Fri, Aug 17, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Lifelogging in the Internet age

From sleeping and eating to exercise and travel, technology now allows us to track and analyze every detail of our lives, but how can it help us improve them?

By Leo Hickman  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Strapping a small plastic box full of electronics to your forehead each night is a bedtime ritual that is neither comfortable nor natural. As nightwear goes, it can only be described as a passion killer. However, the prize it offers is increasingly sought after by a fast-growing group of data addicts known as “lifeloggers.”

The Zeo records your brain activity as you sleep. It then syncs via Bluetooth with your smartphone to produce a graph for you to peruse in the morning. Over the course of a few weeks, it has allowed me to ascertain that it takes, on average, 15 minutes to go to sleep once my head hits the pillow, that I enjoy only two hours of “deep sleep” each night and that, in total, I usually achieve seven full hours of sleep, which involves around three hours of rapid eye movement — or “dreaming.”

I admit being curious to know this information, but beyond that, I’m not sure what I’m expected to do with such data, other than, say, compare it with other people. How can I use it to improve my sleep quality — other than to know that wearing a plastic box on your head at night can be, let’s say, disruptive?

However, for lifeloggers, this is only the start of the journey of self-discovery. Their motivation is to create as many data streams about themselves as possible so that they can be collated and analyzed to provide new insights and revelations about their lives.

Lifelogging is nothing new. Keeping a diary, using a pedometer or weighing yourself each day are some of the many ways that previous generations have logged their lives. However, over the past decade, as digital technology has become increasingly plugged in to the Internet, so lifelogging has grown in popularity and significance. Perhaps the best-known practitioner is Microsoft Research researcher Gordon Bell, who, via his decade-long MyLifeBits project, has attempted to capture all his interactions — e-mails, telephone calls, photographs, etc — so that he can store “his whole life” on a single laptop. It was a challenge first suggested by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who, in his 1996 book The Road Ahead, predicted that it would not be long before we would be able to recall via a computer anything we had read, seen or heard during our lives.

At present, lifelogging is largely limited to those who are interested in their health and fitness. Clip-on gadgets such as the Fitbit and Motorola’s Motoactv — which can record the number of strides you take each day, the steps you climb, the calories you burn and your location — help users to monitor their activity to a degree of accuracy that was previously unobtainable. I have been trialing both devices and I can now break down my typical week to see when I’m busiest. Clue: not the daytime hours, when I’m largely sitting in front of a computer. Take-home message: Be more active.

However, I already knew that. Where lifelogging carries far more potential — and risks — is when different data streams are layered on top of each other. So, if we add our physical activity data to our travelcard data, to our debit card use, to our Internet activity and so on, we gain a deeper understanding of our habits and decision-making. To then act on this information in the pursuit of improvement is known in lifelogging circles as “self-hacking.”

“It’s the data mash-ups that bring context and insight,” says Frank Bentley, a research scientist at the Motorola Mobility Applied Research Center near Chicago, who also teaches a course on mobile communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They help to move it away from vague information. For example, when I analyzed myself, I found that I’m happier when I’m busiest and happier when it’s warmer. I now have a quantitative, statistically significant view on my happiness.”

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