Rational Objections to Self-Tracking

My recent story about self-tracking in the New York Times magazine attracted many thoughtful comments. I found myself especially interested in the critical comments, some of which had an underlying tone of anguish. For instance, “BT” in Ohio wrote:

How many of the “problems” in ourselves and our lives that these new
machines will track for us is caused by other machines whose original
intent was to make our lives more productive?

Indeed, we already
possess two pieces of technology (free of charge – no manual included)
which allow us to collect, record and analyze data about ourselves –
our brain and our emotions.

Let us not forget, for god’s sake,
that we are human beings and not machines! (Apologies to any machines
reading this)

There were many, many others along these lines. Some were insulting. “People who self-track are boring and ignorant,” was a common theme. But others, like BT’s, expressed a clear and well articulated worry that self-tracking is a threat to our values and our humanity.

Another commenter, Ivan Greenberg, wrote this:

This article needs a broader context. Scholars write that we now live
in a “Surveillance Society” and the efforts to use personal data by
government, business, and individuals is a reflection of this change.
It seems pathetic to “spy” on ourselves in the manner depicted in this
article.

A commenter named David worried that the accumulation of data about the past is crowding out experience of the present:

I’ve got to tell you … this article makes me sad, sad, sad. These
unfortunate people spend so much time with computers they have begun
thinking about their own person as a machine. They treat their life
like a product of rigid programming without any sort of free will or
ability to forget the forgettable past.

These people are behaving
very much like the hoarders who cannot throw anything away so their
houses soon become so cluttered with trash that it is a health hazard to
everyone.

Though many of us will find these comments overstated (a normal quality in web comments),  each contains a rational objection to self-tracking. Will self-tracking lead us to uncritically embrace new tools that will have unintended consequences? Will it make us more vulnerable to being spied on and manipulated? And how will we remember to forget?

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8 Responses to Rational Objections to Self-Tracking

  1. Robin Barooah says:

    I’ve certainly not found tracking to be purely positive, and particularly if taken to excess, but what human endeavor is not like this?
    Were there really objections that were more legitimate that simply fear of excess and the unfamiliar? I found it ironic that self-tracking was assumed to be an extension of a growing vision of the human as machine – for me it’s actually a line of defense against mechanistic influences – because when I self-track, I am the one who responds to what I learn, rather than someone else who may be following a rigid procedure..
    Of course it’s possible to become obsessive about tracking, and get lost in a sea of data and theories of self optimization, but that’s not what I’ve seen of the people who are interested in this. Many of the commenters seemed to be responding to a straw-man caricature. Since that was not what you described in the article, I wonder why this spectre arose in their minds?
    It’s just as possible to use tracking to escape from obsession, or to support a positive habit. It really depends on who you are and what you want.
    I think it is worth remembering that sometimes tracking can work like a crutch – in the positive sense of the word – something that provides support while recovering or chancing, but which should be let go of once it’s served it’s purpose.
    It should also be remembered that none of this is anything new. Athletes have been self tracking for centuries, and what are prayer beads -used across cultures for millennia- if not a self-tracking device.
    I was also struck by what felt like judgement in many of the comments. Why is it a problem if some people do in fact choose to track hundreds of variables in their lives? Why are they somehow less than an arctic explorer, an astronaut, a professor of mathematics, or a long distance truck driver – to choose some arbitrary examples of the diversity of choices that people make in their lives.
    Obviously I am not naive about how judgmental commenters online, and society at large can be, but just because it’s prevalent doesn’t make it any more meaningful.
    I’ve personally very much valued the fact that this community includes individuals who are not afraid to experiment with their lives – which by definition makes them unusual. I think It’s a form of human exploration that sis as valid as any other and hould be appreciated rather than feared.

  2. Gary Wolf says:

    I should perhaps have made it more clear that I thought the insults were ridiculous. What interested me in the negative comments was not the personal judgment, which is a known hazard in this context, but rather the story they seemed to tell about the commenters. They are responding not to self-tracking uniquely, but to some general conditions and anguishing experiences. They are themselves social sensors. If you can filter the projection and scapegoating, you hear something important. Self-tracking tools take place in the context of technological bullying, unwanted surveillance, and enforced remembering. As Robin points out, QS types are perhaps some of the _best_ prepared to defend themselves against these negative aspects of tracking. So in quoting from these comments I’m calling on my friends here to join me in thinking about these objections, which – as I’m sure many here have already noticed – are ALWAYS made whenever the topic comes up.

  3. Peter A Shanks says:

    “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Socrates, Apology 38a)

  4. larry says:

    I can see both sides. I’m an artist in heart and mind, I love ideas, concepts, and visualization but I’m bad with faithfully recording data and number crunching. It’s too mind-numbing and I lose interest in doing it for the sake of simply collecting data.
    However, I know the value of self tracking and data recording. After several bouts of depression, I went to a cognitive behavioral psychologist who advocated self-tracking. The point was not to keep numbers and gather statistical data on myself, but to become aware of my changes in mood, the thoughts I had, analyze what they were, and adjust them. It really helps. It’s not a cure-all; I have to work at it day in, day out, and when I keep track of the mood swings and reasons behind them, it informs me about the sorts of bent thinking I keen to.
    Then there’s the office, with its bad HVAC. Temperature and humidity spikes throughout the year, makes for unhappy staff and equipment woes. So, despite my dislike for data gathering, I had hydrothermometers set up in the offices to take hourly readings. I compile the data daily and record it in an Excel sheet so I can do data mashing and visualization. It’s a pain; I’d rather not do it. But I can’t make a case for better HVAC if I don’t do it.
    Which brings me to my point. As long as self tracking and data crunching serves a distinct goal, go to it. Maybe you don’t know the end, you’re just gathering data in the hopes of figuring things out. Why not. It helps make people (or yourself) aware of things they’d just as soon ignore, or write off as anecdotal.
    The spectre of having information that you’ve gathered about yourself being used by someone else for other means does loom large in people’s minds. Such data mining has been done and been abused, making people reasonably wary. But perhaps unreasonably fearful of any data collection, even for their own self awareness.

  5. M Layton says:

    “In the fields of observation chance favors only those minds which are prepared.” ~Louis Pasteur
    “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize it till you have tried to make it precise.” ~Bertrand Russell

  6. Theresa says:

    Alhough I’m a pro-tracking, pro-planning kind of gal myself, I have to say I’m underwhelmed by the responses here to the more thoughtful of the objections that were quoted, particularly related to privacy.
    Does anyone have something concrete to say about how we trackers can be less vulnerable to the misuse of our data? Or is this community full of disciples of the Zuckerberg, “Privacy-is-so-1994″ school of thought?

  7. Ted Cuzzillo says:

    Concerns about privacy are valid, especially so when self-tracking catches on in business, as I think it will. (See Datadoodle, http://tinyurl.com/22m2372) Businesses will find many benefits to self-tracking, but you just know that the data will be mined and abused. Question is how to deal with this.

  8. Rajiv Mehta says:

    Gary,
    As you suggest, when we look past the personal nastiness of those objecting to the concept of self-quanitifying, the main objections seem to boil down to (1) de-humanizing the person (treating the body, the person as a “machine”), and (2) privacy concerns.
    I think both of these concerns are legitimate, and those of us who promote the idea of self-knowledge through self-measurement would do well to deal seriously with them.
    With the “coolness” of our new measurement and analytical tools it can be easy to get carried away with our new learnings, to give far more weight to these learnings than they deserve. The best overall gauge of a person’s current and future health still seems to be their sense of their health, their qualitative and intuitive evaluation of their health. We expect that our efforts at self-quantification will lead us to better understanding of our lives (health and otherwise), but at least for now, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, it’s important to keep in mind that our human instincts are the best we’ve got. We’re supplementing our intuition, not ignoring it.
    The privacy concerns are also very real. Unfortunately today public knowledge of your life (health and otherwise) generally has more far more negative than positive consequences. Whether you’re a job seeker or a politician, any “blemish”, any deviation from statistical norm seems to be legitimate fodder for negative actions. There are legal changes that should help this situation, such as not being able to deny health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions. But we need more. We need a cultural change where we acknowledge and even celebrate individual variation, and debunk the notion of statistical norms for humanity. For example, the best way for corporations to de-stigmatize the use of their own wellness programs (for depression, for chronic illness management, for obesity, …) is for their senior executives to publicly use those programs themselves. They’re human too!
    On both of these areas of concern, the more that QS stands for learning about yourself for the benefit of yourself, and the less QS stands for gathering data about people to generate ever more population statistics, the better we’ll be able to respond to the concerns.

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