This is a really interesting talk on “living by numbers”. I’ve seen reference from other people on fitness blogs about sleep monitoring on a regular basis, and the idea that you can track personal health data and adjust your lifestyle to improve health (or reduce household CO2 emissions, etc.) is a nice ideal. I have a few reservations, however…
- Privacy. The Withings scale among others all put your data on the web. Can you trust these companies not to share that data? Insurance companies are a prime example of who you might not want to get hold of personal health data. I think you need strong assurances that you control the dissemination of that information and, at the least, I think it should all be encrypted beyond the ability of the company providing the service to look at it.
- Chris talks about everyone performing experiments on a personal level – as if we’ll all be scientists taking charge of making discoveries about how the world works. I know he says that such small-scale monitoring is not equivalent to a proper sleep laboratory, but there’s a risk that some people will believe in that equivalence. This is actually two problems; understanding how to properly separate out factors like stress and diet on sleep patterns, and understanding the data – what does it mean that you spent 10 minutes in REM sleep less than the previous night?
I’m currently monitoring my blood pressure via a little battery-powered thingy and manually recording the results in a diary. It appears that nobody really understands all the factors that regulate blood pressure on a macro-level (although various cardiovascular mechanisms are known and there are drugs that target these, so I’m conscious that my work supplements real medical tests and advice, but doesn’t supplant it. For instance, I can decrease or increase coffee intake (and as a side-note, how many people will deliberately increase their coffee intake, if they fear it’s a factor, to test how it affects them, let alone how do they deal with the problem of controls when there’s only one subject 🙂 ) but there’s no way I can totally isolate that factor from the issue of work stress for instance. It’s all very… unscientific, I guess.
Secondly, the device includes warnings about improper use and how you may get bad data; you have to average readings, as any one reading may be an outlier; you shouldn’t eat or drink for half an hour before taking the reading… There’s a whole set of schooling required to know how to take readings and how to interpret them. Then there’s statistical analysis required to make sense of the data over a longer period. Do you know the difference between median and average? What’s standard deviation?
Chris Anderson is predicating this brave new world of living by numbers on a society that is vastly more literate and numerate than the one we live in. Instead we live in one where a large segment of the population can’t or won’t understand the science behind global warming and evolution and basic maths is a mystery; a world where science resources are repeatedly stripped of government funding in favour of arms and advertising. I like the idea that we can track and make use of a “data effluent” to improve our lives, but I think he’s talking about icing on a cake that is getting increasingly staler. Maybe we should improve the basics first.
Update: Oh, and vaccines. Given that the anti_vax crowd is so wilfully ignorant of the basic principles of science, who knows how they’d abuse all that data collected from minute updates of the state of their BP or sleep patterns.