Is the 'quantified self' movement just a fad?

Pundits say a new era of self-monitoring is here. I'm not so sure.

"Quantified self" gadgets were surprisingly hot at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) -- if journalists covering the event are to be believed.

Once an obscure realm of researchers and hobbyists, the quantified-self movement appears to be going mainstream.

People "quantify" their "selves" in many ways. They take pictures of everything they eat and drink, measure the distance they walk or run, monitor sleep patterns, record their "mood" at regular intervals, detect their blood pressure and heart rate, track their work priorities hourly, and more.

To gather this data, people are strapping on special-purpose watches, armbands, headbands and chestbands, carrying keyfobs and smartphone apps, and installing listening devices next to their beds.

"Quantified self" enthusiasts hold "meet-ups," publish blogs and organize conferences. And they're influencing gadget fans and tech pundits. But are they changing how people live?

Consumer electronics products like FitBit Ultra, Striiv and BodyMedia Fit Link monitor how many steps you take and calories you burn. Like Santa Claus, products like the Renew SleepClock see you when you're sleeping; they know when you're awake. They detect your sleeping patterns and wake you at the optimum time, according to the companies that make them. A product called the Basis Watch will keep an eye on your heart.

In a TED Talk on the quantified self movement, Gary Wolf opened his talk by rattling off a series of numbers. (Wolf and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly created a Web site called "Quantified Self" in 2008.) He told the audience exactly what time he got up (6:10 a.m.), how many times he woke up while sleeping (once), his heart's average beats-per-minute (61), his blood pressure (127/74), how many minutes of exercise he got (0), how many milligrams of caffeine he ingested (600), how many milligrams of alcohol (0) and other such numbers.

Wolf pointed out that such monitoring and detailed numerical data is possible because of the advancement and reduced cost of mobile devices, compute power, data storage and sensors. Social networks enable people to share the data.

Wolf says biometric monitoring is about "self knowledge." He said: "If we want to act more effectively in the world, we have to get to know ourselves better."

But does this numerical "self knowledge" make Wolf healthier, happier or more effective?

The "quantified self" movement is really just the battery-powered version of the ancient human quest to know thyself, a desire as old as philosophy.

"Quantified self" practitioners as a group are not necessarily curious about human values or an understanding of what makes us human. They're more interested in anything that can be measured and given a number. They believe the maxim that only the things that are measured can be improved. But I see a lot of measuring, but not much improvement.

Don't get me wrong. Self-monitoring for medical patients and athletes is clearly valuable, desirable and here to stay.

But the whole "quantified self" movement feels temporary and narrow to me. Nearly all its adherents, for example, are males in their 20s and 30s. I'm not sensing a broad, sustainable appeal.

It appears to be driven by an unusual impulse to remake oneself into a cyborg or robot -- to conquer one's own biology and overcome its mysteries and limitations the way one masters a PC or a network. It's the logical conclusion of a view that the body is just another binary computing system.

The next logical step in monitoring the self with numerical data is "hacking" the body and mind -- an appealing concept to people inclined to view the body as a meat robot, a biological vehicle whose main purpose is to carry the brain around and not die.

For example, GymPact is a smartphone app that lets you check in to your gym like you would on FourSquare. But if you fail, you pay. If you succeed, you get money from the weaklings who failed. It's a hack of human motivations, a gamification of exercise.

The desire to quantify self appears to be a manifestation of a certain personality type -- people uncomfortable with the vagaries of feelings, emotions and intuition who find comfort in facts, numbers and verifiable validation. It doesn't scale to the broader culture.

Health is often used as a justification for lashing electronic sensors to the body and giving the wearer a sense of control and action. I can't help but suspect that for many enthusiasts, monitoring health metrics is a surrogate or substitute for pursuing actual health with lifestyle changes that provide hard-to-measure benefits.

In my personal experience, I know people who are obsessed by "quantified self" gadgets. I know people who eat well and exercise regularly, and as a result are physically fit. And these two groups don't overlap.

People who are part of the epidemic of sedentary sitting all day tend already to be delusional about how much exercise they get and also how much they need (they don't get nearly enough; they need a whole lot more). Some of these gadgets validate the delusion. "Ooh, look. I walked 1,500 steps today! My exercise program is really working!"

Boys love their toys. But for anyone serious about health, my advice is to recycle all this "quantified self" junk, eat real food and go outside for some serious exercise every day. Instead of relying on consumer electronics to tell you how you feel, pay attention to your own body.

It will be a long time before Silicon Valley invents a set of sensors better than the ones you were born with.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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