Every day, as you go through your normal patterns and routines, you’re generating massive amounts of data about your body and its habits, performance, and abilities. These metrics can range from caloric intake or the number of hours you slept the previous night to the number of miles you ran or steps you took going to the office. And those are some of the more obvious ones. At first blush, these metrics might seem trivial. However, thanks to devices like Fitbit and fitness apps for their phones, an increasing number of people have discovered that this data can provide interesting insights into how their bodies function most effectively.
In a recent Daily Beast article titled “The Body Data Craze,” Alissa Quart explores this trend:
According to a recent nationwide survey for Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project, 7 out of 10 people self-track regularly — using everything from human memory to a memory stick — some aspect of health for themselves or for someone else. Among the 3,000 adults questioned, the most popular things to monitor were weight and diet. A third of the people surveyed also track more esoteric elements of their health, from blood pressure to sleep to blood sugar. While many of them keep this information “in their heads,” a full 50 percent actually keep a written record of the data either using technology or on paper. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, in 2012 the U.S. sports and fitness category was a $70 billion business; and earlier this year, market firm ABI released a report that estimated that 485 million wearable computing devices—like smart watches and smart glasses—will be shipped annually by 2018. Privately owned “human-centered wearable technology” company Jawbone is valued at a billion dollars and perhaps more.
It’s not just diabetics who monitor blood-sugar levels to survive. It’s a more day-to-day shift to becoming scientists of our own lives. It’s the friend who whipped out her smartphone at a restaurant last week and showed me her (quite poor) sleep habits discovered via her UP wristband monitor. And that woman’s colleague, who for a while spent her free time running the numbers on her computer to determine which city in America was optimal for her and her new husband.
It’s also a belief that excellence and sometimes even transcendence means becoming an expert in yourself. In Fitness for Geeks, Bruce W. Perry writes that “measuring, whether it be with the Fitbit, Zeo, Endomondo, their own software, or a simple text file, is a big part of a fitness geek’s obsession (healthy obsession, I’d say).” According to Perry, we should “reboot” the operating systems of our bodies. “When a geek focuses on fitness,” he writes, “[t]hey absolutely do not automatically accept the bland marching orders of some officially anointed expert.”
This information has obvious benefits. The more we know about our bodies, the better decisions we can make when it comes to health and fitness. This can lead to greater control over our lives and even the success of our relationships. In Quart’s article, people use data to improve their marriages and their kids’ education, even overcome sleeping disorders. And the sharing of this data—something Quart notes is on the rise due to social media—can help with accountability and encouragement. If you can track my body data along with me, that gives me added incentive to work harder, and makes it easier for you to see how I could use some help.
But it requires no great leap of the imagination to see some problems here. For starters, there are significant privacy implications when it comes to sharing intimate data about our bodies, health, and lifestyles—and sharing is all too easy to do in this age of Facebook. The information gathered while “self-quantifying” is the sort of info that marketers and advertisers would give their right arms to possess. Other entities—like insurance companies and employers—also have a strong interest in what people’s health patterns look like. Such uses may seem harmless, but they represent cases where personal data is used in ways that someone might not initially consider, and might find objectionable. And sadly, it’s easy to imagine data related to weight and body image being used to shame and harass. It’s not uncommon for people to be “doxed” (i.e., have personal information such as home address, phone number, and bank info released online). How much more damaging could doxing become if it included metrics about your most personal habits?
And while the increased control that self-quantifying offers has many benefits, it, too, comes with a dark side. Quart notes that obsessive self-measuring can increase symptoms of anorexia and bulimia, as well as a susceptibility to hypochondria. That might seem counterintuitive at first, but if you have so much information about your body and believe you have a degree of control, and then suddenly think something’s going wrong, you might be more susceptible to jumping to conclusions or believing that outliers are to blame.
One issue that Quart touches on briefly is one that I’d like to explore a bit more, and that’s the question of whether or not an increase of quantitative data actually leads to a qualitatively better life. The people interviewed in Quart’s article all strike a very positive tone, and reading their accounts, it’s easy to see why. But I was reminded of a story I heard about a professional body builder—someone whose livelihood depended on self-quantifying and exercising a great degree of control over his body. He refused to eat the food in the wedding feast at his own wedding, and instead ate a specially prepared meal that he had brought. Instead of drinking champagne with his guests, he drank water. And not surprisingly, he didn’t partake of the wedding cake that his bride and his guests enjoyed for fear of it upsetting the control he had over his body.
So yes, he might’ve followed the data and preserved his body, but without fully engaging in the festivities surrounding his wedding, one wonders how much he actually enjoyed it. And what did his actions communicate to his friends, his family, and his new bride?
Quart interviews a psychologist about the effects of quantification on his patients. His response is telling: “The tendency to quantify is such a given that I always try to move people away from doing so: that includes a couple who came to see me, complaining that they weren’t ‘value added’ for each other.” When we reduce everything in our lives—habits, behaviors, relationships—to data units that we chart, graph, and analyze, we risk reducing our own lives. There is something un-quantifiable about our existence, and that of our friends and neighbors. That must take primacy, otherwise we simply become points on each other’s graphs, analyzed and dismissed as soon as they become burdensome or threaten our own efficiency or productivity.
Furthermore, self-quantifying, if taken to an extreme, strikes me as a non-religious form of legalism, i.e., the feeling or conviction that one’s merit ultimately depends upon one’s performance. However, that is simply not the case. Of course, we ought not seek out license to slack off, but at the same time our value is not ultimately derived from how much we do, how productive or efficient we are, or how well we perform. Our value derives from the fact that, first, we have been created in the Image of God, and second, that we are deeply, deeply loved by our Creator regardless of how well (or how poorly) we perform. This is usually considered within the context of spiritual disciplines (e.g., reading our Bible, praying, sharing the Gospel), but I think it’s just as true in the context of physical disciplines.
So, by all means, let’s seek to better understand our bodies, and to use that understanding to live healthier lives. But at the same time, let’s not forget that our value and quality don’t ultimately reside in mere data, but rather, comes from a deeper, truer Knowledge.