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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dark Side of the Quantified Self

By James Beckerman, MD, FACC


I admit it: I have a dysfunctional relationship with my running watch.

You may already have your own — or a similar device accessory that logs your calories, miles, steps, stairs, sleep, sitting, or even altitude. This year we’ve experienced an incredible increase in the ability and affordability of wearable technology that serves to quantify us, but it’s not a new phenomenon.

The earliest studies of pedometers demonstrated years ago that the mindfulness afforded by documentation tends to increase our overall activity levels. Fast forward to GPS locators, sophisticated accelerometers, and Bluetooth, which make it possible to develop surprisingly accurate algorithms that monitor where you go and what you are doing — with the goal of having you do more.

The next generation of gadgets will be able to dig even deeper, measuring your heart rhythm, blood pressure, blood sugar, and kidney function. Diabetics will be able to maintain their sugars at safer levels and triathletes will know when they should have their next energy drink. The quantified self is expanding rapidly.

But when does mindfulness actually become mind-numbing?

I had a chance to experience this first-hand a few weeks ago. For unclear reasons, my running watch stopped connecting with the USB port on my computer. I was unable to upload my runs for a few weeks. And in the world of connectivity, this means only one thing: my runs never happened. Because one thing I’ve learned about the quantified self is that if you can’t document it, then you can’t prove you did it. And if you can’t prove you did it, then those early mornings on the treadmill are somewhere in the ether — but unfortunately not in the Cloud.

It bothered me that I even cared. But I recognize this phenomenon as The Dark Side of the Quantified Self — there is a tendency to become so dependent on the secondary gain experienced by documenting our activities that our experience of the activity itself is tied to its documentation.

If you don’t believe me, then check your Facebook account. You and your friends are posting updates, photos, links, and check-ins. Why? Because you really care if the kid who used to pick on you in high school reads some random Jezebel blog post, watches the ukulele duet of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, knows that you’re killing time at the Gas N’ Sip, and sifts through the fifty photos you posted from dinner last night? Nope. It’s because with status updates, there are “likes.” There are comments. There are shares. It’s because we are, unfortunately, judging our own tastes, experiences, and even (gulp) the cuteness of our kids based on whether our questionably curated group of friends thinks that they are as awesome as we do.

As we use similar technology to quantify ourselves, let’s be careful that we don’t fall into the same traps. Quantity doesn’t always mean quality, especially when it comes to the self.

Even as an early adopter of Facebook and Twitter, and especially as an advocate of mindfulness as a technique to improve health outcomes, I realize our collective tendency to lose the joy of a tasty meal in the hurry to input calories, or to mistake gamification for a true runner’s high.

Sometimes I just want to enjoy the moment for what it really is, not for its “significance” in defining who I supposedly am. I’m reminded of the observation by Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe so. But I’d still give him one heck of a deal on a slightly used running watch.

Photo: iStockphoto

Posted by: James Beckerman, MD, FACC at 7:42 pm


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