Most of these little widgets, tools, and toys though, are at the very most quite benign compared to the mechanical armies of science fiction fame. Some of them have even gotten people rich, or enabled them to participate in revolutions, or helped them just stay healthy.
While there is some debate about when, and to what extent, there has been change, we are generally moving toward what many describe as an information society; one where information becomes ever more abundant and important, and flows like air into a vacuum. In addition to this prevalence of information exchange, falling costs and ease of use mean that network-enabled information-gathering objects are turning into a so-called ‘internet of things’. From WiFi to RFID, hashtags to QR codes, many of the simple objects in our everyday lives either perpetually broadcast, or lie in wait for a quick scan to reveal the data they’ve been gathering for us. Take a package, for example. It is basically a heavy piece of cardboard but it can be tracked with remarkable precision thanks to a few sensors and barcode readers. There are also sensors that can measure moisture levels until they decide they need to notify someone that their plant needs watering. Seats can share the fact that they’ve been sat on and televisions can insist upon letting all your friends know you’re watching The Notebook again. For the environmentally conscious, there are readers you can install into your wall sockets to report electricity usage.
Self-tracking is one activity that has transformed itself with these developments, in an era of bytes and bandwidth. Self-tracking could be something as simple as journaling. The author writes a bit about their day, and might come back to it later to remember or learn how they have grown. Add in a bit of innovation and things get much more interesting – pretty geeky, too. Before looking at the more futuristic stuff, let’s just think first about the amount of information coming out of blogging, status updates, and photo, video, and audio capture and sharing. However shallow and fleeting it may be, the sheer amount of data uploaded by active Internet users is staggering. With these services, it is now no major undertaking to keep up with a friend, or to meet a new one with similar interests. For the person doing the posting, it serves as a memory log of epic proportions.
Back to the future now, and engaging in tracking on a personal level is merely a matter of owning a cell phone. Apple was recently caught hoarding location data on their network-enabled iOS devices, but there are in fact a lot of people who voluntarily gather and share information about where they are. ‘Check-in’ services allow users to announce when they arrive at certain locations and maintain a log of places they’ve visited. Think Facebook Places, Foursquare, and Gowalla. GPS itself is becoming cheaper and more accessible every day, to the extent that with just the press of a button, users can record everything that continuous GPS data generates – not just location, but direction of travel, speed, and elevation. Be out and about for long enough and the data can be beautifully visualized on a map to show where you’ve been and what your movements were. Although it can be as much about creating something fun to look at, a good deal of self-tracking is about self-awareness and learning. Anyone who creates a budget and writes down their expenses is in fact practicing self-tracking, no matter how dull it may seem compared to playing with a GPS unit.
Other self-trackers publish goals for their associated communities in the hope that peer feedback will inspire them to actually complete what they’ve set their hearts upon. Sharing data with the crowd is as much a motivational tool as one of support. If your goal is to run everyday, and you share a few no-run days in a row, hopefully a friend will give you some kind sassing to get you back on track.
A good deal of self-tracking focuses on health and well-being. Wearable bits of circuitry measure how well we sleep, what our heart rate is, how many steps we’ve taken and calories we’ve burned. Many apps for smartphones allow for food tracking, so users can develop and stick to a diet, or accurately calculate net gain or loss of calories. Many of these devices communicate with each other and most will transmit data to a computer so that physical activities and measurable vital signs can be put together and developed into a bigger picture. This may all seem excessive, but we also live in a world where a DNA test can reveal statistical links between your genetic background and innumerable health concerns. And when you know that your genes put you at a higher risk of diabetes or heart disease, a few extra bits of plastic don’t seem so silly anymore.
While this gathering and sharing of information can be interesting, fun, and useful, there is still the question of how much value can be obtained by buying in. How much of the information we work with will make an impact in the end? There is the danger of getting fooled into thinking that the pictures we take and our collective heart rate define us. This is the extension of the argument about social networks that questions what the point of sharing information for the sake of identity formulation is; you are more than the sum of your favorite bands and films. That said, if it takes a few toys and graphs to get a person moving around a bit when they would usually be less active, so be it. Playing Wii Sports and Wii Fit may not be equivalent to more traditional methods of exercise, but it’s better than so much time playing Super Mario Brothers 3 for the fifth time this year. So give it a shot. Keep a journal, track your spending, check in the next time you go out for dinner, and watch the data pile up. But maybe skip the self-aware couch that tweets whenever you’re on it, or other such unnecessary things. You never know, it might help you to save some energy, cut back on a few calories and reinvigorate that love of running that we all had at one point. Even if your self-tracking trial only lasts a day, at least your friends might be interested to see what you ate after your latest running session.