The Quantified Self meets The Urban Datasexual

Lately, I’ve been writing about the Quantified Self movement on my other site, Heart Sisters. Usually this mention is merely in passing as I’m exploring what separates the average plugged-in person and the Quantified Selfers’ “worried well” tracking of everything they think, or do, or think about doing.
Committed (or self-absorbed) Quantified Selfers regularly use their computers, smartphones, electronic gadgets or simply pen and paper to record work, sleep, exercise, diet, mood, sweat, caffeine, memories, social  habits, sexual activity and pretty well anything else that’s trackable in life. 
The Qualified Self movement promises “self knowledge through numbers” for those interested in – some might say obsessed with – self-tracking. This movement started in San Francisco when Gary Wolf started the “Quantified Self” blog in 2007. By now, there are regular meetings in 50 cities and a European and American conference. So far, this self-tracking trend seems to be still largely limited to early adopters: technophiles, elite athletes and patients monitoring chronic health conditions.
As a heart attack survivor, it’s this third group I’m most interested in. Yet paradoxically, I’m also most cynical about this group’s wholesale adoption of self-tracking.
This is because, aside from a small number of tech-savvy types who also happen to be patients, doctors tell us that the average patient’s adherence (this is the word some enlightened docs use now instead of the offensive noun “compliance”) in keeping track of even the most basic health information is less-than-stellar.

We also know that only 5% of smartphone apps (including health care apps) are still in use within 30 days of initial download. Approximately 26% of apps are used only once, and 74% discontinued by the tenth use. A study last March by the Consumer Health Information Corporation concluded:

“Patients will not use a smartphone app simply because it is innovative or handy. Instead, they want something that is convenient and will help them simplify their health-related tasks.”

Consider also the concerns expressed by Dr. Joseph Kvedar of the Center for Connected Health. He wrote an essay last summer called From Couch Potato to Quantified Self about inherent challenges for health care professionals whose patients are diagnosed with chronic conditions. He starts by bluntly blaming health care providers for failing to create an expectation that patients should take charge of their own health:

“Health care providers have, consciously or unconsciously, given patients the message that once you have a diagnosis, it’s too complex to self-manage

“Our insurance plans and politicians have a hand in this too by sending out the message that sick people are victims, and health care is an entitlement.”

Dr. Kvedar then cites the distressing example of his own organization’s Diabetes Connect program.  Until recently, this promising program involved a device that measured a diabetic patient’s glucometer readings and moved them over a basic phone line to the program’s central database.

“But for a disappointingly high fraction of our patients, the step of plugging in a device to the glucometer, then to the phone line, and then pushing a single button to upload glucose readings was more work than they were willing to do.  

“Even the opportunity to see their glucose readings quantified and shared with their health care provider was not enough motivation for some individuals. 

“This experience calls into mind several interesting hypotheses about the gulf between the Quantified Selfers and our ‘average Joe’ patients.

“One explanation could be that managing chronic disease can be complex and too overwhelming for some patients to take on anything more.”

Dr. Kvedar thus manages to exquisitely grasp what the QS world may not.  In the real world, the world occupied by the cardiac patients I hear from and meet and write about each day, embracing the whizbang technology of tracking our lifestyle data can loom large as yet another task on an already overwhelming To Do list. As a heart attack survivor with ongoing debilitating cardiac issues, I call this the “One Damned Thing After Another” phenomenon.

The poster boy (they’re mostly boys) for the QS movement is arguably one Stephen Wolfram, who recently published his eye-popping data collection analysis of, among other things, how many individual keystrokes he’s made on his computer over the past 20 years.  My first reaction when I heard this was that I simply cannot even imagine having to sit next to Mr. Wolfram at a dinner party, for fear that, at any moment, he might actually start talking to me about his keystroke data analysis.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against self-tracking in general if it helps to somehow improve your life. How many of you, for example, use a pedometer to keep track of how many steps you walk each day?  Or time your runs to make sure your training’s on schedule for an upcoming road race? Or weigh yourself?  Or monitor your blood pressure or your pulse or your temperature? These could actually be useful things to know.
But should we actually share these things with the world – just because we can?
Dominic Basulto, described as a digital thinker at Electric Artists in New York, has written about this trend in his Big Think columns.

“Like it or not, data is all the rage on the Internet these days, with companies of every size working overtime on creating ways to monetize all that personal data out there. People are creating breathtaking amounts of personal data online and via their mobile devices, even if much of it is so unstructured and difficult to analyze that people sometimes refer to it as digital exhaust.”

And digital device makers continue to churn out new devices that make it cool to display this data to friends, colleagues and the occasional perfect stranger.”

Basulto compares the Quantified Selfer to what he dubs the datasexual, which is the digital equivalent of the metrosexual (the urban male obsessive about grooming and personal appearance).

“The datasexual looks a lot like you and me, but what’s different is their preoccupation with personal data. They are relentlessly digital, they obsessively record everything about their personal lives, and they think that data is sexy. Their lives – from a data perspective, at least – are perfectly groomed.

“QS proponents obsessively track every single bit of data about themselves throughout the day. True datasexuals, however, will not stop at just collecting and recording bits of data from the Web. They are obsessively driven to use a proliferating number of mobile devices and apps to make data-grooming a reality.”

He also predicts that the whole datasexual craze will start to tip into mainstream society, as more and more of us will be equipped with a breathtaking array of digital devices and sensors from “cool” companies like Apple and Nike, and then broadcasting all of our data to friends and even casual acquaintances. Self-trackers already have conferences, meet-ups and online discussion forums where they can compare notes with each other on all kinds of things you probably never even thought about keeping track of.

I can’t help, however, but agree with those like Massachusetts physician Dr. Marya Zilberberg, who has observed:

“This is a case of ‘not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

“The self-monitoring movement is just another manifestation of our profound self-absorption. When you measure something, presumably you have to react to it.

“Is the hope that this constant self-monitoring will change our behavior? Just look at how decades of focus on diets and weight have fared.

“In fact, it feels to me that this fixation on blow-by-blow narrative of our ‘health’ is quite the opposite of what real health looks like.”

Quantified Selfers are united by a desire to collect as much data as possible about themselves, ostensibly in order to make informed decisions regarding health, productivity and happiness.

But patients living with a chronic disease diagnosis may not feel quite so united.

And as all data-collectors who seek meaning from data must ask themselves:

“What exactly is the POINT of all this stuff?”

One participant at the first QS conference last year, for example, reportedly logged X-rated information on the number of his sexual partners and duration of sexual activities. Now there’s a frighteningly self-absorbed dinner party guest . . .

Another participant from the U.K. brought along his 12-foot long line graph charting the fluctuations in his mood over the previous year. And a young graduate student described the web tools he used to track his attention span.

Keen on keeping track of your weight? Quantified Selfers can now apparently purchase a Wi-fi enabled bathroom scale that not only automatically tracks your weight, but will even tweet the numbers for your Twitter followers, for those of you who honestly believe that people care.



A technology review published last summer by MIT called The Measured Life  – while enthusiastically predicting that devices to monitor activity, sleep, diet and mood could make us all healthier and more productive” – also warned of the inherent limitations in being able to use Quantified Selfers’ data to actually advance medical knowledge – like about how well we sleep, for example:

“Perhaps the most interesting consequences of the self-tracking movement will come when its adherents merge their findings into databases. Zeo researchers, for example, have already found that women get less REM sleep than men and are now analyzing whether the effect of aging on sleep differs by sex.

“But the database is obviously biased, given that it is limited to people who bought the Zeo; those people are mostly men, with ample income and presumably some sleep-related concerns.”

See also:


Q:  How have you incorporated self-tracking into your life?

13 thoughts on “The Quantified Self meets The Urban Datasexual

  1. Carolyn: Very interesting. Seriously.

    I would note that this is the 6th article I read today, and that I also spent 7 minutes reading it, and that this comment uses fifty words. And can I ask what your Twitter address is so that I can send you my weight?


    • Steve, my Twitter page is @TheEthicalNag – but please don’t send me your weight. Not that keeping up with your daily weight wouldn’t be endlessly fascinating for me, of course . . .

  2. Geez I thought it was just ME who was rolling my eyes over all the fuss about this tiresome QS stuff out there. Unless there is an actual purpose in collecting data about yourself, you should fight that narcissistic urge. And there is not ANY conceivable purpose in counting computer keystrokes….

    • No, you are not alone, RT. And who knows – perhaps there is a meaningful use for keeping track of 20 years of keystrokes?

  3. “The self-monitoring movement is just another manifestation of our profound self-absorption. When you measure something, presumably you have to react to it. Is the hope that this constant self-monitoring will change our behavior? Just look at how decades of focus on diets and weight have fared.

    I agree 100% with Dr. Zilberberg here. Not everything that can be counted, counts. And really, WHO CARES? Isn’t QS a natural outgrowth of a generation of people with obsessive Facebook status updating behaviors, the narcissistic manifestation of believing that everything about me is somehow worth mentioning?

  4. Yes I have done some self-tracking for health reasons although I have to tell you that until today I would never have identified as a “quantified selfer”. But I DO use a pedometer, I time my training runs, I weigh myself and I occasionally monitor my blood pressure (which tends to fluctuate) Does that make me a self-absorbed QS? Maybe! The big difference IMHO might be that I don’t publish my numbers for anybody else to see – nobody cares about any of it except me (and even I find it not particularly interesting let’s face it).

  5. I agree with Stefan. Keep track of health indicators and lifestyle goal milestones – but do you honestly have to broadcast results to the world via Twitter or your blog or by going to a QS conference? Trust me – nobody is that interested in us except maybe us, and even then I’m not so positive.

  6. Brilliant! It’s a generational phenomenon – this need to have one’s mobile device always in sight, always on the ready to text some earth-shatteringly important trivia, always needing to update one’s Facebook status no matter how insignificant the update. Widespread rudeness and narcissism as a social construct.

  7. Love this description. Many of my friends & coworkers could be considered urban datasexuals altho they’re too busy texting, head down, or monitoring their wristband health apps to look up and notice what sociologists and others are saying about their self-absorbed behavior. Thanks for this – very enlightening!

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