On my wrist right now I can see I have taken 7,261 steps today. This means I’m about three-quarters of my way to my daily goal of “fuel” points. I am wearing a Nike FuelBand, which, like devices from FitBit and Jawbone, has a three-axis accelerometer sensing movement. It offers an estimate of calories burned, steps taken, and a secret sauce “oxygen kinetic” metric called “fuel.”
To most people, questions like “When did you break into REM sleep last night?” and “What is your heart rate right now?” might seem as abstract as guessing the number of coins in a jar, but for a lifelogger, finding this information is as easy as pulling up data from apps and devices designed to track everyday activity.
Lifelogging is the practice of gathering personal data about oneself using computers, which can include everything from taking daily self-portraits, constant heart monitoring, or breaking the details of one’s daily existence into graphs and statistics. Out of health concern or curiosity, much of the practice is focused on the body.
Examples of that level of advanced lifelogging can be found at the website the Quantified Self, founded by Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. Now the conversation extends to a lively offline community that organizes meet-ups and conferences. Speaking at a TED-affiliated conference in Cannes in 2010, Wolf explained how he and Kelly were noticing “people were subjecting themselves to regimes of quantitative measurement and self-tracking that went far beyond the ordinary, familiar habits such as stepping on a scale every day. People were tracking their food via Twitter, their kids’ diapers on their iPhone. They were making detailed journals of their spending, their mood, their symptoms, their treatments.”
I have worn my FuelBand for just under a month, enough time to find patterns while reviewing charts on the companion iPhone app. A day cleaning and running errands earned more “fuel” than a typical workday at my desk, even when I went for a jog that morning. Whatever “fuel” measures, it is a yardstick, a way to compare today against yesterday and estimate what tomorrow might look like. If I were recording the food I eat and my sleeping patterns, I might cross-reference this information to see if there could be a relationship between sleepless nights and eating a type of food.
John Amschler, an engineer in San Clemente, who organizes Quantified Self meet-ups in Los Angeles and San Diego, is committed to self-tracking. He has been lifelogging for roughly 20 years, starting with simple CatEye bicycle computers that counted pedal rate and speed. He also recalls at a young age keeping a notebook recording daily meals to find out food sensitivities. Now he wears a BodyMedia armband nearly every day, which tracks steps, bike activity and other health-related data. Sometimes he sleeps with a Zeo Sleep Manager headband that measures frequency of brain waves, which can be used to interpret sleep states. For more intensive athletic training, he wears a device from Polar, which includes an in-depth heart rate monitor, GPS and distance tracking.
“I feel no pressure from the devices,” Amschler told me, meaning that wearing the device is not a motivating factor to run farther or race faster. Instead he wants to know when is the most ideal time to work out and how strenuously. “When I get up in the morning, I take my blood pressure. If my blood pressure is high, and my heart rate is above whatever my average comfortable heart rate is, then I don’t do a 20-mile run.” Amschler told me the kind of conversations he has at Quantified Self meet-ups might not be so different from the sort of things a community of triathletes will discuss. Intensive fitness training typically includes detailed logs of body changes and daily meals.
Unlike Amschler, I do feel some pressure from the device. I don’t lace up my running sneakers 20 minutes before midnight, if I’m halfway to my average “fuel” points, but some nights when I am just shy of the goal, I will walk the long way home. Then again, FuelBand is an entry-level self-tracking device: goals are typically reached by running an extra errand rather than an extra mile. You are more likely to find the bands glittering on the wrists of attendees at tech conferences like SXSW’s than at marathons or pro ball games. And more than actual progress reports, the numbers from the FuelBand app that fascinate me the most serve as nothing more than random trivia: a quarter of a million steps, more than 100 miles walked in total.
One of the most dedicated self-trackers is not an athlete but the pioneering computer engineer Gordon Bell. For over a decade, Bell has been the test subject of a Microsoft Research project called MyLifeBits. His every heartbeat is recorded, various devices monitor heat and sleeping patterns. He lives an entirely paperless existence and deletes nothing. Since 2004, he has worn a device called a SenseCam that takes a photo every 20 seconds.
Last year, Bell spoke at the Morgan Library in New York City about his MyLifeBits project. He called much of the data he tracks a “WORN memory — write once, read never.” Many of us, self-identified as lifeloggers or not, can relate. After all, personal data are unavoidable in the world of social media: Foursquare will tell you how many times you have checked in to a particular coffee shop. Twitter counts all of your tweets. Facebook gives you a number of how many friends you have. But should we bother to review these numbers? Do the numbers actually say anything?
Kelly and Wolf founded the Quantified Self the same year that the iPhone was launched. In the five years since then, we have seen a rapid adoption of smartphones, which help facilitate in-depth personal data tracking. Smartphone apps and sensors allow for advanced, constant data collection. It is not much effort to record the meals you ate or miles you walked, if the place you store that data is already in your hands. A device like a FuelBand makes collecting data even easier: The data are collected and synced to your phone nearly automatically.
Self-tracking will only grow more frictionless and invisible. Until a controversy last year, hidden files showed that every iPhone tracked all of its user’s location data. Apple explained it was a bug, but transparent, 24-hour GPS monitoring is probably a service many people would opt into. The same data, when gathered by and about ourselves and motivated by sincere curiosity and a desire for self-improvement, feel very different than when collected by Facebook, Google and other corporations and tech companies.
Beyond everyday personal goals and health concerns, though, the point of lifelogging seems sentimental. With increasingly seamless ways to gather daily reports on food, location, mood and activity, lifelogging risks turning into digital hoarding. Without a story or some kind of context, it says nothing more about us than a look in a detailed mirror. And like a reflection, it captures our attention — because it is about us.