The Quantified Self Myth

The Quantified Self Movement refers to a method of self-tracking that makes use of wearables and technology to produce data on everyday activities, which can be used to make positive changes and become the best version of yourself. There are various fields that can be tracked and assessed like weight, sleeping patterns, cravings, mood and so on.

The basic assumption behind the movement is that one must measure/quantify something in order to understand it and eventually be able to change it. However, this idea of measuring such variables is not new by any means, journals and weighing machines operated under the same framework of self-tracking.

However, new devices and applications have emerged and changed the way we track ourselves for self-knowledge. Unlike the weighing machine where the data was only shown to the user, we share this data with companies to make sense of it. This carries a risk, as companies often share data with other companies for analysis and there can be instances of mismanagement. 

Read: The role of the Quantified Self in a corporate environment and what it means for IT

There is also a risk of targeted attacks by hackers. In 2018 personal details of 150 million users of MyFitnessPal (an application that helps track your calories) were stolen in one of the biggest hacks in history. One of the top 5 data breaches of all time resulted in this data being sold by hackers on the black market. This included name, age, email addresses and encrypted passwords.

Companies often merge or are taken over by other companies in which cases date is shared. Runtastic is a recent example of a mobile fitness application that was taken over by Adidas.

Read: Runtastic Acquired By Adidas for $240M

QS service providers might be forced by government agencies to share data or they might be tempted to sell it to third parties where it may be used for tailored marketing and advertising. Various other sectors like insurance and fitness would also be interested in making use of this data in countless ways. As companies are not very transparent about how they use data, it is at their discretion, not the users. Data is sold, analysed or repurposed without the user’s permission.

It is also noteworthy that the accuracy of these devices is not consistent and products from different brands may behave differently when used by the same individual. For example, some devices mistake the movement of an arm for a step. Others require users to tap a button in order to start tracking sleep, but the individual may not fall asleep as soon as they press the button. The same goes for when you wake up. This gives us data that may be rough around the edges.

Watch: Study Shows Fitbit Tracker ‘Highly Inaccurate’ | Tech Bet | CNBC

Study Shows Fitbit Tracker ‘Highly Inaccurate’ | Tech Bet | CNBC
Source: CNBC

When we talk about the effectiveness of such devices and applications, it is dependent on the individual rather than the device. The promise of Quantifying is that it will allow you to make better choices. But knowing the right choices does not guarantee that an individual will make those choices. One might be aware of the number of calories and the amount of sugar in a can of coke but that doesn’t mean that the individual will not drink it. The data needs to be backed by a change in lifestyle, motivation and energy to work out and consistency. Without these actions, a device, application or the data it analyses, does not produce any change.

It is argued that the solution to the human problem of fitness does not lie in technology and is far more complex than just acquiring data as there are various other factors involved. I have been using MyFitnessPal and I often found myself eating something that I knew would put me in a caloric surplus. The data alone was not enough to stop me from doing that. What it did do was tell me that I am in a caloric surplus, which is useful information but does not guarantee any progress. With nutritional information available for almost all food products, it is easy to track calories on your own, making the app useless as far as tracking is concerned.

Here is an account of someone who used MyFitnessPal.
Read: Crunching the calories: What I learned from two weeks with MyFitnessPal

Human emotions are a factor that these devices do not consider. Stress and comfort foods may push some individuals toward overeating. Also, individuals with eating disorders are not given personalised information according to their needs. Thus, it is questionable what the device or app considers normal/healthy (whether its weight, steps taken, or calories required to lose/gain weight).

Another problem is the fact that these apps help create an illusion of fitness which can trick the users into thinking that they are making progress, as the app congratulates you for how much you walked today or for staying under your calorie limit. Health does not work that way. It is more important to consistently push your limits in order to shock the body and eat healthy nutritious meals in order to see change. Yet, the app makes users think that they are being healthy because they walked 10000 steps every day while that might not result in any visible progress. This oversimplification of ‘eat less, move more’ is what drives the sales of these fitness devices. While these devices promise the tracking of smaller activities like household chores, it has been revealed that such low-intensity activities have no impact on improving body mass index. Thus, the illusion. 

Watch: Dangerous Side Effects Reported from Popular Fitness Trackers

Dangerous Side Effects Reported From Popular Fitness Trackers
Source: CBS New York

The structures that have led to unhealthy lifestyles and surging waistlines are not mentioned in QS discussion. The answer is deeper than the number of steps one takes in a day. When the only food options around you for miles are fast food then that’s what people will eat.

Billions of dollars that have been invested in wearable tech could have provided so much in terms of infrastructure. Community gardens, grocery stores, bike-sharing, health clinics, mental health programs, public transport improvements, the list goes on. However, that would not bring in the same amount of profit as wearable tech. While these companies claim to care about building healthy societies, they would rather design a new gadget than invest in societies.

It is reported that as time goes by, people stop wearing their fitness devices, or logging their calories in the app. This could be because of the time taking task of logging in this data regularly.

The sharing and community section of apps has now created a sense of competition among users. Who took the most steps? Who had the greatest calorie deficit? Who lost the most weight in the least amount of time? This gamification of earning ‘health points’ is not the right approach towards fitness as different people have different goals, body types, metabolisms, genetics, and so on.

With technology that is prone to error and no direct link between an increase in the amount of data causing a change in behaviour, the usefulness of QS devices is questionable. Targeted tracking like heart rate for a heart patient or a long-distance runner makes more sense than tracking calories burned while vacuuming the house. A less extreme version of QS can make more sense where one keeps a journal or tracks their diet which does not require any specialised apps or devices.

Qualities like motivation, consistency and determination, along with building good habits should be given more importance as the device on its own will not be able to do much. But paired with these qualities it can be what it is meant to be, a tool for improvement. Learning from someone who successfully dropped weight, or gained muscle, would provide much more valuable information than a self-tracking device. Working with a nutritionist and a trainer who can recommend diet plans and workouts according to your body is more important than getting the latest fancy device. Fitness is a human problem that requires a human solution.

If there were a QS tracking system that could incorporate nuances of human experience, then it would provide much more useful information. This might be possible in the future but for now, it doesn’t. Understanding such experiences and learning from them is more of a qualitative task than quantitative which is why the answer to these problems may not lie in numbers.

Laws for data processing also need to be less ambiguous and companies need to be more transparent when it comes to how they treat user data. Users need to be given more control of their information as most of them are under the impression that they have complete ownership and control over their data, while the reality, as discussed, is very different.

So, seeing as the access and giving of data can turn into a breach of privacy and such devices are not as useful as they are made out to be …are these products still worth buying?

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