Self-tracking of our bodies has become a trend now spanning the world. It has the potential to become ‘The Next Big Thing’ on the internet, according to an internet psychologist, who even predicts that it will come to radically change the health industry.
Richard Ryan – a dark-haired New Yorker with lightweight glasses, forearm tattoo and a pale blue shirt – has gotten rid of an ugly bout of sleeplessness and is doing a presentation about it. It takes place in a forum for so-called self-trackers somewhere in New York in February, 2012.
Ryan says that he had tried out a wide range of different methods, ranging from acupuncture, zone therapy and smoking to a bread-and-alcohol-free diet. However, it wasn’t until he started measuring his own sleep rhythms and systematically tracking his intake of alcohol and various psychotropic drugs that he was able to identify the factors that affected his sleeplessness, and do something about them.
Richard Ryan’s presentation is recorded on video and can be found on the quantifiedself.com website, along with about 350 similar videos recorded by people who are part of the same worldwide movement: Quantified Self – self knowledge through numbers. This movement’s several thousand adherents engage in self-tracking in order to lose weight, become better football players, learn Chinese, reduce the risk of bicycle accidents or achieve other personal goals. The movement is still for the few, but according to internet psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen, who has spent years researching the psychological mechanisms behind human behaviour on the internet, it is a precursor for a far more pervasive consumer trend:
“Before 2022, you and I will both check our bodily functions just as often as we currently update our status on Facebook. Self-tracking of the body has everything it takes to become ‘the next big thing’,” he says.
This self-tracking of the human body is also called biohacking.
Feedback from your body
“Biohacking covers a current human need that is basically unmet today – the need to know what goes on inside our bodies when we’re eating, drinking, working and moving,” he says and explains how nourishment and work have both become so complex in our highly specialised society that consumers find it increasingly difficult to grasp the consequences of their overall lifestyles.
In order to achieve a sense of control, more and more people compensate by regulating everything they consume – from the amount of TV they watch and the exercise they get to the intake of carbohydrates, fats, salt, vitamins and other components of their diets. “Today, many people make potentially vital decisions without getting any feedback at all from their bodies. They may cut back on their smoking, but do they have any idea of what effect that really has? Will it reduce
the amount of dead lung tissue by 10 or 80 per cent? And when you avoid buying salty products, does that get you below the recommended five grams per day? The truth is that nobody knows, but even so, many people deny themselves joys or pursue certain products while shunning others,” Anders Colding-Jørgensen points out.
This is where self-tracking has the potential to become a mass phenomenon: it offers exactly the knowledge we need in our zeal to self-regulate. In many ways, it transforms faith into knowledge.
The need to monitor yourself is already supported by numerous technologies. Patients with diabetes or high blood pressure can easily monitor and medicate themselves with electronic, mobile devices, and new products like ZEO or FitBit help people track their sleep intensity and calorie consumption.
In June 2012, the sports tracking website Endomondo.com exceeded 10 million users worldwide, and is a fine example of one of the many popular self-tracking services on the internet. Technological advances are exactly the reason why Anders Colding-Jørgensen doesn’t doubt that the self-tracking trend will become mainstream:
“With the technological advances we are aware of, it is easy to predict that in ten years we will have self-tracking devices the size of a fingernail that can track our blood count, blood sugar and much else in mere seconds.”
Hence – according to Anders Colding-Jørgensen – self-tracking technologies aren’t just “something for nerds” – “it is also a consumer revolution waiting to happen.”
The doctor becomes a coach
According to Anders Colding-Jørgensen, the popular spread of self-tracking technologies will lead to major changes in our society in the future. “Entire industries will be impacted when we get access to the key numbers for our own bodies. Those who will feel the impact the most will be laboratories that currently make a living from transforming blood samples into key numbers for cholesterol, allergens and other vital statistics. Many of the manual tests now carried out by lab technicians will simply be obsolete,” he says, and goes on:
“The general practitioner, however, will be a highly overqualified part of this same ecosystem. The doctor will no longer be able to make money from pricking holes in your skin and taking a sample. Why bother physically visiting a highly trained and expensive expert to get feedback on your physical functions when the key numbers are now a natural part of our information flow, just like e-mail and news?”
This is why Colding-Jørgensen thinks that the general practitioner will move away from being an all-knowing expert towards a role as a coach who stands on the sidelines and works with patients who are increasingly well-informed about their own bodies – a development that we already have seen manifested during the previous decade in the spread of the internet.
Specifically, Anders Colding-Jørgensen points to a web-based patient forum like patientslikeme.com as a good example of what we will see more of in the future. This website is a meeting place where people with the same diseases exchange experiences. In the same way that we now have Wikipedia as a user-created authority, in the future we will see more of this sort of site where self-trackers can understand and interpret their own body values, along with tens of thousands of other people.
Still a need for interpretation
However, even though biohacking promises to change everyday life for private individuals, doctors, lab technicians and other healthcare personnel, Anders Colding-Jørgensen questions whether we really will be wiser about our health in ten years time.
“The need for answers and interpretations will not go away. On the contrary. The change will simply mean that the interpretations shift to a new domain, and an entirely new interpretation industry will take over where the old one let go. Self-tracking opens a window of innovation for those that can transmute our newly discovered body numbers to understandable knowledge, and put them into a larger context,” he ends.