Extreme tracking is not just for narcissists

May 11, 2015

If you are like many of us you may use a smartwatch or fitness band to help monitor your exercise routines, recording movement and heartrate, for example. Or you might use your smartphone to count your steps. Larry Smarr is not like many of us. He tracks more than 150 parameters and could be the world’s most self-measured man, according to Ariana Eunjung Cha in the Washington Post.

Smarr, an astrophysicist and computer scientist, treats his body the way some people treat their cars. Cha quotes him as saying, “We know exactly how much gas we have, the engine temperature, how fast we are going. What I’m doing is creating a dashboard for my body.”

Some parameters like heart rate and movement he monitors continuously; some, like blood biomarkers, he tests only about once a month.

Cha writes that those like Smarr who practice “extreme tracking” are looking to optimize their bodies and minds. But the data in the aggregate is useful as well and could help relate patterns of exercise and diet with the occurrence of disease. She adds that data about physical activity might help inform decisions about walkability. Already, she writes, Louisville is using IoT-enabled inhalers to locate asthma hot spots.

She quotes Vinod Khosla, a cofounder of Sun and investor in mobile health start-ups, as saying, “As we have more and more sophisticated wearables that can continuously measure things ranging from your physical activity to your stress levels to your emotional state, we can begin to cross-correlate and understand how each aspect of our life consciously and unconsciously impacts one another.”

Not all observers are pleased with the extreme tracking trend. Cha writes, “Some physicians, academics and ethicists criticize the utility of tracking as prime evidence of the narcissism of the technological age—and one that raises serious questions about the accuracy and privacy of the health data collected, who owns it, and how it should be used.” And the data raises legal issues. I addressed some of these points late last year in a post titled “Medical data: hard to get legitimately, easy to buy or hack?” and another titled “Your wearables might testify against you in a court of law.”

But the concerns aren’t deterring people from using the devices. Cha reports that Gartner forecasts that 68.1 million wearable devices will ship this year, with many purchased by employers for use by employees. But Cha quotes Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science and public health at Cornell University, as saying, “Getting the data is much easier than making it useful.”

Cha’s article, “The Revolution will be digitized,” is part of the Post’s “The Human Upgrade” series. You can read the complete article here.

About the Author

Rick Nelson | Contributing Editor

Rick is currently Contributing Technical Editor. He was Executive Editor for EE in 2011-2018. Previously he served on several publications, including EDN and Vision Systems Design, and has received awards for signed editorials from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He began as a design engineer at General Electric and Litton Industries and earned a BSEE degree from Penn State.

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