Pando

The quantified self, just for yourself

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on April 26, 2015

From The News Desk

Over the past few weeks Pando has published a series of articles on the "quantified self" --  the vogue, particularly amongst Silicon Valley types, for measuring all that is measurable about our health and fitness in order to make us even more perfectly perfect versions of ourselves. The term was coined by Wired's Kevin Kelly in 2007 and today finds form in Fitbits, Up Bands, Glow fertility trackers, and even jabbing a needle into one's arm to measure whatever "hematocrit" might be.

The fact that you're most likely to see fitness bands on the wrists of joggers, yoga instructors and Soylent-swilling tech bros should warn against mistaking correlation for causation. As should the fact that obesity rates continue to rise across the US -- in California it's up from 10% in 1990 to around 24% today -- the result being that each new batch of quantified self tools has even more of our collective self to quantify.

A friend -- fitter and healthier than I'll ever be -- once proudly showed me her Nike Fuelband, a device which, she explained, "gamified" her daily activity, urging her to beat the previous day's steps or leaps or bounds or whatever it measured. At ten minute intervals throughout the rest of our dinner, she set down her glass of wine and begin waving her arm up and down like someone hailing a cab to flee a crime scene. "Look!" she exclaimed after each set of lunatic waves, delighting at the new four digit number displayed on her band. "That's great!" I said each time.

Still. Earlier today it occurred to me that, for all my cynicism, and entirely without meaning to, I too have benefitted from self-quantification. I'll go further: it's possible self-quantification helped save my life.

Back in 2009, while still recovering from my last ever hangover, I created a one-page website to explain to friends, and anyone else who cared, why I had decided to quit drinking. I titled the page "Is Paul Drinking Again?" -- the idea being that if anyone was curious as to the status of my sobriety, they could refer to the site for a definitive answer. I promised to update the page if I ever went back on the booze. As an afterthought, and to head off the logical follow-up question, I added a counter to show the number of days since my last drink.

As of midnight-oh-one last night, the counter reads 2016 days sober -- around five and a half years -- and I haven't yet had cause to reset it.  In the weeks immediately after the site went live, I would check back every few days to congratulate myself on how well I was doing. Often I'd tweet out the number, to make sure there were other sets of eyes holding me to account. Now I sometimes go months, or even a full year, forgetting the page exists. But the counter is always there, ticking away, quantifying my sober self.

To what extent is a simple counter responsible for my sobriety? That's difficult to say, not least because I certainly couldn't have succeeded without the support of my friends, nor the ever-present fear that, were I to drink again, someone might catch me and know I've failed. Friends and ego are my real two-step program. But at very least the counter -- the little dopamine spike as it loads on the page, always displaying a higher number than the previous time  -- gives me a clue why other people won't leave home without their plastic wrist bands. It feels really, really good to see the number get bigger.

As I write this, I wonder if someone should built an app that allows other people to count their days sober. Probably not. When I reached 800-or-so days dry I wrote a short book about my techniques for staying sober, one of which was not taking anyone else's advice on the subject. What works for me likely won't work for you, a fact driven home by Alcoholics Anonymous' reported 5-10% success rate.

Perhaps, if my one-page website -- a lifesaving "app" built using a free Wordpress template and a few lines of javascript -- demonstrates anything, it's that the most effective quantified self tool could be the one you build just for yourself.