The Pleasures of Self-Tracking

A couple of days ago the NY Times ran a story about smart homes and energy savings. Bottom line:

Independent research studying hundreds of households, and thousands in control groups, found significant energy savings — 7 to 17 percent on average for gas heating and electric cooling. Yet as a percentage of a household’s total gas and electric use, the reduction was 2 to 8 percent.

A helpful savings, but probably not enough of a monthly utility bill to be a call to action. Then, there is the switching cost. Conventional thermostats cost a fraction of the $249 Nest device.

That’s not particularly interesting, but tucked in the story there were a couple of offhand comments that caught my attention.

The story opens with the case of Dustin Bond, who “trimmed his electricity bill last summer by about 40 percent thanks to the sensors and clever software of a digital thermostat.”

A paragraph or two on, the story adds, “Mr. Bond says he bought the Nest device mainly for its looks, a stylish circle of stainless steel, reflective polymer and a color display. Still, he found he enjoyed tracking his home energy use on his smartphone, seeing patterns and making adjustments.”

The intriguing bit here is the passing mention of the pleasures of data tracking. I’m certain Bond is not alone in this. There seems to be something enjoyable about being presented with data about you or your environment, consequently adjusting your behavior in response, and then receiving new data that registers the impact of your refined actions.

But what is the nature of this pleasure?

Is it like the pleasure of playing a game at which you improve incrementally until you finally win? Is it the pleasure of feeling that your actions make some marginal difference in the world, the pleasure, in other words, of agency? Is it a Narcissus-like pleasure of seeing your self reflected back to you in the guise of data? Or is it the pleasure of feeling as if you have a degree of control over certain aspects of your life?

Perhaps it’s a combination of two or more of these factors, or maybe it’s none of the above. I’m not sure, but I think it may be worth trying to understand the appeal of being measured, quantified, and tracked. It may go a long way toward helping us understand an important segment of emerging technologies.

Happily, Natasha Dow Schüll is on the case. The author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (which also happens to be, indirectly, one the best books about social media and digital devices) is working on a book about self-tracking and the Quantified Self. The book is due out next year. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article about Schüll’s work:

She was subsequently drawn to the self-tracking movement, she says, in part because it involved people actively analyzing and acting upon insights derived from their own behavior data — rather than having companies monitor and manipulate them.

“It’s like you are a detective of the self and you have discerned these patterns,” Ms. Schüll says. For example, someone might notice correlations between personal driving habits and mood swings. “Then you can make this change and say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to drive downtown anymore because it makes me grumpy.’”

One last thought. Whatever the pleasures of the smart home or the Quantified Self may be, they need to compensate for an apparent lack of practical effectiveness and efficiency. Here’s one customer’s conclusion regarding GE’s smart light bulbs: “Setting it up required an engineering degree, and it still doesn’t really work [….] For all the utopian promises, it’s easier to turn the lights on and off by hand.”

The article on Schüll’s forthcoming book closed with the following:

But whether these gadgets have beneficial outcomes may not be the point. Like vitamin supplements, for which there is very little evidence of benefit in healthy people, just the act of buying these devices makes many people feel they are investing in themselves. Quantrepreneurs at least are banking on it.

3 thoughts on “The Pleasures of Self-Tracking

  1. “The quick of self is there. You need’t try and get behind it. As leave try to get behind the sun.”

    -D.H. Lawrence

  2. Thanks; I’ve enjoyed the last several posts. Whether the pleasures you refer to are fleeting, as in the case of Nest, or sustained, as perhaps in the case of the smartphone, I agree that they’re worth investigating. From what I’ve read of it, Schüll’s work gives some instructive examples of how addiction has become the new model for consumer/product interaction. There was a book that came out recently (“Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”) celebrating this new paradigm in marketing. Certainly, it’s the obvious next step for those infatuated by the “nudge” approach.

    Anyway, Schüll does a great job of demonstrating why the smartphone, with its ability to offer perpetual novelty via simulation, is a perfect way to capitalize on the cycle of ephemeral bedazzlement-to-buyers remorse without having to change the product. In fact, in the best examples of this—Candy Crush, for instance—the product itself is just shoddy window dressing for the body’s own biochemical reward system. It’s clear that the goal is to get consumers on an indefinite subscription to a pleasure button, and if it can be done without actually having to manufacture much of anything, all the better.

    As products that induce more blatantly addictive behavior multiply, I expect that we’ll see more unqualified resistance and suspicion toward criticisms of these technologies and the companies behind them. I think the younger generations are in an especially difficult position here, but that’s another issue.

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