562: Quantified Action

Do you use self-tracking tools of any kind? If so, what do you do with the data?

Full episode script

Self-tracking — the process and practice of keeping track of various measurable things about yourself – isn’t anything new. As Lauren M. Rowse wrote in Statistics of the Self: Shaping the Self Through Quantified Self-Tracking, an absolutely fascinating senior thesis, quote:

Humans have quantified their behaviors for centuries—a classic (albeit relatively modern) example is weight tracking. Weight is a numerical identity people assign to themselves to represent their mass as experienced on Earth. This value fluctuates as the person ages, and thus provides them with information about themselves. Yet this information is not merely personal, it acquires meaning as people compare their weight data with one another.


The whole idea of tracking anything about yourself is, arguably, based in the pushback against the romantic ideal of the human being driven by emotion. Instead, it’s the idea of the industrial revolution, that everything approached with logic and numbers can be seen as valuable. As it was put in Wired in 2009:

Numbers are making their way into the smallest crevices of our lives. We have pedometers in the soles of our shoes and phones that can post our location as we move around town. We can tweet what we eat into a database and subscribe to Web services that track our finances. There are sites and programs for monitoring mood, pain, blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cognitive alacrity, menstruation, and prayers. Even sleep—a challenge to self-track, obviously, since you’re unconscious—is yielding to the skill of the widget maker. With an accelerometer and some decent algorithms, you will soon be able to record your sleep patterns with technology that costs less than $100.


Any of these things could be a useful piece of data, depending on how you intend on using it — and depending on what that data is doing to your experience. As Jessica Harneyford wrote, quote:

More fundamentally, too, this data-centrism reinforces a way of viewing the world where our default for interacting with it is to measure it and compare relational parts of it to each other. Our cultural age is beginning to privilege action and doing over experience and being. Does self-tracking reinforce this assumption? Does it encourage us to expand the tracking mindset beyond the domain of what’s being tracked? If we insist on measuring everything, we could be forgetting that an essential part of experiencing things is that they come with ambiguity.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.