It’s possible for the average person to collect and analyze unprecedented amounts of data about themselves. What was once the province of extreme athletes and dieters has been democratized and the resulting movement is called ‘The Quantified Self.’ Brooke speaks with Gary Wolf who coined the term, a number of self-quantifiers and MIT professor Deb Roy about what all this personal data really tells us about ourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week’s show is devoted to data, which is being collected and crunched in breathtaking quantities at breakneck speed. According to The Economist, Wal-Mart logs more than 2.5 petabytes of information about customer transactions every hour, equivalent to 167 times the books in the Library of Congress.
News producers and news consumers love data. It’s nonpartisan and predictable as arithmetic. But we've talked a lot on this show about data omitted or abused in medical journals, data stretched or muddled in political polls, baseless numbers bouncing like volleyballs from pundit to politician, and back again. Data are so ubiquitous in media, we don't feel the need to belabor the point. Instead, we'll start by tying the data to you.
[MEETUP HUBBUB] On a recent New York evening, I attended a meet-up of self-quantifiers, people who closely track a wide variety of their own behaviors or emotional and physical states at various points in the day or when engaged in activities, ranging from cycling to sleeping, or just living. That’s what Sandy Santra does. He takes about 7,000 calls per year at his job at a computer help call desk. As he told the group:
SANDY SANTRA: I track yearly salary, blood pressure, migraines, time alone, happiness, meltdowns [LAUGHS] – that happens at work – panic attacks. I put new goals on a spreadsheet. And if I keep doin' those pushups every day, 21 days later the goal turns from red to green, on there. I've made it a habit. What is all this? Data plus information compiled and organized turns into knowledge. It makes self-improvement inevitable. And I like that. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some of the young men and women – mostly men here – embrace self-quantification variously, as a creed. Others pursue it as a hobby or a health plan, business opportunity or art project. Laurie Frick graphs the peaks and valleys of her sleep and turns them into art pieces that possess a soothing visual rhythm.
LAURIE FRICK: I mean, everybody thinks sleep holds secrets, right? It’s this thing, you know, you go to bed at night, you wake up in the morning, what happened in between?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you know what happens in between?
LAURIE FRICK: I see exactly how many times I wake up during the night. I know how much I dreamt. I see how many minutes I spend in deep sleep. I see exactly in the morning what happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At this meetup, Laurie showed her art, Sandy delivered his mission statement and NYU student Matt Ganucheau talked about his school project, designed to redirect the attention of self-quantifiers outward. Basically, when someone enlisted in Ganucheau’s project runs into another person in the project, he or she silently assesses the other’s mood, according to a standard medical pain scale chart. But before doing that, that person must first assess his own mood.
MATT GANUCHEAU: So that creates two data points. You end up with a graph of how you perceive yourself to be versus how your community perceives yourself to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ganucheau says that the very technology enabling us to escape into self-quantification cocoons also holds the potential to expand our self-absorption to larger and larger communities in a kind of feedback loop.
MATT GANUCHEAU: Because the more that I look at you and the more that I try to see are you doing okay, the more information I am going to get back. And it may be a technology trick, but if we can actually have technology train us to look at each other again, then it doesn't become a - I'm monitoring my scale 100 days so I can lose weight, and it’s my bubble. It becomes - how are you doing with your progress, and then how are they doing, and how are they doing? And then, let's aggregate that together and say, how collectively are we doing?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: MIT researcher Deb Roy talked about his project in a March Ted Talk.
DEB ROY: Imagine if you could record your life, everything you said, everything you did, so you could go back and find memorable moments and relive them or sift through traces of time and discover patterns in your own life that previously had gone undiscovered. Well, that’s exactly the journey that my family began five-and-a-half years ago.
BABY: Da-da, da-da, ga-ga, ga-ga, ga-ga, ga-ga.
[BABY SOUNDS UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He described how he recorded 90,000 hours of video from every angle of his son’s first years, as he acquired language. And he offered an audio portrait akin to time-lapse photography of how, over the passage of time the baby, then toddler, learned to say “water.”
BABY: Wa - treer – wuh – tih – water!
DEB ROY: He sure nailed it, didn't he?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Roy then shifted from his child’s acquisition of language to a public online response to the President’s State of the Union Address, a light show of data points coalescing around words and ideas, captured and quantified in all manner of electronic communication. He called it a real time pulse of the nation, activated by content.
DEB ROY: The idea is this: As our world becomes increasingly instrumented and we have the capabilities to collect and connect the dots, it’s like building a microscope or a telescope and revealing new structures about our own behavior around communication. And I think the implications here are profound, whether it’s for science, for commerce, for government, or perhaps most of all, for us as individuals.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all those individual unique data points have the potential to reveal our society’s workings. Good stuff. But amassing all that revelatory data demands that we all engage in staggering amounts of self-tracking. What does all that navel-gazing do to us? Gary Wolf, contributing editor of Wired and cofounder of The Quantified Self, a blog about, quote, “self-knowledge through numbers,” started this whole thing, so I pummeled him with my fears.
GARY WOLF: We hear a lot at The Quantified Self the worry that this is just the ultimate stage in a kind of narcissistic apocalypse, so that we will soon not notice anything that goes on more than a few inches from our own nose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well said. [LAUGHS]
GARY WOLF: I think that that is a fear without a foundation. And one of the things that happens when people begin to pay attention to themselves in new ways is that they see in a different light what they have in common with other people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What keeps us optimistic is a sort of fantasy of who we are and what we might become, and don't we run the risk of losing hope when confronted with the harsh numerical reality of what we really are?
GARY WOLF: I think that’s a very good question. There is a whole industry devoted to selling the possibility of change to people, for instance, health clubs, which see that huge uptick in membership after January 1st [LAUGHS]. And many, many things that we see in our consumer culture are based on hopes that never come true. And one of the things that happens in The Quantified Self is people begin to see how related all of their behaviors are and how difficult it is to change one thing in isolation, and then, at the same time, how difficult it is to change many things at once. On the one hand, this is discouraging, whether it’s weight loss or extreme improvements in happiness or great leaps of productivity. The promise of radical change is one of the things that we live on in our society. At the same time, I think trading fantasies of radical change for possibilities of small important changes is a tradeoff worth making.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think it makes us smarter than our consumer culture?
GARY WOLF: I hope it does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you track yourself over a long period of time, you will inevitably quantify your own physical and cognitive decline, right?
GARY WOLF: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s depressing.
GARY WOLF: We probably do need to tune up our capacity to handle that truth, especially as our demographic shift, at least in this country, towards an older population creates incentive to sell people [LAUGHS] fantasies that their cognitive decline is ultimately preventable, rather than merely manageable. When you fail to see those clear realistic limits, you’re vulnerable to being exploited and you’re vulnerable to terrible crashes. [LAUGHS] So I think the overall effect of this is very healthy, but not easy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think is the most powerful truth you learned about yourself from self-quantifying?
GARY WOLF: I track my exercise time and my work time, and I have a meditation practice that I track. And one of the things that became clear, that was absolutely fascinating to me, was that attempting to increase the quantity of good things that I did too much caused a complete rebound effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really?
GARY WOLF: Oh, yes. The advice to go for it, you know, this is advice that is pretty common. And in my case, at least, it was really pernicious [LAUGHS].
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And you could see really clearly that when, due to some influence or some ambition, I attempted to turn a steady habit of doing something up by a lot, a short period of increased activity, say, increased physical exercise, and then zero on the chart for weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I think I can duplicate your results. [LAUGHING]
GARY WOLF: I think it’s more common than people realize. And, you know, this is really fascinating, to think that really the advice for people who are trying to do something is do as little as you possibly can in the right direction [LAUGHS] and see what happens. And if that works, do a – another tiny little bit in that direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And only available through The Quantified Self approach.
GARY WOLF: It’s not that you can't find suggestions about what to do. The value for many people in The Quantified Self is creating a feedback loop that’s customized for them, so that they can do something as simple as find out whether what they are trying to do is working at all, and even find out what it is that they're actually doing.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gary, thank you so much.
GARY WOLF: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gary Wolf is cofounder of the blog The Quantified Self. This is On the Media