The Quantified Self

Stephen Wolfram, of Wolfram|Alpha fame, has collected a lot of data about himself. A lot.

In “Personal Analytics of My Life” he lays out some of what he has collected:

One day I’m sure everyone will routinely collect all sorts of data about themselves. But because I’ve been interested in data for a very long time, I started doing this long ago. I actually assumed lots of other people were doing it too, but apparently they were not. And so now I have what is probably one of the world’s largest collections of personal data.

Every day—in an effort at “self awareness”—I have automated systems send me a few emails about the day before. But even though I’ve been accumulating data for years—and always meant to analyze it—I’ve never actually gotten around to doing it. But withMathematica and the automated data analysis capabilities we just released inWolfram|Alpha Pro, I thought now would be a good time to finally try taking a look—and to use myself as an experimental subject for studying what one might call “personal analytics”.

What follows are various visual representations of data relating to the number of emails Wolfram has received and sent since 1989 (yes, that’s right, 1989), the number of key strokes he has struck since 2002, the number of events in his calendar, the phone calls he has made, and — since 2010 — the number of footsteps he has taken. Other graphs track the usage of certain words in his documents (including hard copies that he has assiduously kept and digitized) and file types that he has edited.

The visualization of the data is interesting to a point. At the expense of sounding a bit too cynical, however, I’m not sure that it revealed anything that wasn’t relatively banal. In his defense, Wolfram more or less acknowledges as much at points and concludes with a hopeful note:

“As personal analytics develops, it’s going to give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives. At first it all may seem quite nerdy (and certainly as I glance back at this blog post there’s a risk of that). But it won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is—and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t “lost” their earlier years.”

Obviously I’m a bit skeptical. But who knows, perhaps I lack imagination.

Wolfram is not the only one at work on the “quantified self.”

Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, along with others, have been working on a project to make the immense amount of data collected about you in a digital environment work for you.  According to Wolf, “[Y]our data is not for your boss, your teacher, or your doctor — it’s for you.” Most obvious applications are, of course, for health care.  Other potential applications?

  • Facial tracking to improve happiness.
  • Cognition tracking to evaluate effects of simple dietary changes on brain function.
  • Food composition tracking to determine ideal protein/carb meal ratios for athletic performance.
  • Concentration tracking to determine effects of coffee on productivity.
  • Proximity tracking to assist in evaluation of mood swings.
  • Mapping of asthma incidents and correlation with humidity, pollen count, and temperature.
  • Gas mileage tracking to figure out if driving style matters.

Again, interesting … potentially useful in some respects I’m sure. But somehow this “self-awareness” strikes me as something a little short of what the injunction “know thyself” calls for.

There is a line from a Wendell Berry poem that I am fond of quoting, “We live the given life, not the planned.” Perhaps it needs an update:  We live the given life, not the quantified.

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