As businesses embrace data-driven decision-making, many will be familiar with the corporate mantra: if you can't measure it, you can't improve it. Unfortunately, it's not so simple in our personal lives. Despite being swept away with the wave of optimism with plans for self-improvement, the reality is that our new year's resolutions usually evaporate by the end of January.
In 2007, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine founded the Quantified Self (QS) movement and attempted to find self-knowledge through numbers. Wearable tech and mobile apps made it possible to track our weight, heart rate, calorie intake, steps, sleep, and hydration. There are now more than 325,000 health-related smartphone apps, but can you really count your way to a better life?
Curating your life
Tech companies have built lucrative business models by tracking our every click, swipe, like, share, and almost every activity online. But users are now attempting to use their digital data to dramatically improve their health, wellbeing, and even their finances. Our data is already being tracked. But we are just beginning to look into the black mirror and analyse our actions. All in the name of self-improvement.
Welcome to life by numbers.
The yearly Spotify Wrapped feature offers in-depth stats around our listening habits, and Audible provides insights about how many audiobooks you have listened to. Banks now offer personalized insights that reveal patterns around where we spend our hard-earned cash. There are even digital wellness and productivity apps with features that can track how many emails you respond to each week.
Numbers rule our world and that includes our health. Heart rate, blood pressure, BMI, weight, calorie intake, and the number of hours we sleep are obvious examples. But there is also an argument that you can add binary thinking to the list in an age of polarization.
Lifelogging enables users to create personal dashboards containing multiple data points to uncover trends about their daily actions. With a few tweaks, it's hoped they will unlock secrets that will enable them to improve their physical, mental, and emotional performance on a journey of data-driven self-help.
The algorithm of life
The rise of the quantified baby movement has also seen many anxious parents collecting vast quantities of data around their child's behaviour and health. Some parents who attempted to embark on this journey discovered that life is much more complicated than the data their new-born baby generates.
Meanwhile, adults continue to compare stats, and many are increasingly becoming obsessed with their data. If their 10,000 steps have not been recorded on their tracking device, it can feel like it never happened as the pressure to collect as much data as possible intensifies. Some will even force themselves to go for an additional walk at night to boost their stats. But what does it mean?
Walking, sleeping, meditating, income, spending, and even moods have all been app-ified.
But we are running the risk of promoting a form of data fetishism where the worried well seek self-knowledge through self-tracking and end up self-obsessed. We need to remember that life is to be lived rather than tracked.
The risks of data fetishism
However, increasing your awareness of the amount of data being captured about you can be enlightening. It offers a timely reminder of how commercial entities, governments, research, insurance companies, and marketing agencies are capturing even more information.
For example, when a private equity firm acquired Ancestry for $4.7 billion, it also secured access to its users' DNA records. Similarly, Google's Fitbit acquisition for $2.1 billion was arguably much more about capturing millions of Fitbit customers' health data. Many believe that it's insights from this data that will be used to sell more products back to users.
It has already been widely reported that Amazon tracks employees and fires those who don't meet productivity requirements in the workplace. We are also witnessing an increase in workplace surveillance tools that will monitor usage on your workstation and deliver a productivity score to your boss.
The Quantified Self movement began with a simple mission to seek self-knowledge through numbers. A more proactive than reactive approach to healthcare and personal wellbeing is a hugely positive step forward. Increasing our self-awareness to improve our habits, finances, and lives should also be celebrated rather than feared.
However, both individuals and businesses need to be careful that they don't become obsessed with data. It would be counter-productive to live your life by numbers on a quest for continuous improvement and finding true happiness.
Sometimes, you need to go off-grid. Dare to put the tech, and all of its tracking capabilities down and go for a wander.
With no phone, smartwatch, or headphones, sometimes we all need to soak up the surroundings, flood our senses, listen to the universe and trust our instincts to live in the moment, rather than record it. Maybe we need to accept that some of the best things in life can't be quantified and prevent our obsession with data from becoming the ultimate distraction.