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Big Mother Is Watching You: The Track-Everything Revolution Is Here Whether You Want It Or Not

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The first thing I do every morning is take my phone, wedged carefully beneath my pillow, and check my sleep stats. They’re tracked, in a weirdly calming graph of blue-blacks, within an app called Sleep Cycle, where I’ve used them to feel very, very good about the sleep habits of a thirtysomething, childless journalist. Sometimes I take screenshots of my stats, hovering so self-righteously over eight hours a night, and send them to friends; earlier this fall, I Instagrammed a particularly impressive 10 hours, the result of a solid dose of strep throat medication.

Anne Helen Petersen / BuzzFeed

For most of the last three years, I've lived by the gospel of my sleep quality percentage. So what if I had a dream so vivid that I woke up in tears and felt like I’d slept not at all? My sleep quality said 88%, so I was expecting a B+ day.

But I also harbor a shameful secret: I cheat. I simply opt not to track the nights I stay out like my college-freshman self. They mess with my stats, which is to say, they mess with the way I like to believe and present how I live my life. Therefore, I pretend they don’t exist.

I had been tracking my sleep for three years when I discovered that even if I hadn’t periodically cheated, everything I thought about “quality” was, in fact, suspect. As multiple engineers, scientists, and designers who have devoted themselves to creating devices that track sleep with precision told me, Sleep Cycle — and, for that matter, any app or device that uses motion to judge sleep quality — is incredibly imprecise. As one researcher put it, “actionless sleep and good sleep are not the same thing,” a finding echoed in numerous scientific studies.

Weirdly, I didn’t feel betrayed so much as curious, because they aren't the only ones in this emerging space: By 2018, there will be 60 million fitness trackers in use worldwide. In, outside, and around the body and our homes, the devices just keep coming — in part because the funding does as well: As of September 2014, $ 1.4 billion in venture capital funding has been directed toward the wearable and biosensing market; by 2018, wearable sales are expected to push $ 30.2 billion. Fitbit and Jawbone have attracted a significant percentage of that capital ($ 66 million and $ 470 million, respectively).

For most of the last 25 years, the internet concerned itself with taking existing information and organizing it in a way that made it instantly accessible; these new devices are capturing data that used to be inaccessible and turning it into something knowable. Yet talking with nearly two dozen companies, it seems clear that the molded plastic of the fitness tracker and the dubious findings of the sleep app are merely the rudimentary beginnings of an all-encompassing cultural groundswell.

Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses the new Apple Watch during an event at Apple headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014 in Cupertino, California.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo

The next generation of devices — led by the Apple Watch, which aims to put health trackers on 15 million wrists — will focus on providing actionable insights on everything from posture to sun exposure, from blood oxygenation to infant respiration. Another host of devices communicate with our homes, our pets, our cars; others will track our elderly parents and our wandering children. Still more will track focus in the workplace, compliance to prescriptions from physical therapists, exposure to sunlight, and our ability to conceive. The breadth of devices and their utility is so vast that it's proven difficult to name the trend: Quantified Self, Internet of Things, Everything-Tracking — nothing quite fits. The thesis that unites them, however, is clear: The future will be quantified.

Fears of what can be done with this data are not unfounded. In 2013, a San Francisco man was convicted of vehicular manslaughter using Strava data concerning his speed on his bike, and an upcoming civil case will be the first to use Fitbit data; in that case, Fitbit is being used to protect the individual — a personal trainer, injured on the job, who claims that her baseline activity levels remain below average for someone of her age and occupation.

It’s not difficult to imagine a future in which similar data sets are wielded by employers, the government, or law enforcement. Instead of liberating the self through data, these devices could only further restrain and contain it. As Walter De Brouwer, co-founder of the health tracker Scanadu, explained to me, “The great thing about being made of data is that data can change.” But for whom — or what — are such changes valuable?

Photograph by Jon Premosch for BuzzFeed

To explore these questions, I wanted to take my own tracking to the next semi-obsessive level. Thus: a step tracker, which uses an accelerometer to estimate your steps and, in more recent models, your sleep. I researched the major players in their various levels of size, sophistication, and color. I decided I’m not glam enough for the Tory Burch Fitbit or Misfit Bloom, instead settling on a black Jawbone UP24, which looks as if a child wrapped a fat pipe cleaner with silver tips around your wrist.

The Jawbone UP

Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed

I calibrated it to my Jawbone iPhone app; I added my height and weight; I set it to vibrate every time I’d been sitting, sedentary and stupefied, in front of my computer for more than 30 minutes; I learned how to press the moon button to let it know that I’d gone to sleep. I pleasured in looking at my stats every time I walked the 30 steps across the office. I reveled in blowing away the 10,000 recommended step count. It was the first blush of gadget love.

Which was the feeling that accompanied me as I signed up for the quarterly “meetup” of the Bay Area chapter of Quantified Self, the most innovative and exhaustive self-trackers in the world. I arrived nervous and somewhat embarrassed of my rudimentary tracker as I stepped off the BART, staring at the words “Berkeley Skydeck” and “start-up accelerator” on the meetup invitation. I felt like I was about to meet some amplified version of my people.

Turns out, “skydeck” was San Francisco-speak for office space atop an otherwise unremarkable high-rise. The vibe was that of a church service or even an AA meeting. In place of cheap cookies and weak coffee, there was craft IPA, assorted finger sandwiches, and a swarm of QS “greeters” who encouraged the 100-plus attendees to write our names on name tags. The crowd looked very early-adopter, which is to say almost entirely white, mostly male, with a strong representation in the 30 to 60 age range — classic Gadget Dads. There were also grad students and hippie moms, confident tech bros name-dropping venture capital firms, and a handful of confused wanderers, like the guy who came up to me and whispered, “My friend dragged me here — what the hell is going on.”

In the last decade, the tracking inclination has simultaneously coalesced and expanded through the organization of Quantified Self, a group defined by its interest in self-tracking and subsequent discoveries, with membership in the thousands that now spans the globe. Quantified Self first entered the popular awareness in 2010, when co-founder Gary Wolf, then a contributing editor for Wired, outlined the movement and its fascinations for the New York Times Magazine. Since then, QS has become a tech curiosity, alternately heralded as real-life cyborgs and condemned as “datasexuals” whose embrace of self-surveillance will usher in a dystopian future.

Chris Dancy

Flickr: Christopher M Dancy / Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA http://2.0) / Via Flickr: servicesphere

Like most write-ups of subcultures, the lived experience of Quantified Selfers resides somewhere much less extreme than how they’ve been previously profiled. Between Chris Dancy, who uses 300 to 700 tracking systems at all times, and Nicholas Felton, whose Annual Reports have become fetish objects, you’ll find people who are tracking aspects of their lives in innovative and significantly less flashy ways, usually centered on health, hobbies, and genuine curiosity about the way they navigate the world.

Back in the Accelerator, the carpet was a bit stained, and the windows — which, in daylight, would’ve given a spectacular view of the bay — needed cleaning. But the enthusiasm was palpable. Beers in hand, attendees chatted with the half dozen hosts of science-fair-like setups that lined the wall: A fresh-faced twentysomething showed off a bare-bones system to track his productivity (and asked me if I had any leads on a job); two feet away, a team of blue-polo-shirted car insurance salesmen enthusiastically tried to convince me, despite my lack of a car, to track my driving habits.

Gary Wolf in 2011

Flickr: Marc Smith / Creative Commons ( CC BY http://2.0) / Via Flickr: marc_smith

Dressed in a natty pair of jeans and pink dress shirt, QS founder Gary Wolf roamed the room like a pastor, shaking hands, remembering everyone’s name. When he convened the group, he extended his arms, telling us, “I’m so happy for us to be together again.” Before the night’s three planned presentations, Wolf offered a preamble filled with credos (“not big data or small data but our data”), visuals (a pyramid reorienting the way that “prevailing wisdom” has been, and will be, sorted), and a heartfelt message to those who had never been to a QS meetup to participate: as trackers, as presenters, as volunteers.

The presentations focused on tracking online dating behavior and an attempt to solve “output” (read: poop) problems, oscillating between the entertaining and the triumphant. In this, they were representative of the type of presentation that takes place at more than 100 similar groups around the world. Participants may lose weight, or figure out what’s causing their eczema, or make a plan to maximize their working hours, but it’s really the intimate revelations and self-discovery that keeps people coming to these meetings, talking with others about their projects, and figuring out new ways to track.

As I listened to Greg Schwartz, a classically handsome QSer in a Superman shirt, talk about his efforts to “quantify” his dating life, I was struck less by the weirdness of these presentations and more by the value of the findings: The guy with output problems did, indeed, solve them (nuts and flaxseed were to blame); another trying to sort his memories figured a way, using an elaborate flashcard system, of pegging calendar days to distinct mental snapshots of his life. Schwartz figured out he should definitely stop putting “firedancing” in his first flirtatious dating message. Even as the technology of self-tracking becomes more and more sophisticated, the ways that Quantified Self were tracking had much more to do with pen, paper, and Excel spreadsheets than pricey gadgets.

Still, tracking behaviors that, in Wolf’s words, just seven years ago were “the strangest thing you could think of to do” have gone mainstream. What was once limited to a handful of tech-savvy obsessives is now the provenance of middle-class, middle-America moms, who have increasingly embraced apps like MyFitnessPal and trackers like Fitbit.

Buzzfeed

kGoal

Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed

The highest concentration of self-tracking companies are, unsurprisingly, in the Bay Area, with ambitious startups ranging from modest two-person side projects to bustling staffs with over 100 employees. At Basis, which was acquired last spring by Intel in a preemptive attempt to compete with the Apple Watch, they were about to release the Basis Peak, touted as “the ultimate fitness and sleep tracker,” and the mood was one of hip confidence, the office framed in leather couches and road bikes. By contrast, the offices of Minna — the small operation responsible for kGoal, a device that helps track pelvic floor health (the muscles that help you do kegels) — were housed in a co-working space in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, its co-founder apologizing profusely for the lack of fancy digs. Lumo Body Tech, which occupies a drab, indistinct office building in downtown Palo Alto, helps monitor posture.

Whistle

Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed

Then there’s Whistle, which makes round, silver devices that monitor your dog’s activity, linking with users’ fitness trackers to provide activity data and, soon, GPS tracking. Whistle's offices were resplendent with very well-behaved dogs — all tracked, naturally, by Whistles — and appropriately located near several pet rescue operations off of San Francisco's Treat Avenue. Whistle co-founder Ben Jacobs was boyish, talkative, eager, and followed everywhere by his dachshund-terrier mix, Duke, who shared many of the same characteristics. Jacobs is bullish on the future of the rapidly expanding market for devices that track what he explained as “the four areas that are valuable, but can’t speak for themselves: our homes, cars, infants, and pets.”

Nest

Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed

The most prominent company in this first arena is Nest Labs, which sells “smart” thermostats, smoke alarms, and cameras to monitor the home, all of which can be controlled via mobile and will soon communicate with wearables to adjust to fluctuating body temperatures. For the car, Progressive Insurance has been promoting the use of Snapshot, which monitors mileage, time of travel, and how hard you brake, since 2011, luring users with the promise of lower premiums. Nest-owned Dropcam is also vying for a slice of the lucrative pet-monitoring market, which targets the same owners who buy high-end pet food and pet insurance. (Nest, like all of the companies I interviewed for this piece, protects specific sales data.)

And then there are the babies. The most holistic baby-tracking devices come from MimoBaby, whose “Smart Nursery” currently includes a respiration-sensing “baby kimono” that not only protects against SIDS, but combines data about the baby’s feeding, naps, and sleep patterns to determine whether a waking baby needs to be fed or can be settled back to sleep; a smart mobile that zeros in on the sounds and images that put your baby to sleep; and, coming soon, a bottle warmer that will communicate with the kimono to start warming when the baby begins to wake. The ultimate endpoint is an integrated future in which all of these devices work seamlessly with one another — when the baby wakes, for example, your activity monitor decides which parent is less tired and thus should be alerted.

MimoBaby

Photograph by Jon Premosch for BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed – Tech

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