirt, jeans) pre­vails, there’s a pair of striped socks here, a shock of pur­ple hair there.

A mild Cana­dian called Blaine Price kicks things off with a pre­sen­ta­tion called QS for Non-Geeks, and an ad­mis­sion that “it feels like Alcoholics Anony­mous”. Younger bloke Adam John­son, mean­while, “wrote a com­mand-line in­ter­face,” as you do, to track his asthma at­tacks and in­haler us­age. Chris Payne is a like­able chap who re­minds me of a down-to-earth stand-up co­me­dian. He runs us through a binder full of per­sonal data he’s com­piled, and quotes the Greek apho­rism “know thy­self” as the root of his de­sire for life log­ging.

Drag­ging Socrates into it might not seem called for, but it tidily sums up the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind QS. Dis­tilled in Adri­ana’s eyes, it’s “re­ally about un­der­stand­ing your­self and try­ing to change some­thing”, and she’s logged nu­mer­ous in­spi­ra­tional sto­ries over the past two years.

The most strik­ing be­longs to Ian Cle­ments, a for­mer elec­tron­ics en­gi­neer from Brighton who has been self-track­ing since 1974. He was di­ag­nosed with blad­der can­cer in 2007 and given weeks to live, but has since gone into over­drive on his quan­ti­fy­ing and sur­vived against the odds. “I track 400 things, with maybe 20 or 30 vary­ing from day to day,” he tells me. These in­clude food and drink, his phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, a whole ar­ray of vi­ta­mins and sup­ple­ments, his weight, mus­cle mass, daily blood pres­sure and urine pH – which he mea­sures with a test strip at home. “I’m con­vinced that your life­style in­flu­ences how much can­cer you have or don’t have,” he in­sists.

He thinks the im­mune sys­tem can play a big­ger part in the fight against can­cer and laments the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion’s re­liance on symp­toms.

Have doc­tors been in­ter­ested in his story and find­ings? “No. They’ve been sur­pris­ingly in­dif­fer­ent. As I’m known as a mir­a­cle can­cer sur­vivor, you’d think they’d be rather cu­ri­ous as to what I’m do­ing, but I’ve not found that.”

En­ter­ing a new world

I ease my­self into the world of QS with an ac­tiv­ity tracker. My month of body-hack­ing starts with a Fit­bit One, a small USB stick-sized thing that slips in my pocket or clips on my belt. Once there, it qui­etly tots up my steps, stairs climbed and miles trod­den and cal­cu­lates calo­ries burnt. It then shows me a flower, the size and re­splen­dence of which cor­re­sponds to how healthy I’m be­ing, and tries to trans­late my ef­forts into bite-size mile­stones. Af­ter as­cend­ing a few flights of stairs I’m told I’ve climbed the equiv­a­lent of a tall gi­raffe. Putting in a bit more ef­fort trig­gers an email, “Wowzer! You’ve walked 15,000 steps in a sin­gle day!”

This is good; I’m learn­ing about my­self. It’s all a bit ba­sic, though. So I try a Jaw­bone UP, a flex­i­ble bracelet that notes all my phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity while log­ging my sleep cy­cle at night. It refers to my dig­its as ‘sexy data’, which seems a bit oxy­moronic, but it crunches my calo­ries in and out and of­fers the chance to up­date my mood.

I can choose any num­ber of tem­per­a­ments, from Pumped Up to To­tally Done, or Meh. I go for Meh and get some mo­ti­va­tional up­dates in re­turn. “Stud­ies have shown that peo­ple who con­sis­tently log their food and drink lose 50 per cent more weight.” The ques­tion of which stud­ies, on how many peo­ple, and over what time pe­riod, is a side is­sue, be­cause I’m get­ting mo­ti­vated here. And what’s more, ac­cord­ing to the Nike Fuel­Band on my

other wrist, I’ve just “soaked” my goal for the day. This sleek black band revs up its coloured LEDs like a cousin of the car from Knight Rider, mea­sures my ev­ery phys­i­cal ex­er­tion with an ac­celerom­e­ter, and con­verts it into its own met­ric Nike Fuel. Ap­par­ently, I’ve just reached, nay shat­tered, my daily Nike Fuel goal of 3,000, which is nice. I should prob­a­bly tell my friends.

The ac­tiv­ity tracker I re­ally bond with, though, is an Amer­i­can de­vice called BodyMe­dia Fit, which sells it­self as “like hav­ing your own per­sonal trainer or coach”. It’s a med­i­cal-look­ing arm­band that hugs your bi­cep un­no­ticed (un­less it’s do­ing its ro­botic bleeps, which are so in­tru­sive you hear them with your teeth) to mea­sure mo­tion, body and skin tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions and skin con­duc­tiv­ity. It’s the most seam­less at track­ing without me hav­ing to do any­thing. It syncs my food in­take with the calo­rie-count­ing app My Fit­ness Pal; and it just sent me a ‘New Per­sonal Best’ alert— 11 hours, 19 min­utes ly­ing down. Any prod­uct that re­wards me for ly­ing down gets my vote.

I add to this arse­nal a Garmin Fore­run­ner 61610 heart rate mon­i­tor and some iPhone apps for record­ing ex­pen­di­ture, GPS data and mood. Strava logs my cy­cle to work and bench­marks me against the rest of Lon­don’s de­mented two-wheel­ers; and MoodPanda, a frankly sin­is­ter in­ven­tion, as­signs to me a panda avatar and asks for my mood out of 10, plus a rea­son. I then get sup­port and ‘hugs’ from other pan­das when I get de­pressed.

Num­ber crunch­ing

Weeks later I look at my stats and try to find some cor­re­la­tions and in­sight. But my con­clu­sions are mostly ba­nal and self-self ev­i­dent: weight goes down if calo­ries out ex­ceed calo­ries in and mood is in­versely pro­por­tional to sit­ting on my back­side. I do, how­ever, be­come more aware of what I eat, and I re­alise that 37 per cent of my ex­pen­di­ture in one week is on cheese. Lit­tle res­o­lu­tions are made. La Fro­magerie may well go out of busi­ness.

The po­ten­tial med­i­cal ben­e­fits of QS are much greater than my ex­per­i­ment sug­gests. The last talk at the Lon­don meet-up is from Anu Pa­tel, a GP who’s set­ting up a pre­mium pri­vate health­care ser­vice called Nio Health, which will utilise per­sonal data in a way the UK’s Na­tional Health Ser­vice can only dream of. Launch­ing later this year, his brain­child will of­fer mem­bers a be­spoke ser­vice, where they can ac­cess health pro­fes­sion­als via video mes­sag­ing and sub­mit their own bio­met­ric mea­sure­ments via email.

“It be­came ap­par­ent to me that there was a di­vorce be­tween in­di­vid­u­als hav­ing own­er­ship of – or shar­ing – data, and me pro­vid­ing care,” Anu says.

The phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try is start­ing to prick its ears up, too. The ag­gre­gate num­bers (or trends) pro­duced by masses of peo­ple self-track­ing are valu­able. So­cial net­works such as Pa­tientsLikeMe al­low peo­ple to share their re­sults, which are then made anony­mous and sold on to health­care firms. Even­tu­ally com­pa­nies will be able to base pills and prod­ucts around more finely tuned data.

In­evitably ad­ver­tis­ers are also in­ter­ested. The po­ten­tial for tai­lor­ing prod­ucts to our moods must be ir­re­sistible. QS con­fer­ences have been spon­sored by Philips, Voda­fone and In­tel, while Nike stores ded­i­cate as much space to track­ing wrist­bands as they do to train­ing tops.

Life log­ging, or record­ing ev­ery­thing you see and do through wear­able cam­eras, is an­other de­vel­op­ment in the world of QS. Pivot­head might sound like a prog-rock band, but it’s ac­tu­ally the name of a pair of glasses with a lens be­tween the eye for video and pho­to­graphs. I log thou­sands of im­ages over the weeks, mostly of my lap, and learn a lot about my life from the play­back ses­sions – much of it spec­tac­u­larly mun­dane. I stare at the TV without tak­ing it in. I have a habit of rins­ing and neatly ar­rang­ing the crock­ery but not ac­tu­ally wash­ing it. My wife and I slip into par­al­lel con­ver­sa­tions from time to time. The doc­u­men­tary film AiWei­wei: Never Sorry has been sit­ting in its DVD-rental jacket for two weeks while I just watched the whole of The Bodyguard – alone.

But why do all this? Isn’t it all a bit nar­cis­sis­tic and time-con­sum­ing? Per­haps, and even the US-based di­rec­tor of QS Labs, Alexan­dra Carmichael, even­tu­ally gave up self-track­ing. “My self-worth was tied to the data,” she sighed. “I won’t let it be an in­stru­ment of self-tor­ture any more.”

Whether we want to or ought to or not is aca­demic, re­ally. We’re al­ready self-track­ing and life log­ging. Dig­i­tal cam­eras and ex­pand­ing hard drives are cre­at­ing huge per­sonal archives, in which birthdays, friends and mem­o­ries be­come search­able meta­data, while the shift to near-bot­tom­less stor­age for email has fa­cil­i­tated in­fi­nite dig­i­tal di­aries. The era of the fully quan­ti­fied self is en­croach­ing fast.

“A lot of your data is al­ready be­ing tracked, just not by you, which is kind of a prob­lem,” Adri­ana says. “I’m not par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured with the vi­sion that we track ev­ery­thing all the time, but I’d rather it hap­pened in a way where we have ac­cess to it and con­trol of it.”

Microsoft re­searcher Gor­don Bell has been look­ing back at us from ahead of the curve for years. His book, Your Life, Up­loaded, fore­tells a world of “to­tal re­call”, in which ev­ery­thing you’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced is recorded digitally into an ethe­real e-mem­ory that will aug­ment and po­ten­tially sup­plant your bio-mem­ory, lead­ing to a kind of im­mor­tal­ity. It’s a clas­sic blend of sci-fi sooth­say­ing and tech­no­log­i­cal tub-thump­ing.

“The com­ing age of to­tal re­call… will change the way we work and learn. It will un­leash our cre­ativ­ity and im­prove our health. It will change our in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships with loved ones both liv­ing and dead. It will, I be­lieve, change what it means to be hu­man.”

Tech hubris, per­haps, but in an era of breath­less in­no­va­tion in which Google Glass has brought us cam­era/ com­puter hy­brid spec­ta­cles, it may not be that far off the mark. Sooner or later we’ll all be hack­ing into our own main­frames. Mean­while, I’ve got some gi­raffes to climb.

In the eyes of most self-quan­ti­fiers, a workout at the gym is point­less un­less it’s tracked and con­verted to data to be an­a­lysed

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