If self-tracking is really going to enable us to learn about ourselves, it will have to become an ecosystem where recording measurements is just one link in the chain.
L'Atelier: Do we really learn a lot about ourselves by collecting physiological and behavioural measurements?
Candide Kemmler: What actually happens is that you get an indication of a strong tendency, but one that may take some time to develop. You’re going to have more and more information on yourself and little by little you should be able to set in motion practices around this data, these habits, these trends. But to get to that stage, you have to be able to combine different kinds of information. Measurement alone will not suffice for us to understand what’s happening. We need a lot of data and we need to be able to visualise it, aggregate it and combine it. There’s a lot of equipment on the market that provides a partial view. If the tools are going to work properly, data must be aggregated and combined in a complex way. Using this method, many people have found the means to understand how they function, and have thus been able to live more in tune with themselves.
L'Atelier: Are you saying that the data a person gets on him/herself are not in themselves significant?
Candide Kemmler: Measurement in itself provides merely anecdotal evidence, which doesn’t mean much on its own. Of course there’s an appealing, trendy aspect to the ‘Quantified Self’-type solutions that are on the market. But if a person wants to find real meaning in the data, s/he needs guidance - a personal coach or a tracking tool. We work with ‘Body Track’, an initiative coming out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA. ‘Body Track’ focuses on developing a tool which carries out a self-examination. The system aggregates and combines data from several different sources and then generates a synthesis and maintains ongoing correlations which the person might not have thought of. To make this really work, there’s then a whole phase which goes beyond technologies. The laboratory organises working sessions with participants to teach them to examine their own lives and spot what they’re really searching for. So it helps people, teaches them to use the tools.
L'Atelier: So you have to integrate the human factor into these measurements?
Candide Kemmler: Absolutely. All the more so since the ‘Quantified Self’-type approach touches on really intimate things. I organise “meet ups” on self-measurement in Brussels. In the beginning a lot of the people who showed up were just curious – geeks, basically. The problem was that we weren’t going anywhere. At recent meetings there have been fewer people and they’ve begun to talk about themselves, to open up. We’ve gone beyond the tools and have started to get to grips with a number of real issues. What’s really useful about self-measurement is the suspension of judgement it requires. When you measure, you take objective data and ask yourself what it means. This allows you to take a fresh stance with regard to your own assumptions.