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.

Quantify Thyself

A thought in passing this morning. Here’s a screen shot that purports to be from an ad for Microsoft’s new wearable device called Band:

Microsoft_Band__Read_the_backstory_on_the_evolution_and_development_Microsoft_s_new_smart_device___Windows_Central

I say “purports” because I’ve not been able to find this particular shot and caption on any official Microsoft sites. I first encountered it in this story about Band from October of last year, and I also found it posted to a Reddit thread around the same time. You can watch the official ad here.

It may be that this image is hoax or that Microsoft decided it was a bit too disconcerting and pulled it. A more persistent sleuth should be able to determine which. Whether authentic or not, however, it is instructive.

In tweeting a link to the story in which I first saw the image, I commented: “Define ‘know,’ ‘self,’ and ‘human.'” Nick Seaver astutely replied: “that’s exactly what they’re doing, eh?”

Again, the “they” in this case appears to be a bit ambiguous. That said, the picture is instructive because it reminds us, as Seaver’s reply suggests, that more than our physical fitness is at stake in the emerging regime of quantification. If I were to expand my list of 41 questions about technology’s ethical dimensions, I would include this one: How will the use of this technology redefine my moral vocabulary? or What about myself will the use of this technology encourage me to value?

Consider all that is accepted when someone buys into the idea, even if tacitly so, that Microsoft Band will in fact deepen their knowledge of themselves. What assumptions are accepted about the nature of what it means to know and what there is to know and what can be known? What is implied about the nature of the self when we accept that a device like Band can help us understand it more effectively? We are, needless to say, rather far removed from the Delphic injunction, “Know thyself.”

It is not, of course, that I necessarily think users of Band will be so naive that they will consciously believe there is nothing more to their identity than what Band can measure. Rather, it’s that most of us do have a propensity to pay more attention to what we can measure, particularly when an element of competitiveness is introduced.

I’ll go a step further. Not only do we tend to pay more attention to what we can measure, we begin to care more about what can measure. Perhaps that is because measurement affords us a degree of ostensible control over whatever it is that we are able to measure. It makes self-improvement tangible and manageable, but it does so, in part, by a reduction of the self to those dimensions that register on whatever tool or device we happen to be using to take our measure.

I find myself frequently coming back to one line in a poem by Wendell Berry: “We live the given life, not the planned.” Indeed, and we might also say, “We live the given life, not the quantified.”

A certain vigilance is required to remember that our often marvelous tools of measurement always achieve their precision by narrowing, sometimes radically, what they take into consideration. To reveal one dimension of the whole, they must obscure the others. The danger lies in confusing the partial representation for the whole.

When the Problem is Technology, the Answer is More Technology

In 1954, Martin Heidegger published “The Question Concerning Technology” in which he observed,

“[T]he instrumental conception of technology conditions every attempt to bring man into the right relation to technology. Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, ‘get’ technology ‘spiritually in hand’. We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from our control.”

Not sure what Heidegger meant? Josh Cohen provides a contemporary illustration:

“Wang is the co-founder of Lumo BodyTech, a company that produces pioneering devices designed to enhance a user’s posture. Their lead product is the LUMOBack Posture Sensor, which triggers warning vibrations the moment you slouch. Given that poor posture is a key symptom of compulsive absorption in our laptops and phones, this product is not merely a physical corrective, says Wang, but the harbinger of a new ‘mindfulness’, a means of awakening the self from its high-tech slumber.

So, our mortally anxious distraction by tracking devices is to be finally arrested by…a tracking device. You can only be struck at this point by Wang’s genial indifference to what he’s actually saying. Self-tracking, he declares at a conference promoting the practice, corrodes social and emotional ties, engenders helpless dependence on technology and endangers physical health. But thank goodness I’ve patented a new self-tracking device, he concludes, impervious to either the irony in his catastrophic diagnosis of collective technological alienation and his proposed remedy of a posture sensor.”