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National Post

The Quantified Self: Self tracking your every move

Did I have enough butter & coffee today? Do tight jeans make me sad? For ‘self-trackers,’ these are everyday questions. For others, they herald a new Big Brother: ourselves

Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post · Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010

When we talk about life, we often talk about quality — but what about quantity? Which keystrokes did I make on my computer today? How many times did I have sex this month and where? On a scale of 1 to 10, what was my average mood this week?

Such are the questions on the minds of the thousands of “self-trackers” in pursuit of what is known as the Quantified Self: The notion of self-awareness through numbers.

The Quantified Self movement was officially born in a studio in Silicon Valley in 2008, but began decades ago when people such as Mark Carranza started tracking things like his ideas. (He has tracked one million notions and, using a database, has found there are seven million connections between those notions.)

Self-quantifiers track anything and everything, and 1,528 of them share their findings at worldwide Quantified Self Show & Tells — the Toronto chapter meets for the first time next month, and the London chapter met for the first time last week — or using such online sites as IJustMadeLove.comor morning, for example, Seth Roberts records — to the millisecond — how quickly he completes 32 arithmetic questions. He found that consuming butter improves his time.

There is an “X” in Robin Barooah’s journal for every 25-minute interval he is able to concentrate. He graphed the data over time and disproved his theory that quitting coffee decreased his productivity. Over the course of four months, he weaned himself off caffeine by removing 20 millilitres of coffee from his diet each week.

Alexandra Carmichael invented a mood scale and used it every day for six months. She no longer wears tight-fitting jeans because her data reveals that doing so drops her mood dramatically.

“The Quantified Self might seem obscure or esoteric right now, but it’ll be mainstream before you know it,” said Kevin Kelly, co-founder with Gary Wolf of Quantified Self Labs, an organization based in San Francisco.

“Yes, there are the hardcore coder-types and data geeks who like to crunch numbers, but that’s not the predominant group. The predominant group is people who are interested in getting a better picture of themselves…. We’re in the age of science, and it has been drilled into our heads that things are not really real until they’re quantified — that the unmeasured thing is not improved,” he said. “This is a manifestation of that scientific approach to life.”

Indeed, governments, corporations and politicians track and mine data about millions of people every day. Some trackers think, “If Big Brother is watching us so closely, perhaps we should watch ourselves closely.”

Other trackers are life-streamers, people who stream their lives to the public using social media. The more they share about themselves, the more information they want to be able to share. Some track simply because they can — sensors are the size of a quarter and devices are relatively inexpensive. Some track for self-improvement, some because their doctor has asked them to, some want to “scrapbook” their life.

“There’s a serendipity that’s astounding and pleasurable … I’m working to be a cognitive artist,” Mr. Carranza, the idea tracker, has said.

Gordon Bell, a principal researcher at Microsoft, self-tracks to build a surrogate memory: He is famously recording massive amounts of video, photos and information into MyLifeBits, a network of computers that hosts 1,000 gigabytes of data — the capacity of more than 1,000,000 compact discs. The New York Quantified Self chapter features many designer-types, who use their data to build exhibitions or contemporary artwork.

Then there are the skeptics, those who ask: What happens when self-tracking turns people into “peeple”? What happens when society becomes its own Big Brother, where the watchers are the watched and the watched are the watchers?

“What I hear from self-trackers is, ‘I just don’t care about privacy, I don’t value it,’ ” said Hal Niedzviecki, author of the recent book Peep Diaries. “And that’s because they’ve found something they value more: attention. That is a huge cultural shift.”

Mr. Niedzviecki said sharing data online is part of a new “peep culture,” where everyone is a mini-celebrity. “It’s all about the broadcast,” he said. “Peep culture lets us all have our moment in the sun, our own channel.”

Indeed, some fear a day when the “I” and the numbers become everything — when self-tracking becomes so narcissistic or obsessive-compulsive that people lose sight of the very life they are logging.

For Ms. Carmichael, who recently quit self-quantifying for a short-period, the drawback was none of these: After spending nearly two years monitoring 40 things about herself, she suddenly realized that her self-tracking had become “an instrument of self-torture.”

“Each day, my self-worth was tied to the data,” she wrote in a poem posted to the Quantified Self blog she manages. “One pound heavier this morning? You’re fat … Didn’t help 10 people today? You’re selfish.”

Ms. Carmichael, who is the director of Quantified Self Labs, has since resumed her self-tracking — albeit on a smaller scale, measuring things like productivity using an iPhone app called TallyZoo — because she believes the benefits outweigh the downsides: “I live a much more self-aware life thanks to self-tracking,” she said.

Trackers such as Mr. Carranza and Ms. Carmichael self-monitor with a myriad of tracking devices–some mainstream and sold commercially, others one-offs crafted by so-called “makers” who tweak and cobble together existing devices to track something previously un-trackable.

Eric Boyd, for example, cobbled together a buzzing compass that attaches to his ankle and vibrates when he faces north. Tracking his orientation has translated into an intrinsic sense of direction, he says.

For the more mainstream self-quantifier, there is Zeo, with its headband that monitors sleep phases by tracking the electrical signals of the brain; there is the Fitbit, which has a 3-D sensor to track calories burned, distance travelled and sleep quality; there is Asthamapolis, which, with each puff, records the exact location, time and date so the user can monitor their attacks; and there is, of course, Wii Fit and a multitude of iPhone apps.

Some devices automatically send the information to a computer, and some will even communicate with a cellphone so that the tracker can — right then and there — upload the data to Twitter with the hash-tag ODL (for Observations of Daily Life) or, if they are a patient tracking themselves for health reasons, to their doctor’s website.

“Sharing the information might be like a form of speech, it allows for feedback,” said Mr. Roberts, an experimental psychologist who is a member of the Quantified Self Advisory Board. He began self-tracking as a pimply graduate student: “My doctor gave me two medications: a pill and a cream. I varied my usage and counted the pimples on my face every morning.”

The cream won.

For Mr. Roberts, his first Quantified Self Show & Tell was an “aha” moment. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, other people are doing this, too,’ ” he said in an interview from Beijing, where he is a psychology professor at Tsinghua University.

The show-and-tells–which are hosted in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Amsterdam, London, Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney and Brussels, in descending order of population of self-proclaimed self-quantifiers — are growing in attendance each month. That growth is not lost on such companies as Google Health, Microsoft Research and Zeo, which have all stepped in to sponsor the events held at universities, think-tanks, studios and offices.

Toronto’s Oct. 27 event is not yet sponsored, but Carlos Rizo, who is organizing the city’s first show-and-tell with Toronto-born Ms. Carmichael, said he is “optimistic” that Torontonians will embrace the Quantified Self movement.

“I think the appetite for this is big here in Toronto,” said Mr. Rizo, Chief Imagineer with the Innovation Cell, a think-tank focused on innovative health care.

Across the country in Edmonton, Ken Fyfe, a pioneer of self-tracking technology and an engineering professor at the University of Alberta, said the real-life applications for self-tracking are endless.

Mr. Fyfe– who spent much of his life developing an accelerometer-based tracking system for athletes, and who sold his company, Dynastar, to technology giant Garmin in 2006 — is now working on “smart prostheses,” which track muscle movement and joint angles.

“The traditional way to analyze human motion and behaviour was to go to a lab, but now the lab is being taken out into the field, onto the track, into the home,” he said. “Ultimately, where we see this stuff going is implanted systems.”

Implanted systems?

Implantation might seem far off, but Mr. Fyfe said sensors are getting so small, and technologies so smart, that soon — maybe five or ten years from now — doctors will be implanting patients with sensors.

He foresees a world where houses are implanted with sensors, too.

“Can we someday go ahead and outfit [seniors] and their house with sensors to warn caregivers that, ‘Hey, they forgot to turn off the stove,’ or, ‘Hey, they’ve been in the bathroom for way too long?’ ” he asked.

Already, though, there are medical applications galore — from “smart prostheses” and crowdsourcing health websites like Ms. Carmichael’s CureTogether, to those who simply track dietary changes to quash migraines.

And then there is Jon Cousins’ Moodscope, a social networking tool that has helped him manage his bipolar disorder.

Moodscope users measure and log their mood each day using a complex mood scale invented by Mr. Cousins. The online system then automatically emails a group of friends — selected by the user, and called “buddies” — with notifications about that person’s mood.

“Although these days I tend to be doing pretty good mood-wise, if I do have the occasional off day, my friend Jonny, who now lives in Israel, emails me a single ‘?’,” he said, in an interview from London, England. “Usually by the time I’ve typed a few words of explanation,

I’m actually feeling better.”

Part of this, he hypothesizes, is based on the psychology principle that people feel better when they are being observed.

Being observed can also have the effect of motivating — a belief held by those who Twitter how far they ran that day or how many calories they consumed.

“You can’t really kid yourself if you’re tracking your activity,” said Mr. Barooah, the former coffee-drinker, who sold to Apple an iPhone app that he built to track his meditation practice and who is working on the launch of a self-tracking software start-up. “For me, the most significant realization was that what I think about myself — particularly quantitatively — just wasn’t connected to reality.”

However, Mr. Barooah is not the type to track anything or everything. Nor is he the type to outfit his body with gadgets–as did one self-tracker who apparently became so embarrassed by the amount of sensors he wore to the gym that he now sports a Google T-shirt to workout, just to make his get-up seem more acceptable.

“If there’s something I’m trying to change or understand, then I’ll self-track until I sort it out,” Mr. Barooah said. “But I don’t like the idea of being tied to a computer. I’d rather be liberated than confined by things that are attached to me.”

Alexandra Carmichael

Tight-fitting jeans put her in a foul mood. Cutting her caloric intake translated to weight loss. Indeed, Alexandra Carmichael said she is far more “self-aware” because of all the activities she has tracked since August 2008. However, she was also far more self-depricating at the height of her self-tracking. For a short time, she stopped self-quantifying altogether, and wrote a poem about it on the Quantified Self blog. “I was addicted/To my iPhone apps/To getting the right numbers/To beating myself up,” she wrote. Soon enough though, she was back at on a smaller scale. Ms. Carmichael is also co-founder of, where people are tracking, and comparing their symptoms, treatments, and side effects across 613 health conditions. “They can see where they fit and get new ideas for things to try that might help,” she said. “Imagine if the cure for cancer came from crowd-sourced citizen science — I think that’s where the future is going.”