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The Quantified Self Has Lost Its Numbers

Over the last decade, Americans have bought into the concept that, in order to be healthy, we need to be tracked. They’ve purchased devices that have collected numerical abstractions of everyday behavior. Progressing from iPods to iPhones to Fitbits, tracking devices have enabled people to condense a jog through the neighborhood into a few numbers: 1 mile, 10 minutes, and an average pace of 0.1 mile per minute.

The idea was that, if people would measure their behaviors, they would change those behaviors, to optimize their health. Because the data would be objective, tracker fans said, it would provide an undeniable vision of people’s actual status, and that would compel people to finally get rational and become physically fit.

Fitness trackers have been around long enough to result in a great big mountain of numbers. There certainly is a huge number of devices tracking their owners’ movements and behaviors. The use of these devices has been increasing year after year for many years now. Most Americans own at least one device that gathers data about fitness activities, so if quantification of fitness data improves people’s fitness, we ought to have seen a massive improvement in public health by now.

Fitness trackers haven't made us more fitIn fact, we’ve seen the opposite. In every state in the USA, even in tech-enthusiast states such as California and Washington, rates of obesity have increased, not decreased, over the last ten years. As use of fitness trackers has increased, fitness has decreased.

Quantification can’t even seem to maintain activity within organizations that promote quantification.

When the Quantified Self movement formed ten years ago, it promoted itself as representing an enlightened approach to quantification – one that didn’t crunch numbers so much as craft them, in order to build a personalized philosophy of self-improvement through mathematical reduction.

The Quantified Self movement couldn’t gather steam, though. The biggest Quantified Self group, in the San Francisco area, had just over four thousand members. That’s only around half of a ten thousandth of one percent of the population of the San Francisco metropolitan area. The group hasn’t had a meeting in five months. On average, Quantified Self groups have had a nine and a half month hiatus since mustering the effort to hold their last meeting.

Quantification, it seems, isn’t effective in creating behavioral change. Fitness trackers give information about what we do to companies that seek to profit from that data, but give us neither the motivation nor the means to make out own lives better.

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