Why "Why Quantified Self is Bullshit" Misses the Boat

Recently, Fitocracy founder Dick Talens wrote an article on Pandodaily called "Why Quantified Self is Bullshit."

Although I agree with many of the points he is making in the article, in my opinion, the title of his post is a bit misleading, and frankly, a gross over-generalization.  Either Mr. Talens does not have a real understanding of the people who embody the Quantfied Self, or he simply went for shock value to draw attention to his post.  Here's his basic argument, which is a valid point that I for the most part agree with:

“Fitness isn’t an arithmetic problem. Neither is it a technology problem. Fitness is a human problem….What successful people carry are humility, curiosity, and self-compassion. These human qualities allow people to see technology as it’s used best — a tool for empowerment. They use technology to join communities, learn about evidence-based exercise and nutrition, track their progress, and create long lasting habits. Technology is not an end but a means to an end.”

BUT...A few things to clarify...

For QS'ers, tech has always been about discovery and optimization.  These two goals are not mutually exclusive, but rather synergistic and shifting in nature.  As mentioned before in a previous post about why people self-track and conduct self-experiments:

  1. They have a specific goal, such as weight loss or sleeping better. 
  2. They are curious.  People see collecting data as helpful in maintaining overall self-awareness. It is like keeping a quantitative diary.
  3. They believe personal data is an investment that will pay off in the future.  They want to establish a baseline with which to measure future changes

In cases 2 and 3, self-tracking is part of an exploratory worldview in which the key goal is learning through the process of data collection and interpretation.  Often times, a goal-oriented tracking project can transform into a curiosity-driven exploration, which then may shift into a new way of life.  Overall, self-quantifiers believe that they can increase control over their own lives, free themselves from destructive habits, and pursue and achieve meaningful goals armed with the utmost insight.

What Dick fails to consider in his half-way valid post are reasons #2 and #3 for why people engage in QS.  True, for a person with a solid goal such as weight loss or fitness, simply getting a FitBit or Fuelband and looking at their step counts and calories burned might not get them any closer to their goals.  To believe that simply getting a novel gadget to give one a six pack is just plain silly.


I know you bought or considered buying one of these back in the day. I know.

The type of people who think doing such a thing is a cure-all, are simply and purely self-delusional.  But full-blown self-delusion is not a characteristic of the Quantified Selfer.  The whole point of QS is to get a more accurate, objective picture on one's life.  It is to become a personal scientist, test assumptions, pose hypotheses, and collect and analyze data to find answers, rather than being at the mercy of just intuition or skewed memory.  If someone is doing otherwise, they are not a QS'er but someone who might just be on a technology bandwagon. 

"Technology is not an end but a means to an end.” - Dick Talens

The more interesting motivations behind self-quantifiers, however, lie in simply being curious, and viewing self-tracking as something meaningful in their lives.  For these people, there may not necessarily be an end goal.  Discovery, curiosity, and engagement are the driving forces for those who fit this bill (and to some extent, these motivations will apply to any QS'er if they engage in self-tracking long enough). 

This above quote from Dick, completely and utterly misses a key concept in how technology is being used as a positive developmental tool...

Quantified Self is an autotelic experience.

For many, self-tracking has no hard set end goal.  It is a means with no end.  It is done simply for the sake of doing it, because the process of discovery and optimization is intrinsically motivating, enjoyable, and emergent in nature.  Tracking one's steps may seem completely useless and ineffective to some, but to others, simply doing so is rewarding in and of itself. And who knows, as new experiences emerge, the QS'er may stumble upon questions and insights that would not have presented themselves had they not been applying attention to a seemingly mundane self-tracking activity.

Research shows that autotelic experiences are related to elevated levels of well-being.  It is highly possible that engaging in the process of self-tracking and self-experimentation over time can bring about positive spirals of curiosity, creative self efficacy, happiness, and meaning in life (Fajans, in progress).  In other words, self-tracking is a deliberate activity that (in addition to possibly achieving optimization goals) has indirect consequences on the quality and effectiveness of one's life.

Lastly, Dick argues that technology without context is ineffective.  But surprise, surprise - I have a different view here as well...

The lack of context is why QS is such a powerful movement.

For most people in this world, lack of context in terms of technology is entirely debilitating.  Quantified Self tools without context are ineffective because many people just simply don't approach life through a self-experimental world view.  Most people haven't been exposed to learning and education based on the scientific method. Many just lack the exposure, and thus the skills and self-efficacy, to fully take advantage of self-tracking technology. (This is why I have proposed interventions and trainings to build Self-Experimentation Capacity and Sam Spurlin and I have been working towards developing a model of quantified coaching.)

But for those people who are developmentally ready to reap the benefits of self-tracking process, this lack of context is exactly the crucial component that allows people to construct their own personally meaningful context.

Counting steps by itself may lack meaning or efficacy, but this lack of context allows curious and creative individuals to examine relationships between their own personally meaningful variables. One person finds meaning in seeing how the number of steps affects their evaluation of their day while one is curious about the relationship between steps taken throughout the day and how it affects sleep quality, which in turn might effect one's productivity at work the next day.

This lack of context is what makes QS so powerful. It gives people freedom to choose and utilize their personal data however they best deem fit, rather than having an externally prescribed context or process. Check out the Quantified Self blog.  After perusing the show and tell videos, it doesn't take long to realize the power and non-bullshitiness of it all, especially in terms of promoting self-awareness, meaning, and engagement in one's lives.

To wrap things up...

I think most individuals are actually inherently very curious about something that’s going on in their lives and they’re trying to understand that thing, whatever that thing is, at a deeper more personal level. We like to think of this from a QS standpoint and this really comes from our founder Gary Wolf. We think that QS is actually partly engaged with a new process of creating knowledge and that’s creating knowledge from a very individual and personal standpoint, and that’s where things are really powerful right now.

-Ernesto Ramirez, Quantified Self Labs Director

.....And that is why Quantified Self is NOT Bullshit


Endnote: For a better argument against QS, check out the creepy side of tracking technology here.