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
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 (www.meetup.com/Dubai-Quantified-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.
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