Lifelogging as your red pill

And why it’s better than painting pigs


Recently, during a conversation with a potential business partner, he asked me what my company plans to deliver. I explained to him that we’re working on a lifelogging / quantified self solution, one which differs from most others in the kind of data we log, and which focuses mainly on privacy and security issues. He did not care. At all.

Not because he doesn’t care about privacy, but because he had no interest in lifelogging. Sure, he had heard of it, but he simply couldn’t see why it should matter to him. I realized that this was like telling someone that you’ve found a smart solution for applying paint to pigs. While you may think (for whatever reason) that this would make the world a better place, most people will stare at you in disbelief and ask “Why would anyone want to do that in the first place?”

The good news is that lifelogging makes more sense than coloring in any kind of animal. The sad truth, however, is that most people are unaware of its potential. And so I realized that this blog shouldn’t be about technical issues or roadmaps, but simply about why lifelogging matters.

Things we measure

First of all, the idea behind logging and measuring your life is nothing new. US author and management consultant Peter Ferdinand Drucker is often credited with coining the phrase, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Although it’s hard to find an original source for this statement, it’s not hard to convince people that there’s a lot of truth in it. Especially when measuring becomes a matter of life and death. If you suffer from diabetes, for example, it’s crucial to measure your blood sugar levels regularly. Doing so helps you understand how your lifestyle affects these levels and warns you if they are dangerously high or low.

In other situations, measuring is driven more by vanity. If you’ve ever stepped on a scale to see how much you weigh, it’s not necessarily because your doctor told you to do so. Maybe you just wanted to get in shape for your wedding, the upcoming beach season, or prom night.

Even measuring things that we can’t improve can help us make decisions, whether we’re purchasing a video game, choosing a new insurance policy, or buying a new car.

In any case, measuring the world around us helps us to make better decisions and to see how close we are to achieving our personal goals.

The ascent of “quantified self”

Though measuring ourselves has such a long tradition, it’s interesting to note how long it took to eventually arrive in the computer age and get its own buzzword. In 2007, Wired journalists Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf launched a website called http://quantifiedself.com. They understood that modern technology allows us to take self-measuring one step further, and they were determined to be among the pioneers in researching the possibilities. In the end, their website and conference kick-started a movement.

This movement then entered the mainstream. Whether you refer to measuring your life as “lifelogging” or “quantified self”, the phenomenon is hard to ignore. Even if you’ve never cared about quantified self before, the chances are high that at least one of your virtual friends on Twitter or Facebook automatically posted how many kilometers (or miles) she/he ran today. These posts are usually generated by fitness tracking gadgets, with Nike+, Fitbit and Jawbone being the most popular. They work with mobile apps to track the number of steps you ran and, thanks to GPS, can project your latest run on a map. Some gadgets also measure your pulse or track your sleep quality when worn on your wrist at night.

Now Apple wants to join in with its “Healthbook”, as does Google—and pretty much all the major players who are working on their own lifelogging solutions to keep track of your weight, blood pressure, location, etc. The forthcoming smart watches are the ideal devices to drive this trend. What started as a cozy group of self-improvement enthusiasts is now becoming an industry.

Are we measuring the right things?

Obviously, we already measure many aspects of our lives. And yes, there is an industry shaping up and offering the tools to help us do so, focusing mainly on health-related aspects. If, however, measurement results in potential improvement, shouldn’t we focus on measuring the things that really matter? Our physical fitness is certainly important. But there is more to life.

If you asked 100 people who were about to die, “What do you wish you had achieved in life, but never did?”, the odds are low that the top answer would be “lose five kilograms”. Friendship, family, partnership, work-related success and the achievement of personal dreams are likely to be named more often. It would, therefore, only be logical if these were the main fields we measured.

The reality is: they aren’t. We’re more interested in measuring our car’s gasoline consumption, our favorite football player’s ball possession stats, or the number of Twitter followers we have. When it comes to our personal lives, anything beyond measuring the number of steps we’ve walked, our weight, blood or cholesterol levels, is off our radar.

As a result, we sometimes know less about ourselves than the advertisers who measure and track our lives through every website we visit and every link we click. Although we seem to love measuring things that are not super important, we have little to no information about the factors that shape our lives. All we have is self-judgment, which can never be objective. In fact, lying to ourselves is in our nature and can even be beneficial.

Now imagine there was something like The Matrix’s red pill, a way to unveil a bit more of the life we really live. Maybe not all of it; just enough for us to handle. We could then compare aspects of our lives with others. More importantly, we could compare the lives we are living with the lives we are aiming for. With all the self-induced camouflage removed, we would see some things we like — and some we don’t. And, eventually, we could start improving those things — or consciously adjust our goals.

Lifelogging done right can, therefore, not only improve your weight, but also your life as a whole.

The way ahead

It will, however, take some years to get there. While the counting-your-steps stuff actually works pretty well right now, there’s still a lot of work to be done in order to reach the utopian, life-enhancing system described above.

While we will need even more sophisticated, automatic analysis of the data we have, not all challenges are technical in nature. When it comes to logging our personal lives, security and privacy aspects must have top priority. We also need to keep in mind that the humans should always be the ones controlling the machines, rather than the other way around. For us — the vendors — it’s also about choosing which aspect to focus on, as lifelogging is such a broad field.

So there are challenges ahead of us. That’s fine; we’ve all just started — the developers as well as the users. In the long run, I doubt that the terms “lifelogging” and “quantified self” will even remain. Instead, they will merge with other upcoming technologies, like augmented reality, or personal assistant systems like Google’s “Now”.

It reminds me of the beginning of the home computer age. Back then, the majority of people had no contact with computers except in their workplace. (There may be parallels with lifelogging there — did you already fill out your timesheet today? ☺. Some technology-driven adventurers, however, loved to tinker with the gray boxes and explore their possibilities. Those were limited. Actually, most of the ordinary things we use computers for today would have sounded out of this world for users back then.

Nowadays, digitally retouching images with Photoshop is nothing special. 30 years ago, using a personal computer for photo editing would have seemed crazy. Even the just-released Apple Mac had a screen resolution of just 512 x 384 — and no colors.

From today’s perspective, even standard office applications were closer to a proof of concept than powerful work tools. You certainly wouldn’t want to use a C64 for a PowerPoint-type presentation (I eventually did two years ago, but that’s another story☺). And those are just the stationary applications. Tools like email, Twitter and Google Maps all rely on being connected to the Internet, which didn’t even exist under that name 30 years ago (there was the ARPANET, but TCP/IP and DNS had just been specified and the WWW was still to come). Not to mention wearable — or even portable — computers.

In other words: 90% of the activities for which we use our laptops, tablet, smartphones, watches (!) and glasses (!!) today would simply not have been possible on a C64 in 1984. Instead, you could play games, write your own software and, most of all, explore the possibilities of that new age in a very experimental way. The digital revolution was the result.

That’s where we are with quantified self now.
And that’s why I am excited about it.