Dec 25th, 2022, 10:00 AM

Data or You Didn’t Do It

By Megan Addeo
Image credit: Peter Nestor
Self-tracking can be a double-edged ego trip.

Data or you didn’t do it is a phenomenon that is increasingly permeating our lives. Society is constantly looking for ways to explain the world through numbers by collecting data to determine ‘truth’ or ‘value’. And I’m one of the millions who have bought into self-knowledge through numbers.

I’d like to blame (but also thank) my parents for gifting me my first Garmin watch in 2016. I had called it quits on the soccer pitch after multiple knee injuries and picked up running as my primary form of exercise–and enjoyment. My Garmin has been my running buddy since. Just last year, my body gained a second self-tracking device, an Oura ring. I actively self-track my steps, running mileage, heart rate exertion, stress, and sleep using these two devices, paired with the Oura App, Garmin Connect, and Strava.







Image credit: Megan Addeo

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy self-tracking and particularly love the Strava app. I can find cool running routes anywhere, and the social media component makes me feel closer to friends who live on the other side of the world. But recently I’ve noticed a shift in my habits. As a graduate student living in Paris, my lifestyle has taken a 180 turn since living and working in California. The nudges my fitness trackers gave me used to inspire me to get out for a hike with my dog, and now they really just piss me off. No, it’s not time to stretch my legs, Oura. I have a paper due before midnight.

At the moment, I’m not particularly proud of the state of my quantified self. This concept got me thinking more critically about distinct pros and cons of self-tracking. Ultimately, I’m approaching the conclusion that I’m more than my data. And you are, too.


How’d We Get Here?

The advent of computing has accelerated the possibilities and adoption of the pursuit of the Quantified Self, a term established by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. (See Wolf’s brief TED Talk above). Tools like smart wristbands, watches, rings, and patches make self-tracking accessible and convenient. In the United States, some 400 million smartwatch devices a year (of all brands) are expected to be sold globally by 2026–an 100% increase from 2020.

We are increasingly pressured to quantify our lives to assess ‘worth’. Data and metrics have been so normalized that quantification has crept into all facets of our lives. Btihaj Ajana, researcher and author, explains that metric culture “also links to issues of power and control, to questions of value and agency and to expressions of self and identity…” in her book Metric Culture: Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices. Metrics are used to value, prioritize, and reassert authority. Many people choose to self-track to feel in control in a world that feels progressively chaotic.

Self-Tracking Upsides

People self-track for a variety of other reasons, including to remember moments of their lives, satisfy the curiosity about their personal and social behavioral patterns, achieve health, emotional and wellbeing goals, and/or work more 'productively'. Personally, I was (and still am) excited about how self-tracking can help me level-up. I know it’s not a good idea to wake up tomorrow morning and run a marathon, but if I can incrementally increase the strain I put on my body, a marathon becomes possible.

Academic research, like Etkin’s 2016 article The Hidden Cost of Personal Quantification, suggests that self-tracking can improve motivation. When fitness trackers are paired with social networks, gamification features have been found to inspire users and encourage friendly competition, helping improve one’s motivation to exercise. In support of this notion, my friend Peter Nestor, an athlete from San Francisco who just completed his first half Ironman Triathlon said, “I get fired up when I see that a buddy just did a big ride or run. It makes me excited to get out for a workout of my own.”

Image credit: Megan Addeo

Self-Tracking Downsides

On the flip side, self-tracking can occasionally undermine enjoyment and blur notions of self. I’m in the midst of experiencing all of these results.

Living actively is just as much for mental health as it is for physical health. Focusing too much on metrics can become a form of self-sabotage. I find myself referring to data I captured months ago, comparing myself now to the way I was then. These tendencies are a total shot to my ego. “Sinister forces–self-judgment and control—can sometimes team up to trigger us into a cascade of guilt, self-loathing, and, as shitty human luck would have it, unhealthy behavior” writes Anna Maltby, writer and editor, in her Medium article The Dangerous Allure of the Quantified Self. Removing ourselves from the constant hustle and reaffirming that movement is about our own minds and bodies can help us avoid falling into the trap of constant quantification. I find it helpful to pause and ask myself questions like: How am I feeling physically and emotionally today? What kind of movement would make me happiest today?

Whether self-tracking athletes like to admit it or not, fitness-focused social media profiles are constructed and moderated just like other social media networks are–to represent the desired self. I recently discovered the concept of “e-doping”, or the manipulation of software in order to enhance the perception of a user’s performance. Some people get so bogged down by the numbers that they tamper with aspects of who they project themselves to be virtually just to get some kudos–Strava’s version of liking or favoriting.

Sustaining enjoyment and perceptions of self in a quantified world requires taking metrics “with a grain of salt,” said Joey Berriatua, professional runner living in Boulder, Colorado. “Everybody is so different and our bodies can handle different things, physically and mentally. We can't trust our watches completely. We should always focus more so on our internal data and let the devices be add-ons. We shouldn’t let data drive what we’re doing as athletes.”

A Long Future of Self-Tracking

Self-tracking isn’t going anywhere. The benefits that knowledge about our bodies can provide is undeniable and go far beyond tracking athletic performance. But must so many of us choose to track every single one of our activities? Why don’t we leave that up to the internet service providers and networks to whom we constantly sign our data away. Instead, I suggest we readjust our focus from external validation through numbers, to intrinsic enjoyment and health. As Albert Einstein once wrote: “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”