The Limits of the Quantified Self

Measuring our lives won’t necessarily improve them.

How many steps did you take just now? For an increasing number of people, that question can be answered, exactly, in a few seconds. More and more of our lives are being tracked, counted and measured. Go to any tech conference these days and at least one of the wrap-ups will be about the coming onslaught of wearable technology. At CES this year there were new devices that measure your heart rate, blood pressure, the quality of the air around you, UV exposure on your skin, etc. Another device is in the works that aims to measure changes in skin conductance that reflect stress and even boredom and indifference. According to one estimate, the market for wearables is set to go from 325 million devices in 2016 to more than 830 million by 2020.

This urge to count and measure and take in data is only natural. It makes the world feel knowable, it gives us a feeling of control and autonomy. I wear an iWatch myself and I love it. I check my steps every day and the knowledge that they’re being measured makes me want to up my step count.

But the question with all of measuring and counting is: what then? Yes, more information is almost always better than less information. Data doesn’t mean much if we don’t know what to do with it. Or, even worse, when data and tracking become an end in themselves.

A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine coined the term “orthosomnia,” in which people become “preoccupied or concerned with improving or perfecting their wearable sleep data.” According to the study, a growing number of people are convincing themselves they have a sleep disorder because they’re relying more on information from their sleep trackers than on other inputs, like how they feel. This “perfectionistic impulse” can then “reinforce sleep-related anxiety.”

Of course sleep tracking data can be incredibly useful, but along with it we need guidance about what to do with it. If what a tracker shows is that we need more sleep, we need to know what steps we can take to get there and how we can begin to change our behavior so we can achieve the desired result. Data from a sleep tracker can be valuable, but it can’t be an end in itself.

Another example is fitness trackers, like Fitbit Ace for children. At a time when one out of every six adolescents in the U.S. is affected by obesity and one in four children has tried dieting by the age of 7, it is great to have a device that encourages children to move more. But it’s not enough if it’s not supplemented by conversations with parents and others about why moving and eating right and sleeping are important for your overall well-being. And as Joanna Imse, an eating disorder specialist, put it, “Alerts that are pushed through the tracker might cause children to solely focus on the device’s command, rather than empowering them to intuitively listen to their bodies.”

And we can see the challenges of measuring in our collective well-being as well. In the 1990s, the Human Development Index was developed by, among others, economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen. The point was to broaden the assessment of national well-being beyond simply economic measures and GDP. As David Pilling, author of The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty, and the Well-Being of Nations, said, “Income is a means to an end. It’s not an end in itself.”

Building on the Human Development Index has been Harvard professor Michael Porter, who in 2015 led the creation of the Social Progress Index. The goal is not just to take a broader view of well-being, but to look at individual components of what creates national well-being. “Ultimately, we believe you’ve got to go backward in the causal chain, and really understand what is driving happiness,” he said.

The goal, both collectively and individually, is to achieve what ancient Greeks called “eudaimonia”— which is often translated as “happiness,” but is really more about flourishing and thriving. That’s good to keep in mind amidst the coming onslaught of tracking and measuring. Just because something can be measured doesn’t mean it’s more important than what can’t be measured. And as more and more of our lives is getting measured, we should also remember that tracking data is just the first step. Even the best and latest technology is just a tool to augment and enhance our self-knowledge and our wisdom. Otherwise, we’ll end up being a version of that perpetual tech-story: people driving into lakes because that’s what their GPS says they should do.   

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