The former editor in chief of Wired set off a flurry on Twitter over the weekend when he said a years-long experiment in self-tracking was kaput.
Anderson isn’t just a member of the early-adopting technorati. He’s practically its chief spokesperson. So it was a blow to all those interested in using technology to measure themselves—sometimes called the quantified-self movement—that he’d decided his efforts had been fruitless.
He’s not the only one. This month, Computerworld caught up with Gordon Bell, an emeritus Microscoft researcher who became famous for using a neck-worn mini-camera, among other things, to record everything about his life.
Bell, now 81, told Computerworld that he’d quit, too. The whole life-logging project, said Bell, "wasn't something that was bringing a lot of value to my life.”
As described on his MyLifeBits experiment’s homepage, Bell had tried to create a version of the Memex—the early record-everything concept imagined by Vannevar Bush in 1945. Bell said he thinks that these days, smartphones are getting the job done for most people.
Facebook is a sort of life log—a record of your selfies and achievements over the years—even though linking to news or videos has started to swamp the sharing of personal details. Even so, most us are recording more and more about ourselves without really thinking about it, even if it’s just in your e-mail out-box.
So is life logging dead? I reached out to Stephen Wolfram, who may be the most measured person of all—he’s been collecting data on himself, including the time, duration, and content of every phone call he makes, since the late 1980s. “I can’t imagine I’ll stop,” Wolfram told me via one of his assistants. “My approach is to get everything automated, so I actually don't really have to do anything myself on an ongoing basis.”
Why, Wolfram says, just yesterday he was trying to remember what computer files he’d created between June 1 and June 5, 1987, and he says, “It was great to just be able to look it up.”
Wolfram is pretty serious about what he calls “personal analytics.” He pointed me to a new product, Wolfram Data Drop, which is a service for accumulating data of any kind and making it easy to analyze. You can forward all your e-mail to him or tweet the data at him, then crunch it using his mathematical software. Wolfram tells me he’ll be talking more about self-tracking on his blog in about a week.
Still, Anderson’s tweet really is a stake through the heart. Technology was supposed to offer revolutionary ways of gathering insights into one’s own behavior. In health care, in particular, billions of dollars of investment still rides on the question of whether tracking heartbeats, steps, or any other measure can improve most people’s health.
Anderson, who since leaving Wired founded a drone company called 3D Robotics, said he was after methods to let him sleep better—he’d been taking sleeping pills and other remedies—but that “sleep data is so poor” he can’t “correlate [it] with actions.” It wasn’t clear what device he’d been using to measure his sleep.
Health-tracking applications have been hit particularly hard, partly because of the general inaccuracy of physical measurements you can collect about yourself.
There are exceptions. For diabetics who need to know their blood sugar levels, life-logging and health tracking are not only reality; they're a matter of life or death. But for the rest of us, it’s less a fantastic new way of life than a nuisance getting in the way of actual experience. In response to Anderson’s tweet, Rob Majteles, a partner at Treehouse Capital, tweeted part of a poem by E.E. Cummings:
While you and I have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with?
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