Me, My Quantified Self, and I

Answering the eternal question: would David Hume use a Fitbit?

“The quantified self” is a technocratic movement that encourages self-tracking data. Broadly, the quantified self could mean acquiring data on everything — one’s environment, health, and activities. Usually, it means people tracking their daily step-count on a Fitbit.

Reporter is a new app that takes the notion of the quantified self, crosses it with journaling, and dresses it in bold colors and nice typography. It pings you at random points throughout the day to ask you questions about what you’re doing, who you’re with, and where you are. Default questions include “Are you working right now?” and “How did you sleep?” The goal of Reporter is to measure how you spend your day and to identify long-term patterns in your behavior. In an interview with The Verge, Drew Breunig, a developer behind Reporter, believes the data will be instructive, since it highlights aspects of your life you might not regularly contemplate: “I want you to be scared by your routine, or by decisions you haven’t thought about because you don’t want to face them.”

Having used the app for a couple weeks, nothing about my routine really scared me. Outside of the app’s pleasant visual aesthetic, there was little else of interest. Brendan O’Connor listed his gripes at The Daily Dot (most of which I agree with), namely that the sorts of data Reporter collects is tedious. He writes, “The aspects of our lives that make us who we are — the people we love and the people who love us, our passions and obsessions, our flaws and our work and our deepest, darkest secrets — clearly surpass the imagination of apps like Reporter. What dull lives we would lead if these (‘How many cups of coffee did you have today?’) were the most important questions we could ask ourselves.”

Though the defaults certainly don’t encourage creativity, one could argue that Reporter is only as unimaginative as its user, since it allows you to customize the questions. I added two queries of my own: “Are you reading or writing?” and “Did you exercise today?”

On one hand, I’m identifying what parts of my life are important to me. I like the idea that I’m someone who writes and works out regularly enough to track it. On the other hand, by deciding to quantify these things about myself specifically, I am creating an identity for my most idealized self. I collect this data because it’s how I want to construct the narrative of my life.

Most of the buzz around Reporter comes from the app’s proprietor, Nicholas Felton, a former designer at Facebook who conceived the Timeline and the Open Graph. Felton has also been an early proponent of the quantified self, releasing annual reports on his life since 2005 (though it seems the attention they receive has more to do with how nicely they are designed rather than what data is represented).

Before being acquired by Facebook, Felton created a service called Daytum, self-described as “an elegant and intuitive tool for counting and communicating personal statistics.” Felton’s Daytum profile is used as an example of a “personal dashboard.” It displays the number of miles he ran, cities he’d vacationed to, and celebrities he’d sighted. What we’re supposed to take from his profile is that Nicholas Felton is a runner, a jetsetter, a person who regularly spots Terry Richardson. But this is the information he chooses to display about himself; the data he collects projects the type of person he wants us to see.

Recall David Hume’s bundle theory of the self from your college Intro to Philosophy class. Hume argued that despite the fact that our experiences, feelings, and memories appear connected, there’s no evidence that they are more than a bundle of perceptions. For that reason, the “self” doesn’t exist. What exactly is the quantified self, then, if anything? We can convince ourselves that all the data points we collect in an app like Reporter add up to something when in reality they don’t — though we might try to convince ourselves and others, with elegant fonts and colorful charts, that they do.

Illustrations courtesy of Bob May

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.