x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Are you ready for the era of the quantified self?

Measuring everything from your sleep to your diet can only lead to one thing: the shame of people knowing exactly how much you weigh

The other day I visited a friend who works at one of those irritating high tech companies. I think they make iPhone apps or something.

His office - if you can call an airy loft-like space filled with toys and snack areas an office - is exactly what a television set designer would come up with, if he were designing the office of an irritating tech firm that makes iPhone apps.

As I walked past the open cubicles and the fun little coffee area, I noticed that every single employee was young, fit, and good-looking - exactly as if they were the cast of a TV show. I also noticed that they were all wearing some kind of self-measurement device clipped to their clothes, or on their wrists.

These gadgets are all the rage these days. There's one from Nike, and something called FitBit and another one called Up. They measure your sleep and how many steps you take a day. You can sync them to your phone and in general keep track of yourself in a lot of ways.

I was unaware, until that moment, how unmeasured my life is.

"We like to measure ourselves here," my friend said when I asked about the devices. "We like to keep track of our physical activity and chart our progress."

He said it with relaxed self-assurance, and just a hint of disapproval of me for asking the question. It was a tone that anyone who's ever been in a cult, or gone to an intense yoga class, would know.

"Rob," he said, "in this facility we're moving into a new way of using technology. The growth in the future is going to be in what we call the area of the 'quantified self'."

Apparently, we haven't been paying enough attention to ourselves lately. We've been talking and talking and talking, sure. But this is something more.

"The quantified self," he went on, "is the newest growth area for new devices and markets. People who want to sleep better, or keep track of their general happiness - they'll all be wearing these. In the future, you'll carry around a self-monitor, just like your smart phone today."

It doesn't sound like a cheerful future. It won't be just steps and sleep hours we'll be charting. Soon it'll be food intake and oxygen use, and time spent clenching your jaw.

Maybe at the end of the day your device will tell you how much time you spent looking out the window or daydreaming about winning the lottery. You'll be able to know the actual number of minutes you spent pretending not to want those French fries, and the number of chews it took to eat them all.

I suppose this is a natural progression. We've spent the past decade teaching ourselves to post and tweet and friend and unfriend - sharing our little thoughts with other people who are also posting and tweeting.

Now, exhausted by all of that talking, we're retreating back into ourselves: "I don't want to know your status update. I want to know how many steps I walked."

I asked my friend: "Does this mean we're all turning inward? We're all getting back to a kind of privacy?"

My tone was hopeful but my friend waved me off. "Oh, we're posting and sharing all of this new data, too," he said. "We're keeping track of it, and posting it, so we can share it and support each other as we reach our fitness goals."

Which, of course, is a lie. Whenever you hear the phrase "support each other" along with "fitness goals", you know what it really means: the shame of other people knowing exactly what you weigh.

Thoroughly depressed, I moved on to the subject of my visit: a new product my friend was working on.

When he told me what it was I felt cold shivers of fear. It's a device that measures attention. It quantifies the actual time spent watching something on TV, and even the attention level devoted to a show.

"In our initial tests," he said, "it turns out that people don't watch TV very closely, or pay much attention to the ads. I thought you'd be interested in this since you're in TV, and that's pretty much how you all make your money."

"When is this being released," I asked, my voice breaking.

"Not sure," he said. "Right now we're trying to figure out how to build it without using too many batteries. But we're close."

So it's a race between me and technology. I've got to produce a hit show before the "quantified self" reveals that, in fact, there's no such thing. My money is on the batteries coming first.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rbcl