The Quantified Self: Making the Personal Public

Please enjoy this, rather polarizing, cometary on the Quantified Self Movement. While I’m concerned that concepts like the “unraveling effect” run the risk of stunting innovative approaches to health and identity,  Peppet brings up critical issues that both individuals and legal systems must address as society starts to relate to digital tools in new ways. — Deb (At the time of writing this, my daily step count was 2739)

Human instrumentation is booming. FitBit can track the number of steps you take a day, how many miles you’ve walked, calories burned, your minutes asleep, and the number of times you woke up during the night. BodyMedia’s armbands are similar, as is the Philips DirectLife device. You can track your running habits with RunKeeper, your weight with a WiFi Withings scale that will Tweet to your friends, your moods on MoodJam or what makes you happy on TrackYourHappiness. Get even more obsessive about your sleep with Zeo, or about your baby’s sleep (or other biological) habits with TrixieTracker. Track your web browsing, your electric use (or here), your spending, your driving, how much you discard or recycle, your movements and location, your pulse, your illness symptoms, what music you listen to, your meditations, your Tweeting patterns. And, of course, publish it all — plus anything else you care to track manually (or on your smartphone) — on Daytum or mycrocosm or me-trics or elsewhere.

There are names for this craze or movement. Gary Wolf & Kevin Kelly call this the “quantified self” (see Wolf’s must-watch recent Ted talk and Wired articles on the subject) and have begun an international organization to connect self-quantifiers. The trend is related to physiological computing, personal informatics, and life logging.

There are all sorts of legal implications to these developments. We have already incorporated sensors into the penal system (e.g., ankle bracelets & alcohol monitors in cars). How will sensors and self-tracking integrate into other legal domains and doctrines? Proving an alibi becomes easier if you’re real-time streaming your GPS-tracked location to your friends. Will we someday subpoena emotion or mood data, pulse, or other sensor-provided information to challenge claims and defenses about emotional state, intentions, mens rea? Will we evolve contexts in which there is an obligation to track personal information — to prove one’s parenting abilities, for example?

And what of privacy? It may not seem that an individual’s choice to use these technologies has privacy implications — so what if you decide to use FitBit to track your health and exercise? In a forthcoming piece titled “Unraveling Privacy: The Personal Prospectus and the Threat of a Full Disclosure Future,” however, I argue that self-tracking — particularly through electronic sensors — poses a threat to privacy for a somewhat unintuitive reason.

I do not worry that sensor data will be hacked (although it could be), nor that the firms creating such sensors or web-driven tracking systems will share it underhandedly (although they could), nor that their privacy policies are weak (although they probably are). Instead, I argue that these sensors and tracking systems are creating vast amounts of high-quality data about people that has previously been unavailable, and that we are already seeing ways in which sharing such data with others can be economically rewarding. For example, car insurance companies are now offering discounts if you install an electronic monitor in your car that tells the insurer your driving habits, and employers can use DirectLife devices to incentivize employees to participate in fitness programs (thereby reducing health insurance costs).

Such quantified, sensor-driven data become part of what I call the “Personal Prospectus.” The Personal Prospectus is a metaphor for the increasing array of verified personal information that we can share about ourselves electronically. Want to price my health insurance premium? Let me share with you my FitBit data. Want to price my car rental or car insurance? Let me share with you my regular car’s “black box” data to prove I am a safe driver. Want me to prove I will be a diligent, responsible employee? Let me share with you my real time blood alcohol content, how carefully I manage my diabetes, or my lifelong productivity records.

All of this seems like merely (quirky) personal choice at first, particularly for those with “good” information who begin the trend by self-quantifying and then using that data to personal advantage (through discounts, etc.). But personal choice begets privacy issues if these information markets begin to unravel. Unraveling occurs because when a few people with “good” information can verifiably measure, track, and share information, everyone (even those with “bad” information) may ultimately find they have little choice but to follow suit. If all candidates for a job are willing to wear a blood alcohol monitor and you’re not, the negative inference drawn about you is obvious. If all the safe drivers quickly sign up for “discounts” that require electronic monitoring of their driving, those who refuse will quickly find themselves paying what amounts to a penalty. (For my recent post on unraveling as corporate strategy, see here.)

There are harms here beyond the pressure to consent. If you were somewhat horrified by the first paragraphs of this post — if you thought “why would anyone want to track so much data about themselves?” — the unraveling threat may particularly bother you. As Anand Giridharadas recently asked in a (short and worth watching) discussion of the quantified self movement, taken together these devices “imply an approach to life that may be something different than what we want life to be about … Because we have these things we’re just doing them, without thinking about whether we want to become the kind of people who do them.”

Your choice to quantify your self (for personal preference or profit) thus has deep implications if it necessitates my “choice” to quantify my self under the pressure of unraveling. What if I just wasn’t the sort of person who wanted to know all of this real-time data about myself, but we evolve an economy that requires such measurement? What if quantification is anathema to my aesthetic or psychological makeup; what if it conflicts with the internal architecture around which I have constructed my identity and way of knowing? Is “knowing thyself” at this level, and in this way (through these modalities), autonomy-enhancing or destroying, and for whom? What sorts of people — artists? academics? writers? — will be most denuded or excluded by such a metric-based world?

For anyone who has read Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, it’s not hard to see a future in which obsessive measurement — of ourselves, others, everything — may leave some feeling reduced immeasurably by the hegemony of the measurable. Because of the unraveling effect, these reluctant late adopters may not have a choice; as many choose to quantify the self, all may have no real choice but to follow …

Scott Peppet is Associate Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School. His most recent scholarship focuses on informational privacy and structural changes to information architecture. This post originally appeared in the Concurring Opinions blog and The Health Care Blog.

2 Responses to The Quantified Self: Making the Personal Public

  1. As a card carrying member of the Quantified Self movement and self-identified number nerd I wanted to offer up some thoughts.

    I agree that we are living in a precarious time where data about ourselves that was once private, and in most cases unobtainable, is become public. It might not be public in the way that most people view public, but public in that it is shared knowingly or unknowingly with third parties. Yes, that is scary. Yes, those third parties could use that data for terrible things like raising your insurance rates. But, we must not discount the possibilities that personal behavioral data collection has the opportunity to yield.

    Image in a world in which your physical activity data is transferred directly to your electronic medical record. You physician could look at you exercise patterns and help refer you to trained professionals who will help you increase your fitness to prevent cardiovascular disease. Imagine a future when we build the algorithms that with enough data could help us nudge individuals towards living more full, healthier, connected lives (connected socially not Internet-connected). I want to live in that place. But not without a major stipulation.

    I own and control my data. Every number in the database. Every sensor. They are mine and I use them and share them as I choose. I truly believe we are moving towards this reality. There is reason three (or four) college kids in New York were able to raise $150k from random strangers in order to build a private node-based online social network system (Diaspora). People want to own their data. Yes, its only a few people making waves about data privacy now, but soon those waves will grow.

    Lastly, I want to comment on the notion concerning the type of people who want to live a quantified life. First, I believe everyone already is living quantified lives, at least to some degree. If you've ever balanced your checkbook and decided to spend less on fast food next month then you're practicing within the bounds of Quantified Self. So let's put that notion that Quantified Self is only for the nerdy early adopters away. Yes, we use lots of crazy gadgets and gizmos, but that just puts us at a higher level not in a whole other category.

    Second, most people are inherently curious about something in their life. Remember when you were a child? You were constantly asking questions and trying to figure things out. Somewhere along the way that curiosity was stripped away from you. Those lucky few who held on to it and learned how to refine their process for figuring things out became scientists (or engineers, or developers or whatever you want to call them) and their process got a name: The Scientific Method. Think again about the Quantified Self-ers out there. They are no different than a six-year old asking "Why?" We just use more sophisticated tools to try and answer that question.

    Third, self-quantification is a great tool for impacting change. In fact, it is one of the core methods used in behavioral interventions. Want someone to walk more? Just give them a pedometer and they will. Want to eat better? Just start writing down your daily food intake. Most behavioral psychologists will tell you though that just that, a tool. Something to be used to initiate a change. To create understanding and develop knowledge of relationships (e.g. every time my mom's in town my blood pressure is higher). Just like most tools, your put them away once the job has been done. After you build the house there is not need to continue carrying the hammer. I see self-quantification in this way. Periods of intense data gathering to establish patterns and learn methods for creating new ones. Once those new positive patterns become ingrained then quantification can be reduced (or in some cases stopped altogether).

    Lastly, I believe that quantification of the personal, whether it be the sensual ( or the munade (, helps us move society forward. NBC got it right when they decided the run those PSA with the tagline, "The More You Know." The more we know about ourselves, about others, about the world will help us. Will there be people that exploit that knowledge for personal gain? Of course. But, there will also be that ever expanding group of people who use it to help. They help us realize that if we all drove one less day a week then we drastically reduce carbon emissions. They are the ones who help us understand that a device that helps people reach 10,000 steps per day can reduce the worldwide burden of obesity. I believe those people. The "Quantifying for Good" people will win. They don't have the money, they may not have the resources, but they have the desire. And unlike money in a bank or suits in cubicles that desire is growing exponentially.

    Every day people ask themselves "Why are we here?" "What is the meaning of life?" Well, You can't you answer the question unless you actually ask "Why?" I would even venture to say that we already have the answer - we are here to ask why. Quantified Self is just one way to help us do that.

  2. Mark Lambert says:

    Fantastic article and a very important topic that is often left by the wayside as progress rockets forward, IMO.

    I am far from a luddite, quite the opposite I have built my life and career around technology and have considered myself a technologist since the day I opened my first computer, a Timex Sinclair 1000, back in 1979.

    That said, I think the first response to this posting perfectly illustrates the concern expressed by the article.

    With all due respect to Ernesto, who I believe is well meaning, the response from the folks who are passionate about these "advancements" is almost always a kind of subtle condescension. The message seems to be "well you just don't realize how good this is for you".

    That type of sentiment, coupled with jarring and radical change, is always cause for concern, IMO, and is specifically why the scenario you imagine as a worst case (societal pressure towards a way of living that the majority *genuinely* don't want) is something absolutely worth fearing and guarding against.

    What makes it worse is that libertine "public life" advocates will push a utopian vision where all of mankind's problems are solved if only folks who aren't so enthusiastic can "get over" privacy concerns and be "part of the human community"

    The reality, though, is that *no one* can stop insurance companies, healthcare agencies, central govts/nanny states, large commercial entities, et al from being the ones who *most* enthusiastically use this data.

    The quintessential "you" is in *no way* the owner of her own data. The owner of the data is whoever has the power to use it. What this brave new era threatens to do is place yet another weapon in the hands of those who have been traditionally the most abusive of personal liberty.

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