Kathleen Parker: Count Me Out

Our growing obsession with self-tracking is obscuring the deeper meaning of our lives

  • It probably started with Botts' dots--those raised reflective pavement markers that notify sleepy drivers when they're crossing the center line. I used to count them as a child when riding shotgun with my father. It gave me something to do in my idle time, of which there seemed to be so much in the predigital age. Looking back, I recognize the early signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior, which fortunately resolved themselves as other interests intervened. I still count some things, but I can quit anytime. Really.

    For those of us who never understood what was wrong with that fellow lining up the soup cans in Sleeping With the Enemy, quantifying is no longer viewed with suspicion or concern. In fact, the quantifying self--i.e., self-knowledge through numbers--was projected as one of 2012's big trends. Earlier this month, the Quantified Self Global Conference held its fifth meeting, a sort of show-and-tell during which self-trackers share their counting ways.

    In a video on the Quantified Self's website, a young man from Boston reveals how he transformed his weight and fitness through a number of self-quantifying tools, including Weight Watchers, RunKeeper, MyFitnessPal, a Garmin Forerunner watch and the Nike+ system. Another reports using various sleep and biomarker data to maintain himself in "optimized zones" for long-term health.

    I myself confess to a recent addiction to fitness bands. Thus far, I've tried two of the top five--the Nike+ Fuelband and Jawbone UP bracelets. Both serve as pedometers, and the Jawbone measures sleep. At the risk of promoting one or the other, let me just say that for now I'm jawboning. The Jawbone (JB) is a narrow, Star Trek--looking wristlet that nonwearers often mistake for jewelry and ask where I bought it. Inconspicuous and delicate, it may as well be a flashing light to fellow wearers, who recognize one another the way humans do during body-snatching alien invasions. Sometimes they just shout it out, shamelessly pointing to a stranger's wrist: "Did it change your life as much as it changed mine?" To which he or she (usually she) reliably replies, "OMG, yes!!!"

    It is not an overstatement to say that my JB and I have become one. Recently, when I glanced down at my right wrist and noticed it missing, I panicked. Feeling naked and alone, I retraced the previous day's every step, calling to see if anyone had seen my little navy strip of OCD bling. Now we're reunited, and I am once again able to plug my bracelet into my phone, which has a free app that informs me that last night I enjoyed 5 hr. 23 min. of deep sleep (despite being in bed for 8 hr. 30 min.) and that otherwise I am a lazy schlump who took only 3,249 steps.

    This is where things begin to get interesting. Note: the band tells you how you're doing on the basis of your own goals. Mine are to get eight hours of sleep and to take 10,000 steps daily, which is roughly five miles. I manage both occasionally, though meeting my step goal requires planning and time. Not surprisingly, failure to meet my goals inspires guilt and self-loathing.

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