Meticulously recording every minute of your day can seem like a dauntingly boring way to spend your time.
And until relatively recently, it was something that very few people even attempted to do.
However, in just a few years, the paradigm has shifted and the ‘quantified self’ has become a mainstream pursuit.
What is the “quantified self”?
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This is a very clumsy term for a fairly simple concept.
Essentially, it’s about using technology to record and measure what you do in your daily life.
It’s focused on health in general, so it might measure your movements or the food you’re eating. For example, reading, practicing an instrument, or looking at your phone.
And the idea is that we can take that information and use it to make improvements.
Maybe you’re trying to reach a specific weekly exercise goal, or you’re trying to cut down on screen time. Or you can analyze the data to see why you’re not making as much progress as you’d hoped with your piano.
Ultimately, it’s all about trying to apply very logical, solid evidence to what might have previously taken a lot of guesswork.
How big of a business is this?
By some counts, it’s already an industry worth tens of billions of dollars and is projected to grow significantly over the next few years as more people become more proactive in managing their health.
Smartwatches and fitness wearables are good examples. These are like quantified gateway drugs for self.
Even the most basic devices can be used to track steps and more, estimate daily calories burned, and log workouts.
But more and more they are doing things like tracking how much sleep you get and the quality of that sleep.
It can also estimate a user’s blood oxygen levels, detect potential irregular heartbeats, and understand changes in body temperature. This can help you track your cycle and even catch someone’s illness before they even feel symptoms.
All this information is fed back to an app on your phone, allowing you to look back and compare data from today, the same day last week, or a month ago.
So you can see if you’re exercising more or less than you used to, and if you’re sleeping better or worse.
And smartwatch sales have skyrocketed over the last five to six years, especially since the start of the pandemic, as more people demand better ways to monitor and improve their health.
Global smartwatch sales were estimated at over $22 billion last year and are projected to reach $58 billion by 2028.
Apple is currently the market leader, with recent estimates accounting for nearly 40% of all sales.
However, cheap wearables, including many Fitbit devices, don’t count in this figure because they’re fitness trackers, not smartwatches.
Either way, the smartwatch market is huge. By 2019, Apple sold more watches than the entire Swiss watch industry combined.
But it’s not just about wearables.
Some people use these mail-order DNA tests to try to find out what conditions they are genetically prone to or foods they may have tolerance issues with.
Our phones tell us how much time we spend looking at apps each day and give us tools to manage our time.
There are even devices that offer to continuously measure someone’s hydration — basically, via a sensor placed in the toilet to measure what’s in it.
Not to mention the myriad of apps available today for consumers that make it easy to track activities like exercise, hobbies, and household chores, and try to develop better habits around them.
So how often do you rely on logging everything you do in your app?
At the moment – yes.
It’s limited in what it can do automatically like a clock, so anyone who’s really trying to keep track of what they’re doing will have to dedicate themselves to recording tons of data each day.
Even then, you may need to work with your own spreadsheets to analyze the data and learn something from it.
But there are many technology companies trying to develop software and devices that do more work for us.
But we’re still talking about products available to today’s users.
The market for continuous glucose monitors has grown in recent years. This is essentially a small disc with a tiny needle and a wireless chip.
Commonly used by diabetics. So instead of doing regular finger prick tests to check your blood/sugar levels, you can stick one of these on your arm and automatically check your blood on a regular basis. increase.
The data is sent to an app on your smartphone.
But that same technology is now being adopted by wellness wearable companies as a way to monitor people’s diets. When you eat or drink something, your blood sugar levels change as your body processes it, but it changes in different ways depending on what was in the food or drink.
So sugar has one effect and caffeine has another. The device is supposed to recognize when you take something in and give you feedback about it.
You can log spikes in sugar levels and tell them to cut back on sweet foods, or suggest adding more protein next time because the last meal didn’t include much protein.
Or maybe vice versa – notice when you’ve done long stretches without eating anything and encourage you to eat to keep your energy levels up.
And when you combine all that data with a fitness tracker that monitors your sleep and your movements during the day, you suddenly have a lot of information about your habits and where you can improve them.
You can even let your device tell you what to consume before each workout for the best possible performance. This is what professional athletes usually do.
But this kind of system doesn’t come cheap… One company offering such a system here charges €1,800 for a 3-month program.
It seems a little extreme…
That’s — it’s a lot of money to spend, and basically having a tiny implant on your arm is a huge leap, even for those used to keeping track of things with a smartwatch.
But this is the direction in which the quantified self should go.
A lot of money is spent by companies trying to find ways to use reliable non-invasive glucose monitors. In other words, you don’t have to stick a needle in your arm to document what’s going on.
The idea is still a big “what if”, but if someone cracks it, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a standard smartwatch feature, not just for diabetics.
But is all this data really worth it?
We know people in Ireland and many other countries are in poor health.
And most of us know the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet.
But if you have something that constantly pushes you to do the right thing, that points out what you’re doing well and what you could do better, you’ll understand yourself early on. , which might make it a little easier to go in the right direction. .
Whether it’s the cost of a smartwatch or the cost of a €1,800 monitor, it costs a lot of money, but proponents of this kind of approach say it’s an investment that can save a lot of money in the long run. would say -Run.
After all, the healthier you are now, the less likely you are to have health problems as you age, and the lower your health care costs. more likely to get it.
But there must be risks too, right?
Absolutely – At the most basic level, it’s easy to get carried away with these kinds of things.
There is also the risk of over-analyzing the data or not analyzing it in a useful way. Having information and actually being able to understand it are two different things.
And you’re putting a lot of faith in a technology that’s inherently pretty immature. Often by immature companies that rely on complex algorithms that we don’t know much about.
We also put a lot of trust in these companies by trusting them to provide us with their data.
Our health data can often be the most personal information we have. As such, passing it on to others poses serious privacy concerns.
Last year, U.S. regulators alleged that menstruation-tracking apps were selling users’ health data to Facebook and Google.
When several U.S. states recently moved to tighten abortion laws, some experts say the same data could be seized by law enforcement, used to identify when someone had an abortion, and destroyed. It has urged people to remove this type of tracking app entirely out of concern that it may have been stolen. law.
But it doesn’t have to be so extreme. We needn’t have trouble imagining simpler ways in which all this data could be used against us.
Some health insurers in other countries have begun offering rewards, such as gift cards, to members for achieving specific activity goals through smartwatches.
Cynics would say it’s only a matter of time before they introduce sticks with that carrot.
Perhaps in the future, smartwatches will reveal that you’re a lot less active than you say, or blood sugar monitors will tell you that you’re eating a bar of chocolate or a can of fizz during your lunch break.