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Should We Be Wary Of Self-Tracking?


“He who often weighs himself knows himself well. He who knows himself well lives well.”

We measure every step we take, every calorie burnt, time on social media, and hours slept to the point that it is almost obsessive. In our current day and age, the act of self-quantification is getting an immense amount of attention.

It is instantly gratifying to see a number displayed on your device telling you that you have lost weight or that you are improving another aspect of your life. Having self-knowledge means you can improve yourself and have a greater understanding of your own body. You can become more efficient and productive with daily tasks or at work.

But some concerns should be raised when viewing the role of self-quantifying apps in our lives. Do you find yourself relying on a Facebook notification to tell you when a friend’s birthday is, or can you remember the last time you memorised a phone number? Is there something almost dehumanising about letting technology control your life and influence your decisions?


This is not a new phenomenon

Humans have been self-tracking for hundreds of years with the earliest evidence of scales dating back to 2000 BC in Pakistan.

The Ancient Egyptians placed great religious importance on weighing one’s soul after death to judge their good and bad deeds, often depicting scales in their hieroglyphs as well as using the cubit measuring system, which is based on the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, in the construction of the pyramids.

Within the last two centuries, weighing scales have gradually permeated across society, in doctor’s offices, bathrooms, gyms and on the streets. No longer the apparatus of scholars or craftsmen, scales became more accessible to the common people through the invention of spring scales in 1770 and the public ‘penny scale’ in 1885. With domestic weighing scales following not long after, people could finally weigh themselves at home in private.

Towards the latter half of the last century, weighing became more precise, digital scales were invented, and computers became more advanced and smaller to the point that they could be worn on the body. The FitBit was invented in 2008 to be the first wearable consumer self-tracking device; it ushered in an age of wearable devices that track our weight, sleep, location, fitness levels, and many more aspects.

Today, there are a variety of brands with their own smartwatches or fitness trackers such as Garmin, Fitbit, Samsung’s Galaxy Fit, and the Apple Watch, with each iteration becoming more sophisticated, precise, and able to measure and track more variables.

They are also designed to work with dedicated apps on your phone or other devices to store data such as routes, set goals, measure progress, and share data with others on the app or social media.


The Quantified Self Movement

In 2007, the notion of the ‘quantified self’ was put forward by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly as a term that “embodies self-knowledge through self-tracking.” This later formed a cultural movement that still persists today through further advancements in self-tracking technology.

Indeed, there are many benefits to utilising self-tracking technology.

We can track our daily habits, calorie consumption, weight, money spent, and how much sleep we are getting. Our schedule can be better managed by apps or trackers that send us reminders of tasks to do and help us plan our days better.

Apps can also be used to help manage health conditions such as Crohn’s disease, and there are dozens of mental health apps that help users manage depression and anxiety through tasks like writing down thoughts and feelings.

A machine won’t lie to you but that doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong. Anyone who has used GPS technology knows how inconsistent it can be. Even step-counting with a tracker is often an approximation based on a specific algorithm working in tandem with a built-in accelerometer.

Furthermore, measurements such as weight can fluctuate wildly from day to day, making them unreliable for measuring progress. Still, we often take this information at face value as we have grown accustomed to the accuracy and impartial nature of computers. It could also make users feel unsatisfied with themselves and become disheartened, leading them to possibly develop eating disorders.

One could view the use of this technology in almost every facet of our lives as us dehumanising ourselves by surrendering control of our lives to these apps or gadgets. As humans, we may have an over-reliance on such technology, and without it we are helpless.

Using self-tracking technology also raises issues with data privacy as you are willingly handing over your data for companies to store and use. This could open the door to data misuse much like the Cambridge Analytica Scandal or the risk of data breaches leaking your information online.

This can be particularly worrying for users of fitness apps like Strava which can record its users’ running routes. At the same time, it may put users at risk of stalking if they frequently run in their local area or close to their homes. If the app users link their accounts to their other social media profiles, the consequences can get much worse.

Luckily, apps like Strava do have enhanced privacy settings, allowing you to control what you want other users to see. However, if you are unaware of what data you are publicly broadcasting, you may be oblivious to the potential problem.

This type of data collection may also be compromising for not only individuals but for organisations and companies. In 2017, Strava’s Heatmap accidentally outlined US military bases in clear detail by showing the patrol routes of soldiers, consequentially posing a clear security risk.

Considering the obvious concerns over how accurate or reliable self-tracking data is, perhaps the use of such data in the courtroom should be scrutinised too.

The first use of user data in the legal system was in 2014 when it was used to prove fraud. Since then there have been several cases where personal data has been used, and just this year, Fitbit’s data was used partially to obtain a conviction in a murder trial. Using data that is arguably not always accurate in a legal setting could be problematic.

Self-tracking is ultimately a useful tool that can make life easier, and help us improve, or manage things. Nonetheless, we should be wary of the potential dangers around our data privacy and how self-tracking can impact us negatively.

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