The ‘quantified self’ meme

Sometimes there are memes I’ve never heard of, which I suppose fits in with their definition.

Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, on his blog ‘The Technium’, refers to a potentially fascinating meme: ‘Because tracking our data is so easy, more and more folks are doing it. Some people track only one thing at a time; a few track several variables and a very few track dozens and maybe hundreds of factors in their lives. I've been calling this habit the rise of the quantified self.’

Some people have always done this - tracking all sorts of numbers with a particular goal: weight, waist measurement and so on. For my running I use Asics’ website to keep track on my runs and compare myself to the rest of the community. Indeed Kelly mentions that ‘self-tracking often quickly becomes peer-tracking’. I also use MapMyRun and other, wealthier, friends use the Nike-chip-in-the-trainer-linked-to-your-iphone-gps-system (it may have a snappier name than that). What with the coming together of apps and geolocation trends there are clearly plenty of sources of data about ourselves.

Kelly asks some excellent questions: ‘So there are all these people very nerdily tracking themselves and downloading piles of data about themselves. Why? What are they learning? Is it worth the trouble? And should I be doing the same? Or is this the high-mark of narcissism and decadence, the end of civilization as we know it?’

The problem with being an early adopter with new technology - or perhaps this is more accurately portrayed as an early adopter of finding new ways of using existing technology - is that it can look self-indulgent and narcissistic. Remember back when people were demonstrating their ‘creativity’ with MySpace, the superiority of their entertainment preferences with Facebook, their snappy wit with Twitter... and then these things became useful.

So where will the ‘quantified self’ take us?

Perhaps I steer off in a different direction with this contention of Kelly’s: ‘On Facebook where do we end and our friends' identity begin? Are we machines or something spiritual, or even supernatural, something unmeasurable? Self-tracking and the quantified self movement are contemporary probes into this mystery...’

Are they? Isn’t that like the over-optimistic views of AI researchers in the (relatively) distant past who seemed to subscribe to the idea that raw computing power and memory size would lead to emergent intelligence. Data doesn’t equal insight…but it will be interesting to see how this space develops.

Read Kevin Kelly’s post

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Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

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