Essay:
The Quantified Self
For a growing community of self-trackers, data holds the answer to life's biggest questions.

  • Words Annabel Bai Jackson

In my local subway station, a billboard advertising a private diagnostic service shouts a compelling slogan: “What if your body could tell you all its secrets?” According to this tagline, your body is covert and illegible, stubbornly foreign flesh. You might muddle through symptom and sensation to try and understand it, but the method is always guesswork and the result dubious. We take this logic with us when we can’t decide whether to blame our morning fatigue on fractured circadian rhythms or late-night eating, or attribute a spike in menstrual pain to the catchall culprit of “hormones.”

For the laypeople among us, our bodies resist interpretation. But a loose group of scientific researchers, enthused techies and amateur analysts believe they have the key to decoding them: data, collected by the individual through a process called “self-tracking.” Connected to the Quantified Self (QS) movement, a phenomenon led by former Wired editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly which ...

( 1 ) The four principles of any self-tracking project per the QS guidelines include questioning, observing, reasoning and consolidating insight.

( 2 ) Most tracking devices are worn around your wrist. In 2015, however, Apple created patents for three different AirPod-style earbuds, each equipped with sensors capable of gathering health data such as blood oxygen levels, heart activity, stress levels and body temperature.

( 3 ) A similar project, the Zero Five 100 challenge, saw Dr. Ian Lake, who has Type 1 diabetes, run 100 miles over five days on zero calories to demonstrate how stored fat and ketones can be used as an alternative to traditional carbohydrate-based fueling.

( 4 ) Self-tracking is often referred to as “personal science"—a term used in a 1991 paper by Brian Martin and Wytze Brouwer, who called for more narrative within science education on the basis that highly rational scientific principles are better learned by children when couched in a relatable story.

( 5 ) One benefit of tracking apps is the sense of community they can create. In 2021, The New York Times reported on how the app Whoop, which shares fitness data among friends, allowed men to develop support groups and check in with each other if, for example, they noticed a friend had not been sleeping well.

( 6 ) In one recent study from Rush University Medical College and Northwestern University, researchers warned that sleep-tracking tech could provide inaccurate data and worsen insomnia by making people obsessed with perfect slumber, a condition they called orthosomnia.

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