back to article WTF is... the Quantified Self?

The woman sitting opposite me on the Tube is reading a book. She turns the page and I watch her hand come up to her face. She strokes her lips, and then the fingertips disappear into her mouth: she’s nibbling the nail of her ring finger. The hand returns to the book to turn the page, but before she’s read halfway down it, the …


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  1. frank ly

    re. Sebastiaan ter Burg

    Shouldn't that be Sebastiaan ter Borg?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      When I first lived in London and travelled by tube I would look around smile at people, say good morning, or comment on the weather, I even gave up my seat and let people get on first until I realised that I was being quantified as a nutter.

      Within weeks I had caught on to the fact that I should not make eye contact, always stare into space or at my feet or have reading material handy.

      All this talk about watching a woman nibbling away on the tube, I'm surprised he wasn't beaten up for perceived perving.

      1. Allan George Dyer

        Yeah, you are a weirdo... Don't you know you should be polite, give up your seat and let people on first WITHOUT making eye contact? Even watching people is OK, even accepted as normal entertainment, as long as you DON'T make eye contact!

    2. Andrew Moore

      Re: re. Sebastiaan ter Burg

      That was exactly my first thought too

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Ah, an almost perfect Web 2.0 idea

    Ah, an almost perfect Web 2.0 idea. It has the core right" "ME! It's all about my favorite subject, ME! I'm measuring everything about ME, so I can tell everyone around ME about ME! Aren't I wonderful?"

    But it lacks the most important feature of a Web 2.0 ideas - how do you sell advertising, and how do you sucker other people into it? If they cannot work that out, it will never fly. They need to have a QS social web site, with achievements, games, competition between members, and of course targeted ads based upon all that lovely data QS people are gathering about themselves and sharing free of charge.

  3. Mystic Megabyte

    jog my memory

    The next time you see joggers in the park: Apart from constantly looking at their wrist watches and looking like they are going to die, the conversation that you overhear will go like this.

    Jogger1: You know I had a whole hour of alpha waves last night.

    Jogger2: Only an hour? Well I had four!

  4. Don Jefe


    So you want to monitor everything you do, every minute of the day. That's fine. The idea of a longer life is appealing to many but where's the fun? Where's the risk? Where's the 'screw it I want to see what happens'? Depending on someone else to take the risk first and analyze the results is not only a dead end road, it is cowardly.

    Let 'them' do it, I'm not leaving my house between the hours of 3PM and 8:23AM because QuantBook says that my alpha waves show variable R type plateaus that have a negative impact on my Vitamin D receptors. Sure, average lifespans may increase, but what's the point? Where is the experience of living?

    1. Katie Saucey

      Re: Meh.

      I'm assuming you could ignore the advice.. such as I do every day with anti-smoking adverts etc. etc. Although a "this person has <'x' std> warning might be nice.

    2. Sacha Chua

      Re: Meh.

      Some people are into Quantified Self as a way to help them manage chronic disease/pain, adopt healthier habits, or live a longer life. I'm pretty lucky in that I don't have serious health issues and I don't mind living a regular sort of lifespan. I mostly track because I know my brain is fuzzy about decisions and patterns. For example, time-wise, it turns out that I spend more time with people than I thought I did (I'm introverted), so (a) when I'm at an event, I can remind myself that it's actually fun to hang out with people because I've done it before, and (b) when I feel a need to go and be quiet, I can guiltlessly go and be quiet because I know I'm not actually a recluse. =)

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Get up! Go to bed! Go faster! Stop! Eat this! Don't eat that!

    Dude - save money and join the Marine Corps.

  6. Zot

    Finding reasons for gadgets to exist?

    I wish these sad people would all get shipped off to their own silly world, where they can stand around in fields wearing useless stuff and going "ooooh, now I know what my heart rate is all the time", or whatever it is they go on about.

    The wired head guy is hilarious though, so thanks for the article Reg!

  7. GBE


    > An accelerometer recognises which way is up, and can follow

    > changes in movement.

    Well, technically, it can sense "up" _or_ it can follow changes in motion. It can't do both at the same time...

  8. Keven E.

    My sensors are getting snarky with me

    "The first personal computers, the spreadsheet, the Walkman and the iPhone didn’t arrive on the planet as norms boiled down from Big Data."

    It wasn't called that, but conceptually that's exactly where they came from.

    Just another attempt to discover "the meaning of life". Unfortunately I see the suicide rate... ok, maybe just depression on the increase because of some of the answers that'll be delivered... *answers that will suggest "paths of health and productivity", but at that point the premise will be so bought into that not choosing the *suggested path will make you a social criminal. "How dare you ignore the facts, ma'am?".

    However, I feel like there's yet hope for the world since reading the previous comments here!

    1. Cipher

      Re: My sensors are getting snarky with me

      If they pull out an e-Meter and offer to Audit you or suggest a path to getting Clear, you'll know who the are. CO$...

  9. Irk
    Thumb Up

    Creepy and banal as some of the prospects here are, there could be real benefit for people with less-understood chronic illnesses who are trying to track cause and effect between when they're healthy and when they're well. I'm thinking of Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Celiac Disease and such. I know people who are trying to remember cause and effect between a small dietary change, the weather, how hydrated they are, a spike in exercise, and why they feel like they've been steamrolled the next morning.

    Especially for people who seem to have a new mysterious trouble every other morning (fibro/metabolic disorder is pretty terrifying to witness), having data to analyze and empower yourself with ("Looks like that takeout place doesn't separate out ingredients like they promised" / "Looks like I need to space out my big shopping trips between kids' sporting events or it flattens me" / "Looks like my androgen sensitivity skyrockets in early spring") would be a triumph. The notes about liberating the info from only the doctors' hands are pretty important for people who have illnesses that still aren't fully explained. (Also, when every other day you experience a horrible yet survivable new symptom, going to the doctor gets old, especially when you work full-time.) Chronic illnesses make it hard to remember every minute detail yourself, and some things people never think to track themselves.

    So yes, I can see a clear use case for this sort of automatic data gathering, though i don't know how automated it would get, and the data security would have to be very good.

  10. packrat


    as i age, it isn't mis adventure that's trying to kill me... (from about 20-50 yrs old it's your social life, your social life and your social life that kills most.. AIDS, work-stress and traffic accidents.)

    note your father probably had smoking, drinking and being over-weight as his problems...

    And this new generation of bio-feedback control sounds more than intriguing.

    there are 43 different characteristics named, noted and used by the natural food freaks.. way beyond the color-control of the mid ages. (still used in coffee beans, i believe..)

    this way beyond galvanic skin response.. (aka part of a lie-detector) most cells change their eletrical potential when sick, for instance.

    traffic, traffic traffic. (the number, load and speed.)

    i do wonder WHICH gestalt will turn out to be the most telling/useful/ stolen.

    psycho-neurological advertising -wise, that is.


    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: beauty!

      Ah. AMfM has competition.

      It's like poetry. Not good poetry, mind, but poetry nonetheless.

  11. Cipher

    I checked this out and it appears to have quickly morphed into some kind of new friends club. I'm seeing ads online where people have connected to this, and for instance post that the like minded amongst them meet at some coffee shop or movie theatre.


  12. tamarama

    I was fascinated by the possibilities of recording all this data. Theoretically it would give you the objective data to learn something about yourself that say, a visit to the doctor would never be able to give you.

    The problem though is that even after you have all the tools and have found in yourself whatever it requires to be fastidious enough to keep track of the data day after day, you still need to work out what to do with it. Looking at the community it seems that a large number of them are keeping track of this information as an end in itself. Knowing how many smoothies I've had over the year doesn't really lead me anywhere interesting.

    To answer more interesting questions like "does my coffee intake affect my concentration" or "how many hours sleep are needed to make me feel at my best during the day" requires you to do something that most people cannot or will not do and that is cut out all of the variables that interfere with the data. Unless you want to check yourself into a lab for six months its going to be almost impossible to discover anything useful.

    1. Sacha Chua

      Advanced statistics not required

      If you're not worried about achieving Scientific Respectability (which I'm not even sure is possible with n = 1 ;) ), you can actually get pretty far just with the analysis tools in spreadsheet programs. I usually use pivot tables in Microsoft Excel to crunch my data and see, for example, how my vegetable spending compares with other categories in my grocery budget. (Motivated by that one month where we spent about as much on ice cream as we did on vegetables - both a low number - and resolved to eat more veggies!)

      At the QS Conference in Palo Alto last year, one of the presenters shared his notes from doing a Quantified Self experiment that used time-based protocols to isolate the interactions between lots and lots of interventions. I like keeping things simpler. I haven't had to use fancy statistics. I usually just look at sums, averages, medians, and very rarely, standard deviations and correlations. I'm not trying to make a scientific observation that will convince anyone (or even myself!), since those things are likely to change as my lifestyle changes anyway. It's just fun to make decisions based on actual patterns and numbers instead of my fuzzy memory.

      Your smoothie consumption might not be particularly interesting for you. Tracking how much time I spend on various hobbies helps me adjust my budgeting and expectations, so that works out quite well for me. =) It takes me less than a minute to track the clothes I wear, and that makes it easier for me to weed out things I should donate and wear infrequently-used things more often. Analyzing the data is pretty easy (drag and drop, make a graph, that sort of thing), although I suppose I like working with numbers more than most people do.

      Anyway, I hope that shows that the analysis part isn't nearly as intimidating as most people think it is! =)

  13. Naughtyhorse

    It would be really scary if it wasn't so irrelevant.

    QS - BS morel like. Bunch of neurotics all kidding themselves that by counting stuff you get to be happy and live longer, while the rest of us call it what it is; OCD

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      It's the fetishization of data. Collecting information becomes the primary means of self-actualization, because for the Quantified crowd, things only exist when they're measured and the measurements recorded.

      But that's why QS is no different from any number of other movements, found over the whole course of human history. Human beings are imaginative tool-users, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that we invest emotional energy in our fantasies, then construct tools to enable us to increase those investments. QS is simply a newer variation on the diary - a way for individuals to reify their sense of self-importance not through social interactions, but by inscribing the minutia of their lives in some durable medium.

      Of course, as some commentators have noted, there are real medical applications of this sort of personal data-collection. It could be useful for sociologists and economists, too. And for law enforcement, organized crime, totalitarian regimes... all the usual suspects.

  14. W.O.Frobozz


    ...that's how Davros got his start.

  15. Sacha Chua

    Update on time =)

    It's funny how people think time-tracking makes life feel very strict and timestarved, and I suppose the example of that jet-lag assisted schedule doesn't help. ;) It only lasted a week or so. I have since then moved to a late-morning schedule for the most part, waking up at 8 on normal days.

    In fact, time-tracking has helped me realize I have more time for sleep, relaxation, connecting, and learning than I suspected ( I'm actually much less of a "professional social media consultant" (which is inaccurate anyway; I focus on intranet social business, not external social media) and much more of a temporary semi-retiree. =) Likewise, tracking my finances helps me trim the things I don't care about as much and create space for things I do. You can use data to beat yourself up, or you can use data to make more things possible.

    I'm flying back from the UK to Toronto tomorrow, so we'll see if the flight results in another jetlag-assisted schedule!

  16. bailey86

    Screens off by 10pm...

    Screens (TV's/Laptops/etc) off by 10pm is what seems to work well for me and OH. If we've not finished a film we stop it and watch the rest on another evening. Since we still read actual books then they're allowed.

    And then due to the early night it's possible to get up earlier. Between 6.30am/7.00am and 8.30am/9.00am I catch up on El Reg and do some reading about the latest tech stuff we're doing.

    Of course - not every day - but the screen off at 10pm definitely works well for us.

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