What we can learn from quantifying our lives

woman checking her smartwatch

From the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we throw our heads back down on our pillows at night, we’re organizing our lives into little quantifiable bits; counting how many days until an upcoming vacation, marking down important dates, managing household budgets – the list goes on. And the latest technology has cultivated an even deeper version of a quantifiable self.

Wearable devices like smartwatches keep track of daily steps taken, calories burned, and hours slept. Streaming music services like Spotify summarize our hours of music and podcast listening, and from which artists, over the course of a year. To commemorate the end of a year, nine photos are chosen and arranged in a grid on Instagram, showcasing the most-liked photos of the last 12 months. Then there’s the accumulation of social connections and post likes, retail apps that track loyalty points earned, and services that indicate what TV shows are being watched and when.

Existing as a quantified being isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Personal stats can be useful, insightful, even eye-opening. They present an opportunity and encourage the modification of behaviors: to exercise more often or eliminate bad habits, like spending too much money or going to bed too late.

Monitoring daily activity isn’t a new concept, but innovations like smartwatches and activity trackers make it simple to accurately monitor and quantify. These, and other similar devices provide historical data that paints a holistic picture of one’s health and well-being as it relates not only to exercise but things like water consumption, sleep, social media participation, gaming hours and more.

Your tracking apps probably have a dashboard that looks something like this. An overview of your life in numbers.

The quantification of life doesn’t just pertain to physical activity. Some of the latest smartphones include “digital wellness” features that provide at-a-glance, real-time information about how many hours or minutes are spent on the phone, and which apps or services are monopolizing most of that time. They can even gently nudge a user to put the device down after reaching a personally set usage limit, which can be a welcome break for those who have difficulty motivating themselves to shut down from digital tech.

But do we really want, or need, to live so measurably?

There are privacy implications that come with all of this quantifiable data. In order for the user to see the data, the company tracking it must have access to the stats as well. And buried deep in privacy policies could be wording that suggests or outright states, that seemingly personal data is being stored (albeit anonymously) and analyzed to improve a company’s services, or even to be sold to third parties for advertising and marketing purposes.

Our society loves to share our many stats on social media, but there are concerns there, too. One of the first social trends of 2019 encouraged Facebook users to post side-by-side headshots from present day and ten years ago to compare how much they have (or haven’t) changed, appropriate named #10YearChallenge. It was immediately followed by a barrage of naysayer posts featuring humorous memes suggesting that participants had now helped Facebook update its facial recognition database. It’s always worth considering what kind of data is shared and pondering why and how it could be used.

Leveraging the data

Businesses can leverage this digital well-being data too, in order to see what types of apps (and specific apps) customers spend the most time using, and more accurately tailor messaging, demos, and more, to their interests. App developers have recognized these features as a wake-up call to adjust their mentality from bombarding customers with alerts and notifications to focusing more on offering a compelling user experience when they are logged in.

There are other ways businesses can, and are, using valuable information about us obtained through our quantified lives to promote relevant products and tweak offerings according to our usage patterns of their products and/or services.

Companies like Fitbit, for example, can provide aggregated data of its users’ health stats and fitness habits to third-parties that can then use that data to target appropriate marketing efforts, or adjust strategies and develop new features to address what customer’s value or need help with the most. This might include products or services that promote better habits or that remind users to drink more water throughout the day.

Boston-based John Hancock Insurance uses our desire for a quantified life to better serve its customers by offering discounts to its clients that wear Fitbit trackers or the Apple Watch. And Spotify can not only see what songs subscribers listen to and when, but also what device most people use to access the service. That data can then potentially factor into future strategic decisions, such as which and what type of hardware partners should be added, or when it’s time to redesign a mobile app to promote sections that aren’t getting much traction.

Using data to improve the customer experience

kid watching tv

Allowing music and TV services to keep track of viewing habits, including what a subscriber watches and how much, can lead to more personalized content suggestions that are drawn from an understanding of individual likes and dislikes. Netflix uses sophisticated algorithms to track things like what content you watch and when, when you fast forward and rewind, and if you complete an entire series. Netflix uses that information to tailor content recommendations to individual users. Then they use aggregated data to determine what type of content to offer in the future.

Quantifying purchases could result in money savings for customers (and businesses) as well. With permission, shops could send strategically-timed and tailored offers that reflect a buyer’s unique purchasing history. In retail or grocery loyalty apps, applicable discounts are provided intelligently and to each individual customer based on purchase history: extra points for milk or ketchup, for example, when it’s likely that you’re about to run out.

In being mindful of personal data and oversharing (that goes for both users and businesses), and recognizing the need to slow down and focus on quality, not just quantity, it’s possible to embrace the new reality of a quantified life, and maybe even make it work to your advantage.

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