Life in the Data


Time is an abstract concept which we define by using clocks and dates; But these are just tools constructed to create meaning. In a 2006 post,  Gary van Warmerdam stated,

Until you eliminate these paradigms from your mind you are essentially looking at something with glasses on that distort what you see. What we are left with is events and experiences of creation with no reference to their past or expectation of the future. We are in the present moment. It’s a big place, but in spite of this difficult to find and stay in.”

But clocks aren’t the only tools be use to keep track of time, with the rise of the Quantified Self (QS) Movement. QS people record data about their everyday life and activities. They record the number of steps taken, heart rate, calories burnt, food & drink consumed, how well they slept and more. This data is used to inform decisions about how they should change their daily activities to live a better life. However, it’s not just wearable life tracking devices, people also track their experiences by keeping a log of them on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

I find the draw to these QS technologies intriguing, because while they can monitor a myriad of things they all seem to revolve around fitness and heath; and so a good life is defined as a fit and healthy life? Both of my sisters (and most of their friends) own a FitBit and I watch them frequently checking thier statistics and jumping through hoops to meet their quotas. It reminds me of a funny blog post I saw a while ago by Jacqueline Maley.

” It wanted me to take 10,000 steps a day and I quickly became its slave, walking unnecessarily and even jiggling more in an attempt to please it.

The app could also be paired with a calorie counter that told my master how much I had consumed in a day. The omniscient creature would then calculate whether I had arrived at an energy deficit. If I had, my wristband would communicate warm congratulations. Sometimes it even vibrated in approval, and I would feel a surge of disproportionate pride which was actually a strong signal that the relationship had become unhealthy.

Soon, the fitness tracker went from fun gadget to panopticon. I began to believe it saw everything, and the things it didn’t see – for example, if I accidentally left it at home while off for a run – seemed pointless if it couldn’t record them.

As with all technology, my black manacle-master is fast becoming out-dated. I find myself eyeing others on the market that can measure my heart rate, or tell me exactly how many hours I have left to live on earth.

But the truth is I am too frightened to upgrade. It will know.”

It’s at this point that you’re probably wondering what QS systems I use in my everyday life. The truth is, None. I don’t wear any life tracking devices, I don’t track my food and drink intake, I don’t track sleep records or workouts and I don’t even check the scales. In terms of my social media, I don’t really keep a ‘lifelog’ and I mostly post links to videos and articles I find interesting or interesting things I see during my everyday life. I rarely post important life moments online like holidays or significant celebrations. In fact, early this year when I got notified about my “Facebook Year in Review” it was all pretty boring (Why do my fiends even read my posts?).

When it came to writing this blog post and I thought about how much I really don’t track my life I was stumped by what to write about, and when I read some other people’s posts, about how they maintain a QS life, I started to wonder if I was unusual for not monitoring my daily input and output of energy. So instead I’m going to try to write objectively.

I was trying to determine the main draw to QS systems, when I decided it would be completely unique to each person. Ranging from someone dealing with health issues who needs to improve their fitness/heath, to someone who just enjoys being fit and/or loves data. I decided the main entertainment draws would be the inclusion of social technologies and gameification.

Fitbit allows you to compare your data to your friends’ data, so if you love running you can compete with your friends without having to actually go for a run together. This might be inspiring if you aren’t as strong as your friends and you want to improve or if you just like seeing how much further and harder you can run compared to everyone you know. Additionally, there is the added entertainment of Fitbit Badges, achievements for hitting specific milestones. There is nothing better than the feeling of accomplishment and with fitbit tracking you know when you’ve reached a goal instead of just running aimlessly for weeks with no feedback.

When you look at it that way it’s easy to see why these tools are motivational and why Jacqueline described working out without them as pointless. However, when you’re using these tools you’re generating a lot of personal data, so how is it used and is there a privacy issue? I did some research on two of the leading wearable QS technologies that I am aware of (yes I know there are plenty more), Fitbit and Apple Watch.

Firstly, I read the Apple and FitBit Privacy Policy to see how they deal with personal information (Both Policies were very similar so I’m just going to use examples from the Fitbit policy). Immediately under “What data is shared with Third Parties?” is “First and foremost: We don’t sell any data that could identify you.” Meaning they do sell your personal information but only after it has been properly de-identified (this is even written in the policy). In terms of identifiable information, they can share it when you direct them to (sharing to social media) or under specific legal curcumstances. Fitbit can release your personal information if it is required by law, regulation or a legal process (Side note: I found an actual case where FitBit data was used in court). Fitbit states that a user will be notified by email in the event of this, but only if the court allows them to. Lastly, your personal information can be transferred or sold if Fitbit were to sell, merge, bankrupt, sell assets or reorganise their company.

All of this seems fairly reasonable to me and complies with the Australian Privacy Act 1988 (C2015C00089). Obviously Fitbit need to protect themselves legally and also manage their users privacy and best interests. This means that the data collected is used to research, troubleshoot and improve their product and service and to protect against fraud and criminal activities.

So considering all of this, and a post by Deborah Lupton, we can see the significant benefits of a QS lifestyle is the increased sense of control over fitness and health; and success stories like that of  “Dan Hon, who has type 2 diabetes and uses the Nike Fuelband and the Fitbit to monitor his physical activity levels as well as a digital blood glucose meter and weight scales. He reported that the combination of these technologies had allowed him to reduce his blood sugar levels to normal and that he had ‘healed myself through data’ (see here for his story)”.

Although, as with anything, there are pitfalls. Some users have complained, calling them inconvenient or uncomfortable to wear; And it has been reported that the devices are often not compatible with some types of smartphones and then there are the obvious privacy concerns related to the use of this technology.

Overall, I believe it depends entirely upon the person and I probably won’t be joining the QS movement for a while (unless I suddenly pull $1000.00 out of thin air for the new Watch).

Let me know what you think about current QS technology and lifestyles in the comments below or on the Google+ community. As someone who doesn’t track all aspects of their life I would be really interested in your thoughts and opinions. Is there anything you think I didn’t consider or you think I got wrong? Or let me know why you like monitoring your everyday activities?

Thanks for Reading (I know it got kind of long).
– M.

2 thoughts on “Life in the Data”

  1. Hi Melissa,

    Thank you for your fantastic post. I find it incredibly interesting that you went and looked up the privacy laws for various life logs as I have never done that myself. While I am interested in privacy and the idea of keeping my own information to myself, I have never thought that my data could help in a legal situation. I am curious, if you had the option to approve giving all your data to help in a legal situation what would you do? Would you provide all that information including your name and full details? And do you have any other issues with life logging?

    1. Hi Anna, Thanks for the interesting question. In the case I linked in my post, the person did not authorise their information to be used in court as information can be freed for legal purposes.

      In terms of approving my personal information for use in court, there would be a lot of factors that I would need to consider. Firstly, If they needed such comprehensive information they would probably be able to use deidentified data which I would not be required to ok. If they needed identifiable information I would first consider what the court case is regarding before deciding if I wanted to contribute. I would probably not want to release my information if it made me identifiable, not because it would connect me to my data but because it connect me negatively to someone in a legal situation and if they lost the case because of my data it would put me in a bad position.

      I do not have any particular issues with lifelogging besides not being super interested in partaking in the practise myself. I’m not too concerned with the privacy aspects of lifelogging because I trust in the Privacy Acts, I just thought it was an interesting detail to highlight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *