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The Quantified Self: You Are Your Data

Boing Boing's David Pescovitz on better living through extensive self-measurement Since 1955, Jerry Davidson has obsessively written down...

Boing Boing's David Pescovitz on better living through extensive self-measurement

Since 1955, Jerry Davidson has obsessively written down everything he does during the day: visits to the store, telephone calls, meals, sex. Davidson has an impenetrable code, involving abbreviations and multiple colors of inks. A star on the top of a page means Jerry had a good day. Davidson never writes in the first person though, always in the third. He takes himself out of his experiences. His life is raw data.When I first heard Jerry's story, on a 1998 episode of This American Life, I thought he was just another interesting eccentric, like so many people featured on that radio program. Hearing the same program a few weeks ago though made me realize that Jerry Davidson is a pioneer. If Jerry lived in Silicon Valley and ran in the right nerd circles, he'd realize he isn't alone in his unique habit of self-measurement. Indeed, he's just another "quantified self," a person who embraces the technology at hand-in his case scraps of paper and colored markers-for deep self surveillance and analysis. A growing number of individuals are using new sensors, social networks, online data repositories, open-access science journals, and sheer discipline to view their bodies, minds, and spirits through the lens of data.


A look at the Quantified Self Wiki reveals the breadth of what people are learning about themselves. Alexandra Carmichael, co-founder of CureTogether, records 40 things about her daily life, including "sleep (bed time, wake time, sleep quality, naps), morning weight, daily caloric intake (each meal, total calculated at end of day, mealtimes, mood, day of menstrual cycle, sex (quantity, quality), exercise (duration, type)," etc. Tim Graham, a master of data visualization, collected and visualized data about the email spam he receives, how much he drinks (not just alcohol), and, "where it hurts." And Gary Wolf, a tech journalist and co-host of the wiki, is measuring his "blood pressure, heart rate, time asleep, time awake, sleep quality, perception of being rested, mood, harmony w/spouse, work hours, coffee and tea consumption.""Don't you think it's kind of obvious that if you step on a scale, there should be something that sends the information to your computer?" Wolf was quoted as saying in a recent Washington Post article. "Isn't it ridiculous to think that blood pressure shouldn't be measured at least once a day, if not several times a day?"If Wolf is the practical mind pushing the quantified self meme ahead, fellow writer Kevin Kelly is the philosopher of the movement. With Wolf, Kelly keeps The Quantified Self blog, a clearinghouse of self-surveillance information, and co-hosts the Bay Area's Quantified Self Show & Tell meetups, one of which was held at Institute for the Future, where I'm a research director."Unless something can be measured, it cannot be improved," Kelly wrote on the Quantified Self blog. "So we are on a quest to collect as many personal tools that will assist us in quantifiable measurement of ourselves. We welcome tools that help us see and understand bodies and minds so that we can figure out what humans are here for."

Even the Nike+iPod system is decidedly a quantified self tool, complete with networking capabilities to compare your progress with others online. Others a bit more niche: StressEraser is a pocket-sized digital biofeedback device that measures stress so you can stay calm. The Youw8 Internet Body Monitor fulfills Wolf's dream to wirelessly transmit weight data to your PC for analysis. BodyMedia's SenseWear BMS device keeps a vigil on energy expenditure, activity and sleep.Whether you use a stopwatch or an advanced biosensor to collect your personal data, the next step is often uploading, analyzing, visualizing, and sharing the info online. Bedpost helps you quantify your sex life. Mon.thly.info tracks and predicts menstrual cycles. Bricolage Labs offers an online collaboration platform for "discovery through self-experimentation, tinkering, and trial-and-error."Now, as Wolf has pointed out, the level of self-knowledge he and his Quantified Self kinfolk seek isn't for everyone. The Quantified Self is a spectrum, and it's up to you to find your own place within its potential. My Nike+iPod is in a perpetual state of zero acceleration. However, my wife and I are dedicated users of PearBudget, a dead simple tool to track and manage your spending. Categories, compatibility with Excel, and the defining Web 2.0 technology of tags make it easy to take a long, hard look at where our money goes. Data is truth. It calls you on your bullshit. And at its core, that seems to be what the quantified self is ultimately about."For a certain type of person, data is the most important thing you can trust," Wolf has said.Jerry Davidson, with his 50 years of colorful comprehensive diaries would certainly agree.David Pescovitz is co-editor of Boing Boing, research director at Institute for the Future, and editor-at-large of MAKE.
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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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