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Is the 'quantified self' movement just a fad?

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

January 21, 2012 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - "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.

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