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.

It’s Alive, It’s Alive!

Your home, that is. It soon may be, anyway.

Earlier this week at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple introduced HomeKit, an iOS 8 application that will integrate the various devices and apps which together transform an ordinary home into a “smart home.”

The “smart home,” like the flying car, has long been a much anticipated component of “the future.” The Jetsons had one, and, more recently, the Iron Man films turned Tony Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, into JARVIS, an AI system that powers Stark’s very smart home. Note, in passing, the subtle tale of technological unemployment.

But the “smart home” is a more plausible element of our future than the flying car. Already in 1990, the Unity System offered a rather rudimentary iteration. And, as early as 1999, in the pages of Newsweek, Steven Levy was announcing the immanent arrival of what is now commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, the apotheosis of which would be the “smart home.” Levy didn’t call it the “smart home,” although he did refer to the “smart toilet,” but a “smart home” is what he was describing:

“Your home, for instance, will probably have one or more items directly hot-wired to the Internet: a set-top television box, a game console, a server sitting in the basement, maybe even a traditional PC. These would be the jumping-off points for a tiny radio-frequency net that broadcasts throughout the house. That way the Internet would be, literally, in the air. Stuff inside the house would inhale the relevant bits. Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule, so if you’re out of town it’ll withhold the brew. Your alarm clock might ring later than usual if it logs on to find out that you don’t have to get the kids ready for school–snow day! And that Internet dishwasher? No, it won’t be bidding on flatware at eBay auctions. Like virtually every other major appliance in your home, its Internet connection will be used to contact the manufacturer if something goes wrong.”

Envisioning this “galaxy” of digitally networked things, Levy already hints at the challenge of getting everything to work together in efficient and seamless fashion. That’s exactly were Apple is hoping to step in with HomeKit. At WDC, Apple’s VP humbly suggested that his company could “bring some rationality to this space.” Of course, as Megan Garber puts it, “You could see it as Apple’s attempt to turn the physical world into a kind of App Store: yet another platform. Another area whose gates Apple keeps.”

When news broke about HomeKit, I was reminded of an interview the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann gave several years ago. It was that interview, in fact, that led me to the piece by Levy. Borgmann was less than impressed with the breathless anticipation of the “smart home.”

“In the perfectly smart home,” Borgmann quipped, “you don’t do anything.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey Fowler, gave one example of what Apple projected HomeKit could do:  “Users would be able to tell their Siri virtual assistant that they are ‘going to bed’ and their phone would dim the lights, lock your doors and set the thermostat, among other tasks.”

There’s apparently something alluring and enchanting about such a scenario. I’m going to casually suggest that the allure might be conceived as arising from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. The advent of modernity disenchanted the pre-modern world according to a widely accepted socio-historical account of the modern world. Gone were the spirits and spiritual forces at work in the world. Gone were the angles and witches and fairies. Gone was the mysticism that inspired both fear and wonder. All that remained was the sterile world of lifeless matter … and human beings alone in a vast universe that took no notice of them.

Technologies that make the environment responsive to our commands and our presence, tools that would be, presumably, alert to our desires and needs, even those we’ve not yet become aware of–such technologies promise to re-enchant the world, to make us feel less alone perhaps. They are the environmental equivalent of the robots that promise to become our emotional partners.

Borgmann, however, is probably right about technologies of this sort, “After a week you don’t notice them anymore. They mold into the inconspicuous normalcy of the background we now take for granted. These are not things that sustain us.”

Christopher Mims landed even nearer to the mark when he recently tweeted, “Just think how revolutionary the light switch would seem if until now we’d all been forced to control our homes through smartphones.”

Finally, in his WSJ story, Fowler wrote, “[Apple] is hoping it can become a hub of connected devices that, on their own, don’t do a very good job of helping you control a home.”

That last phrase is arresting. Existing products don’t do a very good job of helping you control your home. Interestingly though, I’ve never really thought of my home as something I needed to control. The language of control suggests that a “smart home” is an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation. It’s a house come alive. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the pursuit of control is always paired with varying degrees of anxiety.