The Art of Personal Science

***Post originally written for the STEAM publication 

The Art of Personal Science

A few hours before sitting down to write this commentary, I was surrounded by 25 self-trackers at the Los Angeles Quantified Self meetup. At each one of these meetups, which are entirely organized through Meetup.com, certain attendees are asked to give “show-and-tell” presentations about their personal self-tracking projects and self-experimentation efforts.   

During this particular meetup, I learned about a smart-desk that will track your productivity and automatically shift its height when it sees that you have been sitting for too long.  I learned how one woman was able to predict the occurrence of migraines by tracking her menstrual cycle and diet. I witnessed a demonstration of how one man uses women’s sports bras to strategically hold in place physiological sensors to monitor his heart rate variability and stress. I was even so lucky as to be among the first people in the world to be given visual access to a prototype for a fart-tracker (because tracking the regularity or irregularity of one’s flatulence is obviously the best way to learn about the healthiness of one’s gut microbes).

Many people associate the “quantifiable” and “quantitative” with unambiguity and objectiveness. People are drawn to the Quantified Self by the allure of becoming a personal scientist empowered with the latest advances in personal technology. They are seduced by the notion of being able to definitively solve one’s problems, find rational answers, and uncover the truth.

But the Quantified Self isn’t really about finding answers or solving problems—it’s about asking new questions. 


Quantified Self as the Process of Self-Expression

I certainly came away from tonight’s meetup with more questions than answers: 

  • How can I use what I learned here tonight in my own life?
  • What relevant information about myself might I be overlooking? 
  • What’s truly important to me, and how might I go about collecting data in efforts to develop myself and optimize my life? 

In fact, most self-trackers never even get around to analyzing their personal data. If you were to ask a random sample of self-trackers how to run a regression, chances are many of them would think you are speaking a foreign language. What academics label as rigorous science is nowhere to even be found in this community of practice (with exceptions of course).

It may indeed be more appropriate to describe the Quantified Self as a form of art.

Just as the artist expresses himself to the world through his artwork, the self-tracker expresses herself to others through numbers. Just as the artist finds meaning through painting, the self-tracker makes meaning through the process of asking questions, collecting data, and extrapolating significance


Quantified Self as Autotelic Experience

For many, self-tracking has no end goal. It is a means with no end. It is a series of never-ending, emergent questions. Self-tracking is done simply for the sake of doing it, because the process of discovery and experimentation is intrinsically motivating and personally rewarding. 

As I sat through tonight’s show-and-tell talks, I couldn’t help but be amazed by how energized, inspired, and curious the presenters were as they expressed themselves through their own unique (i.e very weird) self-tracking projects.

Like the title of this post suggests, the Quantified Self may bring with it a new renaissance of artistic expression and personal meaning. And fart-tracking.

 

 

 

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