The bookshelves in Natasha Dow Schüll’s office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are punctuated here and there with kitchen timers: a windup orange plastic device, an egg-shaped stainless steel mechanical timer, a digital hourglass with falling pixels in lieu of sand.
At one time, Ms. Schüll, an associate professor at M.I.T.’s program in science, technology and society, employed these relics to track and manage her time while she was writing her doctoral dissertation.
Since then, she has graduated to a more controlling productivity aid. She uses software with the Orwellian name of Freedom to temporarily block Internet access on her computer. It forces her to stop browsing and concentrate on her writing.
“These are little shields against the temptations and fallibilities of being human,” Ms. Schüll said when I visited her recently to discuss her research on digital self-monitoring and self-modification devices.
Ms. Schüll, a cultural anthropologist, studies the relationship between people and technology. And her own progression from managing her writing schedule with an hourglass to ceding control to an Internet lockdown app parallels the technological shifts she is exploring in a book due to be released next year.
Titled “Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation and the Data-Driven Life,” the book charts the evolution of contemporary digital self-tracking. The phenomenon originated in 2009 as a do-it-yourself community called Quantified Self, in which tech enthusiasts and other data obsessives analyzed details from their daily lives with the aim of gaining insights into their own behavior patterns. The idea was to increase self-knowledge and autonomy through numbers.
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Consumer electronics developers — or “quantrepreneurs” in industry parlance — soon took up this idea, expanding the market for fitness activity and health trackers. Suddenly, it was easy for consumers to monitor the number of steps they took every day, the calories they ingested and the hours they slept.
But now that retailers like Best Buy and Amazon are dedicating extensive real estate to wearable wellness gadgets, Ms. Schüll has noticed another trend: devices whose primary function is less to enlighten users with information than to prod them to change.
This new category of nudging technology, she says, includes “hydration reminder” apps like Waterlogged that exhort people to increase their water consumption; the HAPIfork, a utensil that vibrates and turns on a light indicator when people eat too quickly; and Thync, “neurosignaling” headgear that delivers electrical pulses intended to energize or relax people.
“There is this dumbing-down, which assumes people do not want the data, they just want the devices to help them,” Ms. Schüll observes. “It is not really about self-knowledge anymore. It’s the nurselike application of technology.”
In the move to the mass market, it seems, the quantified self has become the infantilized self.
Industry executives, however, argue that devices that simply collect and display numerical information about users’ behavior are unlikely to spur them to make durable changes in their habits. People typically use fitness activity trackers for only four to six months and then lose interest, says Dr. Nick van Terheyden, the chief medical information officer of Nuance Communications, a language-processing and voice technology company.
“Technology that is static, that is passive, doesn’t persist and doesn’t engage you,” Dr. van Terheyden says. So Nuance has joined with 22 Otters, a health app developer, to introduce capabilities that allow users to obtain customized health information from their apps by voice.
Ms. Schüll’s interest in the self-tracking phenomenon developed in reaction to research she conducted for a book on casinos called “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.” Among other things, she studied how casinos were starting to customize slot machine games to players in real time, based in part on their spending habits and appetite for risk.
“I got exhausted from looking at the detailed ways technology gets manipulated to influence consumer behavior and experiences,” she explains.
She was subsequently drawn to the self-tracking movement, she says, in part because it involved people actively analyzing and acting upon insights derived from their own behavior data — rather than having companies monitor and manipulate them.
“It’s like you are a detective of the self and you have discerned these patterns,” Ms. Schüll says. For example, someone might notice correlations between personal driving habits and mood swings. “Then you can make this change and say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to drive downtown anymore because it makes me grumpy.’ ”
Lately, however, devices are asking consumers to cede their free will to machine algorithms.
On the day I visited Ms. Schüll in her office at M.I.T., for instance, she showed me the Lumo Lift, a posture-correction device, which involves having users clip a plastic sensor under their clothing. The app has typical data-tracking features, displaying the number of steps taken per day and the number of “good posture hours.” But Lumo Lift’s real draw is its “posture coaching” function. The wearable disk vibrates when someone slouches, delivering a little buzzing zap to the skin.
“It relieves you of the burden of remembering to sit up straight all day,” Ms. Schüll said. “It’s giving over to the technology this power to tell you who you are, to guide how you live.”
Ms. Schüll stresses that she does not lump all self-tracking and self-modulation devices into the same category. While some self-zapping gizmos may resemble human cattle prods, other devices use more complex cues to encourage people to adopt new behavior.
She likes the Muse, a brain-wave monitoring headband intended to help people understand their state of mind by playing different sounds depending on whether they are distracted or calm. She describes the three-minute Muse sessions as technology-assisted meditation training, techniques that people can then try as they go about their day without the headband.
“Based on what it registers, it plays loud, disruptive wind or waves lapping or, if you are supercalm and you maintain it for a while, you get calm, lovely noises of birds tweeting,” Ms. Schüll says. “You do learn to calm your mind.”
Perhaps the new self-tracking and self-improvement technologies will benefit people, but they could just as well create more anxiety. An article published a few days ago in The BMJ, a British medical journal, for instance, described healthy people who use self-tracking apps as “young, asymptomatic, middle-class neurotics continuously monitoring their vital signs while they sleep.”
But whether these gadgets have beneficial outcomes may not be the point. Like vitamin supplements, for which there is very little evidence of benefit in healthy people, just the act of buying these devices makes many people feel they are investing in themselves. Quantrepreneurs at least are banking on it.