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Counting Down to the Era of the Quantified Self

July 6, 2011, 9:58 PM

We’ve almost reached a point where it’s possible to track and record nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from how many calories we had for breakfast, to how often we work out, to how many hours we slept last night. The self-tracking concept, first popularized by Web enthusiasts on sites like Mint and Daytum, is now being integrated into a growing number of everyday devices – including those ubiquitous Apple ear buds - to help us track what we did, when we did it and for how long we did it. In a movement that is reminiscent of the dawn of the PC era and the growth of computer hobbyist clubs, we are now experiencing The Era of the Quantified Self.

The Measured Life The Financial Times Magazine recently profiled this growing Quantified Self movement, cataloging the various ways that these early adopters are literally tracking every aspect of their lives, from their heart rate to their REM sleep. The cover story in the July/August issue of MIT Technology Review is The Measured Life. More and more, this concept is making its way into the mainstream. Prominent backers already include Kevin Kelly, Gary Wolf (who recently presented his ideas at a TED conference), and Tim (The 4-Hour Work Week) Ferriss. There’s now even a Silicon Valley conference dedicated to the topic of the Quantified Self, which attracted nearly 400 attendees over the Memorial Day weekend to the Computer History Museum.

What’s exciting (and simultaneously scary at the same time) is that people are finally realizing that all of this data that we are accumulating about our bodies and our lives has economic value. We own this data and have the right to share it with whomever we please. (Sooner or later, venture capitalists will also realize this, and when they do, the movement will really take off.) For now, the most popular way for supporters of the Quantified Self movement to share this data is with communities of like-minded patients that are seeking new breakthrough drugs or treatments for specific ailments.

However, wouldn’t almost any advertiser love to get their hands on your personal data? For example, consider what advertisers typically know about you – maybe your age, your gender and where you live. If you stop to fill out online surveys, they may know some basics about your household income and how often you purchase certain items. If you “like” these brands on Facebook, they may know even more about your preferences and interests, as well as information about your personal life (at least, in the aggregate). If you start connecting with them via fitness and medical devices equipped with sensors, they may even be able speculate about your moods, your emotions, and your psychological states.

Five years from now, the notion of the Quantified Self may be so ingrained that it may be a question of whether we want to opt-out, not opt-in, to the personal data-tracking movement.

As companies aim for a greater degree of personalization in their products and services, data becomes an economic asset -- as well as a new way to think about the self. As Gary Wolf explains in his TED talk, data becomes not only a window, but also a mirror for self-realization. We are no longer part of a broad economic demographic – say, the 18-to-34 demographic - we are now each a demographic of one. We are all special, each and everyone of us. The Quantified Self movement is at the vanguard of something new and interesting that could herald a whole new era of the way we interact with pharmaceutical companies, financial services firms, and just about any major consumer brand. Soon, no amount of data will be too trivial to track – or too trivial to get paid for.


Counting Down to the Era of...

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