Quantified Savagery

Where Personal Data Runs Wild

Healthy Isn't a Place You Go To

In this post, I expand on some earlier thoughts about the nature and purpose of the Quantified Self movement. In looking at personal identity from a Quantified Self perspective, I argue that self-tracking gives us a means for reclaiming control of that identity.

The Revelation

When I started down the philosophical path that ultimately led into the Quantified Self vortex, it was with a simple question:

How do we build game-like systems to improve our lives?

This isn’t a new question. The Reality Is Broken thesis has long since reached tech geek mantra-hood. SuperBetter and similar games have broken ground on the concrete implications of that mantra.

Much more recently, during a walk home with Valkyrie Savage, I had another thought:

Self-tracking makes self-expertise possible.

We may self-track for a variety of reasons, including:

  • addressing symptoms: perhaps I feel overweight, underslept, or stressed out.
  • improving habits: perhaps I want to exercise more, drink less, or read a book each month.
  • satisfying curiosity: perhaps I’m fascinated by data visualization, psychology, or lifehacking.

Whether data collection is your focus or merely an unintended side effect, this data makes it possible to know ourselves in new ways. This self-knowledge is different from expert other-knowledge.

Self-Knowledge and Other-Knowledge

Doctors are trained to recognize general patterns of the human body. From a diagnosis perspective, your medical history is only interesting insofar as it allows you to be grouped together with similar patients. That grouping is a pattern profile in your doctor’s mind, and it informs their expert other-knowledge of you.

By contrast, you have intimate self-knowledge of your body and its symptoms. When do they occur? After eating which foods? In which locations? How often? How severe? The doctor will often ask these more technical questions to fill in the data missing from their patterns. There are, however, important questions that are often either missed or left barely explored:

  • What do those symptoms cost you? What do they prevent you from enjoying in life? If you could solve one of them, which would it be?
  • If they are preventable, why do you continue the behavior that causes or aggravates them? What is the best way to get you to stop?
  • How do these symptoms impact those around you?
  • Do you really need medicine to deal with these symptoms? Could they be solved with more sleep? More exercise? Healthier diet? What is the least invasive and costly means of addressing your issue?
  • If you do need medicine, how can you be convinced to take it?

Many of these questions hinge on motivations, emotions, and relationships. As questions of identity, they may be more likely to lead to lasting treatment. Too often, though, we cede complete control of personal questions to doctors, teachers, and other experts. In doing so, we give up the power to decide which questions are important and which are not.

This is not to say that experts are without value. In their current incarnation, they fulfill much of the promise of the Quantified Mass. Their (hopefully) extensive training equips them with powerful insights rooted in centuries of scientific inquiry. Powerful as those insights are, however, they are ill-suited to address more personal questions in a way that is meaningful to you.

Personal Identity And Place-Ism

I titled this post:

Healthy Isn’t A Place You Go To

What do I mean by that? Consider these popular sentiments:

  • To become fit, I go to the gym.
  • To get well, I go to the doctor.
  • To learn, I go to school.

I’d argue that a lifetime of handing over control of these personal questions conditions us to associate states of being (fitness, wellness, learnedness) with places (gym, doctor, school). Those states become mechanical attributes devoid of identity, knobs we go elsewhere to have others tweak for us. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this place-ism.

This isn’t just philosophical posturing. There is growing inquiry into the hypothesis that behavior and belief change are linked. A number of theories, such as self-determination theory and the Transtheoretical Model, have sprung up in an attempt to rigorously define these processes of change.

If that’s the case, training ourselves to externalize behavior change can’t be good, as it necessarily reduces our capacity for belief change.

Beyond Place-Ism…

Self-tracking allows us to tie mechanical questions - where? when? what? how much? - to personal questions and vice-versa. Data help us answer personal questions. Personal questions help us decide what data are needed to answer them. This cycle makes us active participants in our own lives.

What role do experts have in this cycle? The point is not to exclude them entirely, but rather to change their role from identity gatekeepers identity consultants. By treating them as consultants, you seek advice of your own free will and with the understanding that some of it may not be applicable to you. You decide what role the consultant plays in your health, your education, your overall identity.

What if learning were not a place, but a state of being?

This reminds of Feynman’s spinning plates, yet another demonstration of the power of pervasive learning. That word pervasive is crucial. In this state, there are no boundaries on when, where, or from what learning arises. There is no schedule for learning. There is no switching between learning on and off modes, only a variation in intensity.

…And Back To Gameplay

How are

How do we build game-like systems to improve our lives?

and

Self-tracking makes self-expertise possible.

related? Self-expertise is the improvement. It breaks place-ism, casts self-knowledge and other-knowledge as complementary equals, and moves us towards active participation. Self-tracking is pervasive gameplay, and that’s awesome.