The Quantified Self Evolves: A South By Southwest (SXSW) Vision of How Gadgets Will Teach Us About Ourselves

How do we go from nifty wearable gadgets to the dawn of a new cultural mindset? I have no idea – but I’m pretty sure someone at South By Southwest will figure it out.

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Updated March 12, 2013

One of the great storylines at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival is the rapid push from Big Data to My Data – or the mainstreaming of the Quantified Self movement that has succeeded in bringing data analysis and wearable technology into our daily lives. I found it telling that two of the festival’s kick-off events Friday evening — “The New Nature vs. Nurture: Big Data & Identity” and “Quantified Year: 365 Days of Tracking Everything” — focused exclusively on this technological shift. I found it even more telling that the latter presentation, organized and hosted by Leslie Ziegler, concluded not with an answer but a broader existential question — about how people will actually use this surge in documented personal information.

Across numerous panels last weekend – and sure to be continued on Quantified panels tomorrow, which are addressing personalized health care – the larger implications of body hacking were scrutinized and debated, with a focus on physical performance, dieting, consumption and the documenting of mental states. And most speakers seemed to agree that this is a science and cultural trend at a crossroads, as inventors and early adopters look to convert popular technology into proactive decision making.

“I very much view this trend as a ‘Quantified Self’ spectrum – at one end is stasis, in the middle is mindfulness, but the ultimate goal is behavior change,” said Ziegler, who spoke with TIME on Thursday ahead of taking the stage in Austin. “And I feel like we’ve only reached the mindfulness stage…the future of this movement will be the development of new devices that aid you in altering the behaviors that you want to change. We already have the technology but now how do we make the technology for seamless, and the data more actionable? I feel like we are on the brink of taking that next big step.”

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Ziegler, a 30-year-old San Francisco designer and former creative director of the health tech startup Rock Health, said she pitched her South By Southwest presentation on a whim. It was a couple years ago when she started tracking her own health and lifestyle after she was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the age of 27 – a condition that has both no known cause and no known cure. Obsessed with determining what was causing this inflammatory bowel disease, and how she could modify her behavior to minimize its symptoms, Ziegler structured her life around measurement and documentation. Embracing aggressive blood and genetic testing, as well as employing mobile apps and digital devices, she set out to create a database and flowchart of her life, chronicling all inputs, outputs and relative change.

“It was partly out of need, and also partly out of curiosity – I wanted to know what you could document, and what you could learn from that process,” she says. “So I tried charting everything I came in contact with for a year. Calorie tracking, weight change, exercise volume, as well as disruptions to my routine. I exported my daily calendar, and tried to isolate how stressful events, like work travel, affected my condition. If I travel and don’t exercise, shocker here, I tend to gain weight.”

Having all this raw data at her disposal, Ziegler then set out to adhere to new routines, and to be mindful of behaviors that tended to inflame her IBD condition. In terms of pure data volume, Ziegler’s case is an impressive real-world example of what so many SXSW attendees are talking about this week in Austin – using state-of-the-art technology to give yourself more data about your lifestyle, and more control over your health.

But far more interesting that Ziegler’s data set was the epiphany that occurred to her only after the end of this year-long tracking binge. “I had several initial conclusions about my statistics, but what surprised me even more, and this confirms nearly every study, was the difference I saw in my data between when I tracked myself versus when I didn’t,” Ziegler recalls. “So it’s not really apples to apples – when I wasn’t tracking I tended to weigh three pounds more than when I was consciously monitoring things, regardless of my daily habits. And I started to realize: It’s this act of tracking that in some ways shapes and influences our behavior.”

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Her conclusion: The next evolution of wearable tech will bridge this gap, converting passive tracking into active behavior change. Rather than needing to aggressively monitor yourself, the next generation of gadgets and devices will proactively track you and analyze the data, informing you of ways that you can alter your routine given the metrics you’re trying to hit. “We’re on the brink of really exciting things – devices that monitor things and then give you actionable updates before you even need to ask,” she says. “One of the firms I’m watching is MC10, which has developed these sensors that can conform to the human body and are about the size of a postage stamp. It’s a huge help for athletes – they can monitor hydration, they’ve developed a sensor for a football helmet that can alert of a possible concussion. Reebok is installing impact sensors that let athletes know if they need to stop training, based on body stress. You start looking at other things, like fetal monitoring…this is the brave new world.”

As Ziegler sees it, the most valuable application of these Quantified Self creations will be the coming revolution in the medical industry, as tracking allows doctors to make a major shift from treating illness to assisting with prevention: “It’s re-thinking the entire model – about tracking the number of steps you’ve taken and the number of calories you’ve burned, but then combining that information with the medical knowledge that allows you to successfully prevent things like diabetes. If you have prediabetes, there’s absolutely no reason you need to get it full-blown, and it’s situations like that where this technology could be a game changer – to know the dangers, and the preventative steps you need to make, and then pairing all that with your tracking, to ensure you hit your marks. It will be a whole new era of preventative empowerment.”

So how do we get from nifty, and expensive, wearable gadgets to the dawn of a new cultural mindset? I have no idea – but I’m pretty sure someone at South By Southwest like Leslie Ziegler will figure it out.

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