What’s Driving the Quantified Self Movement?


I’m an organizer of the current Quantified Self meetup group in Berlin. I attended the global QS conference in Amsterdam earlier this month. And when people ask me what it’s all about, I still have trouble giving them a clear answer.

Judging from the group’s website, I’m not alone. Our slogan is “self knowledge through numbers,” and the About page calls us “an international collaboration of users and makers of self-tracking tools.” That’s already a bit confusing, because quantification and tracking are two different things. They often overlap, but they often don’t.

For example, stepping onto a scale, taking a written test, running a timed race, getting your DNA sequenced — all these things will give you “self knowledge through numbers,” even if you never repeat or track them. And on the other side, much of the discussion within QS centers around self-tracking practices that are not particularly quantitative, like photo lifelogging, mood tracking or even an online dream journal. One recent survey of QS practices even included Foursquare.

In a sense, I suppose every human activity is “quantifiable” with timestamps and map coordinates and subjective rating scales, and similarly you could argue that anything you quantify even once is being “tracked,” but in both cases that seems like a stretch. If we define QS practices so broadly as to include everything that ever produces structured data about human beings, we haven’t really defined them at all.

Maybe it’s the “self” part, as subject rather than object? It’s not just that your “self” is being quantified, it’s that you’re the one doing it, or the one controlling it, or the primary audience for the data. That’s a little better, but it’s still a pretty broad definition.

Even our critics seem confused about what we’re up to. In this article, Mike Elgan mocks QSers as frivolous gadget nerds, but in this recent post he gushes about “lifelogging” devices, which are a big part of QS.

So maybe there’s no good top-down description that separates “QSers” from the rest of the population. But our attendees are hardly a random sample of the cities where we meet — nor even a random sample of the tech scene, with which we overlap heavily. So we should be able to say something more about who they are.

What I want to do here is list some of the main trends that are driving interest in QS, without endorsing or criticizing any of them. They each have positive and negative aspects that are worth exploring further. But I haven’t seen anyone just lay them all out in one place, and I think that’s a good way to start.

1. Smartphones and Social Media

This is the most obvious category, right? Throw in digital photography too. Now that we’re capturing and saving huge amounts of data about our daily lives — data that advertisers and governments are keenly interested in — it’s natural that some of us would be paying more attention to that data ourselves.


2. Better (and sexier) technology

When competitive swimmers were tracking their practice lap times with a stopwatch, taking their pulse manually, and writing it all down on a clipboard, not many amateurs wanted to imitate that routine. Now that they’re building digital goggles with a heads-up display that shows their heart rate in real time, the gadget appeal for the average fitness swimmer is obviously a lot higher.

It doesn’t exactly take Don Draper to see that it’s easier to sell cyborg goggles than clipboards, but it’s also easy to see why serious athletes want to see their heart rate while training instead of afterwards. So this seems like a good example of a tool that works across the professional-amateur spectrum: it offers an edge in training for the most serious swimmers, and a motivational aid for the least serious, with many more falling somewhere in between.

The most visible example of this trend is the latest generation of pedometers, like the FitBit or Nike Fuelband, which are always on and upload your data to websites where you can view it in slick graphs and share it with other users.


3. The rise of behavioral psychology

Over the last fifty years, old-fashioned psychoanalysis — Freud, Jung, Adler, Lacan — has increasingly been replaced by behavioral techniques, particularly the “cognitive behavioral” methods developed by Aaron Beck (above) and Albert Ellis in the 1950s and ‘60s. These involve a more scientific approach than the old “lie down and tell me about your childhood” stereotype, and a lot more recurring measurement of “negative self-talk” and other symptoms. And most of this tracking and journaling is essentially assigned as homework for the patient to do on their own.

Whether and when these methods are more effective than psychoanalysis or psychopharmacology is a whole other debate. But whatever you think of them, behavioral methods have been taking over, and like so many concepts from psychoanalysis, they’re seeping into popular culture and awareness. Behaviorism is also deeply imbedded in the more recent positive psychology movement, whose influence is all over emotion-tracking tools and other QS products — and it’s been a major contributor to…

4. The systemization of self-help

We’re a long way from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) or even Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (1989). If you want to make it as a motivational, fitness, diet or productivity guru today — at least the kind that’s taken seriously by the young and tech-savvy — then you need to provide more than just collected advice. You need a system. Specifically, you need to define your audience’s problems in the context of a system that they can then optimize. And most of the time, this involves quite a bit of self-tracking.

I’m not sure what the tipping point was — maybe Getting Things Done (2002), or Crossfit (~2000)? — but at this point, systematized self-help is everywhere you look, from Tim Ferriss to Lifehacker. And it overlaps very heavily with QS. At our meetings in Berlin, I’d say Ferriss’s books are responsible for more new attendees than any other single cause.

5. Health care reform

The last few years of policy debate in the US have prompted a widespread recognition of the diminishing returns to medical research and treatment throughout the developed world. We’re spending more and more to achieve smaller and smaller gains. So a lot of attention (and money) has turned to “lifestyle” factors. If we can get people to drink less, smoke less, eat less, exercise more, take their maintenance medications, and so on — thereby keeping them out of the doctor’s office in the first place — we can obviously make much bigger gains in population health at a lower cost than by treating them once they’re already sick.

Easier said than done, of course. Some approaches involve top-down policies, like New York’s already-infamous beverage size regulations. But others involve getting people to track their behavior on an individual level. And if you can develop a good tool for doing this, it’ll be increasingly possible to get private and public insurance companies to reimburse it for their members, like they already do sometimes for gym memberships. And that makes entrepreneurs’ and venture capitalists’ ears perk up, because insurance reimbursement is a tidal wave of revenue that can be very sticky for any provider that captures a little bit of it.

6. Techno-futurism

This includes  singularitarians, transhumanists, “radical life extension” advocates, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and many more. They trace their roots to computer science, cognitive science, genetics, science fiction, libertarian philosophy, artificial intelligence research, the human potential movement of the ‘60s, and countless other sources.

I don’t mean to imply that these movements agree with each other about everything, and I don’t mean “techno-futurism” as a skeptical term necessarily; it’s just the only umbrella term I can think of. In any case, these groups are definitely overrepresented within QS compared to the population at large, probably even more than they’re overrepresented in tech. For some, self-tracking technology is just a means to an end, but for others it seems to have real ideological significance in itself. And the natural enemy of the techno-futurist is…

7. Humanist skepticism

These are the social scientists, philosophers and other academics who worry about the ethical and societal implications of self-tracking technology, and technological values replacing human ones:

Like the previous group, this one is hard to generalize about. They’re not all academics, of course; some are writers like Evgeny Morozov and technologists like Jaron Lanier. And some walk a pretty fine line between supporting the new technology and worrying about it — as Peter Kramer did in the ‘90s with antidepressants, for example.

The techno-futurists point out that these kinds of critics have surfaced around every new technical or scientific advance in the past — which is true, of course, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been wrong. And this kind of critical evaluation of technology is an important part of QS. I don’t think we always do as good a job of integrating it as we could, but that’s a subject for another post.


I think that covers most of the relevant trends, but I’m sure I’ve missed a few. And some of the most interesting people I’ve met in QS are the ones who don’t quite fit into any of these buckets, and are pursuing their own idiosyncratic visions.

Anyway, I’m sure that some readers have bristled at my simplistic, unfair description of whatever subgroup or trend they identify with themselves. And I have been a little simplistic. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’m hardly an expert in any of these individual subjects. But hopefully this is a good starting point to give outsiders a better idea of what QS is all about.

One thought on “What’s Driving the Quantified Self Movement?”

Comments are closed.