They’ve got your numbers
Thanks to a growing array of gadgets and apps we can track all sorts of information about ourselves, but what are we really learning?
Am I better off knowing that in the course of one evening, while packing for a school vacation-week trip to California, I went up and down the stairs — to the basement to speed-wash multiple loads because somehow all of our presentable clothing was dirty; to the kitchen to ready fruit and peanut butter sandwiches that would be shunned in favor of pricey in-flight offerings; to the attic to hunt for beach shoes that would turn out to be too small; back to the basement to rescue a Red Sox jersey that can’t be put in the dryer — 70 times?
And I do mean 70 times. I know because in the process of writing this story, I accidentally joined the fledgling “quantified self” movement. At the moment, it’s mainly a bunch of tech geeks, hard-core fitness types, eager dieters, and people with chronic health issues, but it’s starting to go mainstream. Devotees wear gadgets or use apps to track all sorts of information about themselves — mood, heart rate, sweat level, sleeping patterns, miles walked, steps climbed.
As you’d imagine, the kind of person who seeks out yet another device or data entry obligation can be kind of obsessive.
In Boston, Emily Gallardo, 48, who makes hand-embellished greeting cards, at times walks her apartment’s hallway just to raise the step count on her FitBit activity tracker. “It’s a psychological itch I need to scratch,” she said.
Pam Walcott, 24, of Natick, feels “naked” if she’s not wearing her zebra-patterned BodyMedia arm band to track how many calories she's burning. “It was weird when I took it off for a day to go to the beach,” she said.
Michael Nagle, 27, of Somerville, doesn’t like to meditate without using the Equanimity timer and tracking app on his iPhone. It helps him see long-term patterns — and, ideally, take corrective action if needed. “You think you’re going to stop for a day or two, but that turns into days and days,” he said.
Nagle also sleeps with a lightweight, wireless headband — the Zeo Sleep Manager — but as the leader of the Boston-area “quantified self” meet-up group, he considers himself a lightweight user.
“I’ve seen people track up to 40 things a day,” Nagle said, “ranging from sleep quality, mood, and sexual habits, to pills or supplements taken and other treatments being tried out for chronic conditions, both recording dosages and effects.”
Nagle’s meet-up group — a mix of researchers, designers, scientists, and the merely curious — is the local offshoot of the San Franciso Bay area-based quantified-self movement, which was founded in 2007 by two former staffers of Wired magazine who sought to bring together the growing information available to regular folks.
“Life logging, personal genomics, location tracking, biometrics,” cofounder Gary Wolf, wrote on the quantifiedself.com website. “These new tools were being developed for many different reasons, but all of them had something in common: They added a computational dimension to ordinary existence.”
Athletes, dieters, and patients have been tracking information about themselves for years, of course. But the enormous growth in the tracking app and gadget industry has come as prices for wearable devices drop, and smart phones proliferate, said Jonathan Collins, principal analyst for mHealth & M2M at the New York-based ABI Research.
He predicts that the number of smartphone app downloads in the sports, fitness, and wellness categories will grow from 154 million in 2010 to 908 million in 2016, and the number of wearable wireless gadgets will grow from 8 million to 72 million over the same period.
Not only are there more gadgets, most are so simple even a child can use them. That’s the case in Beverly, where 5-year-old Jackson Horman started wearing his dad’s FitBit to help him out in a friendly competition that had developed between his parents over who took more steps each day.
“He’s a daddy’s boy and he wants me to win,” said Jason Horman, 36, cofounder of the Charlestown start-up Springpad. “One day I couldn’t find it in the morning. He had worn it to school, and at the end of the day he snuck it to me.” Little Jackson logged 10,600 steps — a winner for sure — “but I felt like I was cheating,” said Horman.
As for me, after a week of walking around with a FitBit clipped to my pocket, I realized that I had come to believe that the thumb-size piece of hardware actually cared how I did. As if it were my supervisor in a sales job, its compensation package based on my success. When I realized that final day of our vacation would involve a two-hour drive to Los Angeles and then a five-plus-hour flight, I was panicky about all the sitting.
“FitBit isn’t going to be happy,” I told my 11-year-old son, modeling the obsessive kind of behavior parents are urged to avoid.
But then our flight was delayed for three hours. While other passengers grumbled, I happily circled gates 42 through 49, logging almost 10,000 steps — the daily goal, according to the American Heart Association, among other groups. I repeatedly passed a man in a faded Bruins T-shirt who was pushing a stroller and circling in the other direction. Was he trying to put his baby to sleep? Or, I wondered in my mono-mania, feed the FitBit beast?
What’s the appeal of all these devices? After all, they tell us things we sort of know without all that software: How much we’re moving, eating, sleeping. Many quantified self-ers say they like the gaming and competitive aspects of many of the devices and apps, which often award badges for meeting goals. Others like being able to corroborate a feeling (something abstract) with a number (something that seems more concrete). Meanwhile Walcott, of Natick, considers her arm band a reminder to behave. “It’s like another pair of eyes,” she said.
Paula Dabenigno, a diabetes nurse educator at Tufts Medical Center, says gadgets often let people focus on positive numbers — steps taken, for example — rather than disappointing ones, such as blood pressure or cholesterol. “I think it really validates you,” she said.
But Robert P. Crease, chairman of the department of philosophy at Stony Brook University, in New York, and author of “World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement,” sees it differently.
“Numbers tend to promise self-knowledge,” he said, but there’s a danger in being ruled by numbers. “The Dickens character Thomas Gradgrind tries to measure every parcel of life and loses track of his own life.
“Tracking your step count may well help you walk more,” he said, “but walking just to boost your step count isn’t fun. It promotes an unhealthy attitude to walking and so can even harm your health. It’s like teaching to the test — it may work for the moment but over the long term interferes with your goal.”
And there’s another problem, related to the old “if a tree falls in the woods . . .” puzzler: If a woman spends an entire day walking around the San Diego Zoo but neglects to charge her FitBit, did
she get any exercise?