sunday life: can self-monitoring make me a better person?

Posted on January 30th, 2011

This week I try self-tracking with a bunch of iphone apps

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A few years ago in New York I interviewed a bunch of women who’d taken it upon themselves to track their entire lives  – via video cameras attached to their heads – so that you and I could follow online their every move. Ablutionary and otherwise. And in real-time. Wow!

These “life casters” – glossy, 20-something self-marketing machines with indulgent shoe collections – told me, like, this is the future, babe. I was perturbed and put it down to a ghastly fad. But I’ve been proven wrong. In the past few months the “self-tracking movement” has indeed gained momentum.

I swear, any moment now you’ll be bludgeoned by this 2.0 phenomenon of using various apps, sites and gadgets to log, track and analyse the minutiae of one’s life. Tim Ferriss, he of The 4-Hour Workweek mega-fame, is a self-tracker and has just published a new book, The 4-Hour Body, all about it. It went straight to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list last month (Dec). Ferriss has tracked his every workout and blood test for the past decade and used this data to develop his extreme weightloss theories. The QuantifiedSelf.com, an online community that shares the latest tracker developments, launched an Australian chapter last year, and newer, shinier apps are being launched daily.

Now I concede my tone thus far into this week’s exploration has a distinctly skeptical flavour to it. I’ll henceforth try to be more Swiss vanilla as I outline the benefits of self-tracking. Some self-tracking is out and out (over)sharing. Daytum.com and DataLogger allow you to upload what you ate for breakfast, the streets you passed or (in one case) a list of your irrational fears (in said case: 136). The data is then displayed in glorious graphs for others to check out. Dailymugshot.com sees more than 1000 people a day upload shots of themselves. They then share their archives with others. Just for pervy fun. I find something quite sweet about this. It’s a moment in reaching out, of bearing witness to each other’s lives. Sometimes we do just want to know we’re not the only one who gets pimples between the eyebrows on hot days.

The health gizmos are also very useful. I’m personally fond of my iPeriod app, which I’ve had for almost a year. It’s one of many that allow you to track your menses, sending you a polite (pink!) alert a few days out from P-day, and provides a flow (sorry) chart so that when your GP asks how regular you are you have a useful answer. Actually most of the health apps I trawled were good for this – they record patterns of illness so you can see what might be triggering them. SleepTracker is good for analyzing why you can’t sleep, WaterWorks, keeps an eye on fluid intake and CureTogether.com helps you find treatments (based on others’ data collations) and to do experiments on yourself.

Actually, there’s an app for pretty much every human neuroses or weakness in need of a good monitoring. Tight types will love Pennies (tracks expenses), dieters will feel sufficiently reigned in with Tweetwhatyoueat and FoodTracker and for that particular breed of organizer who puts Polaroid photos of their shoes on the outside of the box, DigitalWardrobe can categorise and plan your outfits.

All good stuff. But once you’ve tracked, then what? Devout trackies claim you can self-improve and tweak yourself like an engineer with a wonky widget. Researchers at Harvard refer to the “Hawthorne Effect” which states that merely engaging in an “experiment” sees individuals shift their behaviour productively.

But as I trawled this odd little cyber vortex, I found it all a little self-flagellating and sad. Philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche have talked up the value of an observed life. But a tracked life? It seems to lack flow and freedom. And posits our issues externally, beyond our true selves, as something that must be fixed (like a wonky widget).

I also wonder if so much self-focus is good for the ego. As I wondered this, I came across Ego, an app that allows you to track how many people are following you across your various online outlets (Twitter, your blog etc). I downloaded it for $2.49. But then I checked in at my MoodTracker account. And realised it made me feel sick about myself.

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  • Mia

    I absolutely hate that new(ish) check-in function on Facebook. I dont have an iPhones (deliberately!) but if I did I would probably despise all those trackinsg apps as well. I hate the idea that people can be so blase about announcing every little detail of their lives to the world. Firstly, it’s dangerous – stalkers are out there and they are scary as hell. Secondly – I cant help but think of the Wil Anderson phrase “self-loving wanker” whenever I see someone divulging too much information about themselves online.

    I dont think tracking every little thing makes you a better person in any way. Not only does it disrupt the flow of life, having to constantly stop to track every little thing we do. It can also potentially make you narcissistic, vain, boring and egotistical. Not to mention obsessive.

    My pet peeve? People who, when out with their friends, spend half the time announcing on their various social networds via iPhones how much fun they are having wherever they are. Yeah? Well get OFF your bloody phone and actually enjoy yourself!!

    Also it plays to the radically consumerist idea that we need heaps of STUFF (tracking, apps, etc) in order to be happy. I think that is the exact opposite of happiness. We need LESS crap, more meaning in our lives – and I think the iPhone generation will take a while to discover this.

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  • ansi

    I believe in maintaining a clear distinction between self-tracking and self-announcing in order to really utilize something to benefit oneself. Foursquare creeps me out, but the period and sleep tracking apps you linked to sound great because I for one know that I do not have the discipline or time to micro-manage 100% of those vital but totally uncontrollable functions!

    I’m totally the type to put polaroids in front of my shoeboxes, by the way! I like to imagine it as the low-fi version of rearranging my shoes via touchscreen remote control.

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  • http://www.quantifiedself.com/conference Alexandra Carmichael

    Hi Sarah,

    What a brilliant post! I also use iPeriod, and we’ve put together a list of about 300 self-tracking tools here – http://quantifiedself.com/self-tracking-links-to-get-you-started

    Also, we’d love it if you and other female trackers you know could come out to our first Quantified Self conference in May – http://quantifiedself.com/conference

    Thanks so much for mentioning CureTogether too! :)
    Alexandra Carmichael
    (I direct CureTogether and Quantified Self)

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