Who wouldn’t want a device that makes us fitter and happier? People have been trying to develop means to facilitation of their goals. Common promise is that the more you are aware of yourself, for example your weight, the faster you become a better version of yourself. In fact, the positive association between keeping track of one’s weight and quality of life has been known since 1890s when the bathroom scales were invented. We can see examples of Health-o-Meter advertisements from 1925, in the article of Kate Crawford from Microsoft Research, that emphasizes the idea that being able to measure your weight every day in your home will help you become happier and fitter.
Nowadays with the help of advanced technology this trend, called the quantified self – also known as self-tracking, life logging, personal analytics, or personal informatics – has the same underlying idea and promises: reaching our best self. In general, self-tracking activities are defined as gathering data about oneself and analysing those data to produce various forms of interpretations for the user. Tracking devices such as a bracelet can get the information automatically and upload it to various mediums, whereas smartphone applications require users to enter the data manually. Self-tracking applications can be designed to track anxiety, mood, sleep, physical activity, food intake, and blood pressure. In fact, it is possible to track any kind of information that can be quantified. For example, iHealth offers technologies that provide scales which can be connected to iPhones, iPods and iPads to monitor the function of the bodies (for further information: http://www.ihealthlabs.com). The most popular wearable self-tracking device seems to be the Fitbit, followed by Digifit. Number of specifically designed devices like Jawbone’s Up, Nike Fuelband and various brands of adhesive patches for self-tracking is also constantly increasing. A smartphone application called Moodpanda is one of the most popular ones among mood tracking applications. Over 500 self-tracking tools with many different topics can be viewed on the following link: http://quantifiedself.com/guide/tools?sort=reviews&pg=1.
The fact that people have had the same motives to keep track of their self in the form of numbers since early 1900s raises the question why people feel the need to keep track. This question has not only been asked by designers of the products, but also by sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists. Deborah Lupton, a professor of sociology, from News & Media Research Center in University of Canberra, conducted research studies on self-tracking technologies. According to Lupton, self-tracking applications provide us clean and orderly information about the body, which is normally quite messy and not so easy to understand. Studies of Minna Ruckenstein, a cultural anthropologist from University of Helsinki, suggest that users are motivated by visualized presentation of their personal data. Users reported that once a particular part of the body was examined, they became more aware of what they do and think of that function. Additionally, the part of the body expressed in numbers gained a new meaning and became more important as well as the numbers representing it. In other words, these applications enhance people’s self-awareness by enabling them to see and track certain aspects of everyday life that otherwise may remain unnoticed. Majority of research findings on this topic agree on the fact that self-tracking behaviour helps people feel more in control of their lives. As a matter of fact, according to Lupton’s study findings, the main emphasis behind prompting individuals to engage in self-tracking is the idea of self-improvement and reaching the best self, which is known to be a popular goal shared by many individuals in most Western cultures. Studies of Ian Li, from Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, also support the notion that behavioural change is the primary motivation of individuals in using the self-tracking applications. Some users reported that merely the act of tracking the behaviour was a source of motivation. For instance, tracking how much one walked provides the motivation to walk a little further each day.
It is not surprising that there is an on-going debate on the usage and benefits of devices. While their accuracy and practicality is being discussed, they are also accused of being dehumanizing and oppressive. Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the quantified self-movement, states that although numbers are abstract and provide mechanical type of information, they have the power to enable testing, comparisons and experiments. Wolf adds that problems when reflected in numbers might seem less emotional, but become traceable in intellectual terms, which is by far more useful in science and business. These debates will continue and become more and more heated with advancement of these technologies in the future.
Whatever conclusion is reached, there is no doubt that it is important to uncover the motives of individuals in using these technologies and their consequences.
About the Quantified Self. Quantified Self. Available at http://quantifiedself.com/about, accessed 18 June 2015.
Austin, S. B. (1999). Fat, loathing and public health: The complicity of science in a culture of disordered eating. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 23, 245-268. Available at http://0-eds.b.ebscohost.com.library.metu.edu.tr/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=dd24bb19-b83b-4ea4-88a0-a8cc7e51feb4%40sessionmgr110&hid=117 accessed 30 June 2015.
Crawford, K., Lingel, J., &Karppi, T. (2015). Our metrics, ourselves: A hundred years of self-tracking from the weight scale to the wrist wearable device. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 18, (4-5), 479-496. Available at http://ecs.sagepub.com/content/18/4-5/479.full.pdf+html
Fox, S., & M. Duggan. 2013. Tracking for Health. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Accessed from: http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/PIP_HealthOnline.pdf
iHealth. 2013. http://www.ihealthlabs.com/
Nafus, D. and Sherman, J. This one does not go up to 11: the Quantified Self movement as an alternative data practice. International Journal of Communication, 8 (2014), 1784-1794. Accessed from http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/viewFile/2170/1157, Accessed 22 June 2015.
Li, I., Dey, A., and Forlizzi, J. (2010). A stage-based model of personal informatics systems. In Proc. SIGCHI 2010, ACM Press, 557-66. Available at http://www.personalinformatics.org/docs/lab/2010-chi-ianli-stage-based-model.pdf, accessed 19 June 2015.
Lupton, D. (2014). Self-tracking cultures: Towards a sociology of personal informatics. Peer Reviewed Conference Paper. Available at https://simplysociology.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/self-tracking-cultures-ozchi-conference-paper.pdf
Lupton, D. (2013). Quantifying the body: Monitoring and measuring the health in the age of mHealth technologies. Critical Public Health, 23, (4), 393-403.
Quantified Self Criticism, Retrieved from: http://wellbeing.media.mit.edu/2014/02/26/quantified-self-criticism/ Accessed 22 June 2015.
Ruckenstein, M. (2014). Visualized and interacted life: Personal analytics and engagements with data doubles. Societies, 4, 68-84.
Wolf, G. (2010). The data-driven life. The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html, accessed 18 June 2015.
Torgan, C. (2012). A shiny new activity tracker: technology as talisman? Kinetics. Available at http://www.caroltorgan.com/shine-activity-tracker/, accessed 19 June 2015.