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January 11, 2011

Go Follow Yourself

thanks to scobleizer on Flickr (CC licensed attribution)It’s been going on quietly for years; the brains and bodies of nerds and athletes have been coupled to all manner of sensors and data-netting gizmos (voluntarily and without medical intervention)

from heart-rate monitors, biofeedback fingerware, sleep trackers, wearable cameras, oximeters, accelerometers, blood-pressure cuffs, GPS to old-fashioned stopwatches employed to track and map the data their activities generate in time and space, and almost always leading to an inevitable uploading of the activities to spreadsheets and graphs for analysis.

Some do it to observe, others to optimise, others to see how far they can go before they overclock their systems,

Now in the bright dawn of the app, smartphones are luring the unsuspecting into self-tracking. Before long that sleep-monitoring-app-that-must-be-tried converts into harmless productivity logging, the odd location check-in, daily pedometer use, and soon enough you’re surrounded by those hooked on quantifying the daily data their lives have been generating. Ordinary people will be overheard at the next table sharing hacks for their personal genome [okay well maybe that one has a way to go, but not as faraway as you’d think].

Judge this as narcissism or the sport of OCD neurotics in error.
[Bless Twitter for the recency of its mainstream conversion from much-mocked to must-have. Web economics or triumph do not conform to what is intuitive; what looks silly today may command fortunes of the future]. A self-tracker’s numbers and observations may be uploaded for personal interest, but shared with others in a forum or social network could have potential species-wide benefit. Patterns form out of the data sets and occasionally unexpected utility, cures and fast-tracks emerge and this progress is available immediately to all those searching for a solution to try out too, their feedback strengthening or squashing the finding. The rate with which we’re co-evolving with our technology means that nothing as useful as a fork need take centuries to catch on anymore.

We’re grabbing what works, remixing to suit our context, sharing the results outside the sacred circle of state, company and school so it’s fast, damn fast. No waiting about for medical, commercial or political solutions to be implemented at glacial pace and great expense. Citizen-surgery won’t be the next big thing, and doctors won’t be a diminishing species, but they’re probably less likely to be mistaken for gods. Pity the physicians in years to come. Loaded not only with deep-mined info from the Internet, patients will also presenting their personal biometrics, self-diagnoses and realtime search to check on the doctor’s prescription as the script is being written. With a strong personal motivation to find an answer we can track ourselves as we go through life-as-usual: neutralising the weird distortion of examining a subject alone in a lab is a helpful side-effect.

If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat. – Douglas Adams

As anyone who’s peered behind their assumptions by doing even rudimentary web-analytics knows, naked feedback data is rarely what we expect. It favours those who have a curious mind and the tenacity to dig deeper with increasingly refined questions. Why the heck do you have most of your referral traffic coming from people searching for pelagic bird-watching tours when your trade is selling woolly cardigans to lumberjacks? The fun is hunting the connections; have you been hacked by a renegade twitcher network? Perhaps your bestselling jumper is named after aEsther Dyson - "sleep data on the Zeo clock" rare albatross never yet seen on shore? Maybe someone mis-mapped you as the HQ of Seabird Central?
So too self-trackers use their data to fill the gap between perception and reality.
Can’t fathom why you work so damn hard and get so little done? Why do you wake up feeling like a zombie after your allotted 8 hours? You run marathons, so why do you have a body-fat percentage of a baby seal? There’s an app for that ..get tracking and hunting. In the anomalies we often find ingenious or the simple but elusive aha answers.

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ..‘that’s funny – Isaac Asimov

If there’s a prediction for 2011 that is worth setting an alert for that has more than twinkly trend in its DNA, it’s this. Self-tracking marries beautifully with game mechanics and non-dorky-looking gadgets to be both fun and commercially interesting for the main market now too. With particularly rewarding applications possible for medical insurance companies and health ministries who have enormous financial interest in keeping their members/citizens well.

Gary Wolf, contributing editor at Wired, who started the Quantified Self blog back in 1997 with the legendary Kevin Kelly, wrote a rich piece on self-measurement for The New York Times last year, The Data-Driven Life that’s well worth the read to get up to speed: [extract]

Trackers focused on their health want to ensure that their medical practitioners don’t miss the particulars of their condition; trackers who record their mental states are often trying to find their own way to personal fulfillment amid the seductions of marketing and the errors of common opinion; fitness trackers are trying to tune their training regimes to their own body types and competitive goals, but they are also looking to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to uncover potential they didn’t know they had. Self-tracking, in this way, is not really a tool of optimization but of discovery, and if tracking regimes that we would once have thought bizarre are becoming normal, one of the most interesting effects may be to make us re-evaluate what “normal” means.

“My girlfriend thinks I’m the weird person when I wear all these devices,” Bo Adler says. “She sees me as an oddity, but I say no, soon everybody is going to be doing this, and you won’t even notice.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html

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In the interests of declaring my bias, I need to own up to being a self-tracker/-experimenter/ -researcher /-logger for CC attribution: StevenHarris on Flickrmost of my life. With so much physics, chemistry, history, biology, anthropology and general whatthe-ology to discover about ourselves – and so much hypochondria to allay if you read too much – it never gets dull, but it’s not heretofore been fashionable dinner-party conversation. So I’m looking forward to the excitement building around it. Not to mention the increasing abundance of more awesome gadgets on offer, now in stylish packaging.

This one’s going to be big, as a social-behavioural mod it will have rolling impact into economic and political policy, slowly but certainly. Unlikely you say? Put it on your alerts and watch. Let’s roll together a few Quantified Self meetups, and see if you don’t get a thrill from seeing the superhero rippling under the clark-kent veneer.
It’s so much more than geek-sport.

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Are you a self-tracker? Got a thing for productivity apps, develop funny hypotheses about your training, time, nutrition and test them (on yourself not hapless clients), got a thing for spreadsheets and pedometers? Did you realise your hobby doesn’t relegate you to lone freakery any longer? Self-trackers, shout your barbaric yawp from the rooftops, your time in the sunshine has finally come.

January 11, 2011