Quantified Self, Self-Tracking, and Self-Awareness

Anny Chang

Self-tracking devices are getting more notice from people nowadays. More and more people measure their Quantified Self, which is self-knowledge, by tracking themselves with wearable devices. Until now, people’s impression and opinions about it were pretty positive. However, it is important to consider the privacy issues between the individual and device companies, the possibilities of the biased statistical outcomes, and many other negatives. The behavior of gathering QS data encourages people to understand themselves more and acquire more self-awareness which is psychologically profitable to individual’s development.

Quantified Self and Self-Tracking

A growing number of people are using self-tracking devices and mobile applications such as Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike+ to monitor, and analyze their fitness. Although the concept of self-tracking, lifelogging or body-hacking has existed for centuries, the Quantified Self, as a label of “a collaboration of users and tool makers who share an interest in self-knowledge through self-tracking” was proposed by Wired Magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007.

For many years, people have been collecting different sorts of self-tracking data, both quantitative and qualitative, served and displayed in varied ways from professional medical research to a more contemporary trend of data visualization. For example, Santorio Santorio, also called Sanctorius of Padua, a Venetian physiologist, physician, professor, is one of the earliest documented examples of quantified self-tracking. He recorded the weight of what he ate and drank, as well as his urine and feces for thirty years to study people’s metabolism in the 16th century.

Nicholas Felton an infographic designer, gathered every minute of his life from his own memory, calendar, photos, and Last.fm data.He translated this quotidian data into artistic charts. He published these charts as Personal Annual Reports starting in 2005 until 2014. His aim was not only analytical but also aesthetic, the playing of recording, analyzing and visualizing self-quantification was a notable specimen of an individual collecting personal data and evaluating their self before QS, the term came out.

The principal formula for the Quantified Self is to analyze data that, for the most part, is automatically collected by wearable devices. The essential element differentiating QS from any other previous self-measurement is that the contemporary “quantified self” highlights technology. Being small and cheap allows new technologies to be on smartphones or watches, quantitative methods that only existed in science and business are now brought to the personal sphere. On top of that, in the era of big data, despite QS beginning from self-tracking, there is a larger picture of gathering the shared data from each device and working collaboratively to optimize the analytical suggestions generated by the system.

The mechanism of QS is a cycle of examination, interpretation, and improvement of people’s lives toward a higher quality self. Even though the gathered data is quantitative, people often explain and utilize the data qualitatively. Swan (2013) claimed that there may be little purpose to self-tracking if there is no feedback loop connecting it back to real-life problem solving and behavior change. The ultimate goal of self-tracking would still be to produce meaningful insights from the data obtained and provoke people to take action to change their behaviors. Companies which provide services analyzing personal self-tracking data do not usually give users the raw data collected from their devices. Instead they deliver it in charts, or deliver descriptions derived from statistical methodology. This is done because people are better at thinking in narratives.

While QS, considered as self-tracking 1.0, already covered a variety of areas, for instance, weight, steps walked, sleep quality, and locations, which are basic quantitative facts and has qualitative impacts. Self-tracking 2.0 is tracking qualitative phenomena such as mood, emotion, and happiness more directly. People can either enter qualitative descriptions or report numbers where a qualitative phenomenon has been mapped on a quantitative scale to establish the qualitative data(e.g., my mood today is 4 out of 5). Since QS has already influenced people’s life quality, self-tracking 2.0 might have more potential for people.

Self-Tracking and Self-Awareness

Since Wolf and Kelly considered the idea of the Quantified Self to be beneficial, they founded a California-based company. The goal of their company, Quantified Self Lab, is to encourage more people to discover themselves. They aim to do this by holding international conferences, meetings and providing a community worldwide for self-tracking users to share and exchange information.

Self-awareness entails both the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals. Self-awareness theory was first proposed by psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wichlund’s (1972) in their landmark book A Theory of Objective Self-awareness. In their book they state “when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.”. In Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, he formulates a more popular explanation of self-awareness as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.”. Because self-awareness is not only the process of noting people’s self but also monitoring their inner world, the more opportunities people have for self exploration, the more the develop their own self-awareness. They also have more opportunities to improve their mental health. According to Goleman self-awareness is the keystone to emotional intelligence. When people begin thinking about their behaviors, they start thinking about their motivation and emotions behind the events themselves. Subsequently, people may begin trying to manage themselves, their every movement, and their lives.

However, if people have more self-awareness, their response toward the discovery could become quite emotional. In spite of the significant positive correlation between the level of self-awareness and psychological health, as long as people bring judgments into the procedure of self-awareness, the whole system may not work as it should. While people gradually create a more complete image of themselves, some will compare themselves with the others. After performing this comparison they may alter their behaviors and encounter fulfillment or dissatisfaction. For example, some people adjust their diet depending on their weight from self-tracking data but may not be able to achieve the weight they want. In addition, by becoming more self-aware, people’s various emotional states are intensified. They show stronger emotional feedback after succeeding or failing to meet the set standard. That is to say, those people who already feel anxiety or disappointment may feel more amplified negative emotional feedback from the data.

Despite the possible negative impacts for a small portion of the population, higher levels of self awareness would be positive for the majority of people. Because people lack self-awareness, self-tracking can be seen as an advantageous practice. Self tracking effectively supports people beginning to understand themselves better. Many people participate in self-tracking because they want to improve their quality of life. Current advanced technologies are more accessible for people to start systematically watching and caring for themselves. Due to the new types of data involved, compared to self-tracking 1.0, self-tracking 2.0 may speed up the process of self-awareness. The participants in self-tracking 2.0 will hopefully try to understand their psychological condition while entering the answer of their mood into the system.


“’QSers’ don’t just self-track; they also interrogate the experiences, methods, and meanings of their self-tracking practices, and of self-tracking practices generally.” (Boesel 2013)

For contemporary self-tracking, there is still a lot of room for discussion. When it comes to encouraging people to be more self-aware, its advantages are undeniable. Self-tracking can be a big step towards greater self-awareness. The collected data and the analyzed results can potentially contain mistakes, or arouse many negative emotions. Whatever data we would like to capture to form a more accurate image of ourselves, taking it too far will always be harmful. However, seeking to understand ourselves better is much more significant than the data derived from the behavior. □


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Anny Chang is in her second year at Parsons School of Design, pursuing an MFA degree in Design and Technology.