Quantified Self Utopia: What Would It Look Like?

October 27, 2012

On the QS forums, Christian Kleineidam asked:

While doing Quantified Self public relations I lately meet the challenge of explaining how our lives are going to change if everything in QS goes the way we want. A lot of what I do in quantified self is about boring details. . . .  Let’s imagine a day 20 years in the future and QS is successful. How will that day be different than [now]?

Self-measurement has helped me two ways. One is simple and clear. It has helped me be healthy. Via QS, I have found new ways to sleep better, lose weight, be in a better mood, have fewer colds (due to better immune function), reduce inflammation in my body, have better balance, have a better-functioning brain, have better blood sugar, and so on.  I am not an expert in any of these areas — I am not a professional sleep researcher, for example. I believe that this will be a large part of the long-term importance of QS: it will help non-experts make useful discoveries about health and it will help spread those discoveries. Non-experts have important advantages over professional researchers. The non-experts (the personal scientists) are only concerned with helping themselves, not with pleasing their colleagues or winning grants, promotions, or prizes; they can take as long as necessary; and they can test “crazy” ideas. In a QS-successful world, many non-experts would make such discoveries and what they learned would reach a wide audience. Lots of people would know about them and take them seriously. As a result, people would be a lot healthier.

Self-measurement has also helped me in a more subtle way. It made me believe I have more power over my health than I thought. This change began when I studied my acne. I did not begin with any agenda, any point I wanted to make, I just wanted to practice experimentation. I counted my pimples (the QS part) and did little experiments. My results showed that one of the drugs my dermatologist had prescribed (tetracycline, an antibiotic) didn’t work. My dermatologist hadn’t said this was possible. Either he had done nothing to learn if worked or he had reached the wrong answer. What stunned me was how easy it had been to find out something important a well-trained experienced expert didn’t know. My dermatologist was not an original thinker. He did what he was told to do by med school professors (antibiotics are a very common treatment for acne). It was the fact that I could improve on their advice that stunned me. I didn’t have a lab. I didn’t have a million-dollar grant. Yet I had learned something important about acne that dermatology professors with labs and grants had failed to learn (antibiotics may not work, be sure to check).

Skepticism about mainstream medicine is helpful, yes, but only a little bit. More useful is finding a better way. For example, it’s useful to point out that antidepressants don’t work well. It’s more useful to find new ways to combat depression. Two years ago, the psychiatrist Daniel Carlat came out with a book called Unhinged that criticized modern psychiatry: too much reliance on pills. No kidding. Carlat recommended more talk therapy, as if that worked so well. As far as I could tell, Carlat had no idea that you need better research to find better solutions and had no idea what better research might be. This is where QS comes in. By encouraging people to study themselves, it encourages study of a vast number of possible depression treatments that will never (or not any time soon) be studied by mainstream researchers. By providing a way to publicize what people learn by doing this, it helps spread encouraging results. In the case of depression, I found that seeing faces in the morning produced an oscillation in my mood (high during the day, low at night). This has obvious consequences for treating depression. This sort of thing will not be studied by mainstream researchers any time soon but it can easily be studied by someone tracking their mood.

In a QS-successful world, many people would have grasped the power that they have to improve their own health. (You can’t just measure yourself, you have to do experiments and choose your treatments wisely, but measuring yourself is a good start.) They would have also grasped the power they have to improve other people’s health because (a) they can test “crazy” solutions mainstream researchers will never test, (b) they can run more realistic tests than mainstream researchers, (c) they can run longer tests than mainstream researchers, and (d) no matter what the results, they can publicize them. In a QS-successful world, there will be a whole ecosystem that supports that sort of thing. Such an ecosystem is beginning to grow, no doubt about it.

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