The self-tracking trend actually has historical roots. Perhaps one of the first gatherers of Big Data was Benjamin Franklin, who carried around a small journal, containing spreadsheets upon which he marked down the days when he transgressed against virtues such as chastity, sincerity and humility, as well as when he ate or drank to excess.
Today, Franklin might carry a smart phone and conduct more detailed and accurate self-surveillance and upload the data to a website, noting whatever behaviors he wanted to track and then tweeting notes on them to your.flowing.data.com, a self-tracking and analysis website created by UCLA statistics graduate student Nathan Yau.
“We make tiny choices every day,” Yau wrote in the site’s FAQ. “Those choices become habits, and those habits develop into behaviors. your.flowingdata helps you record these choices.”
Another personal Big Data proponent, graphic designer Nicholas Felton, co-founded the online self-tracking and visualization tool Daytum.com, whose goal is to provide users with tools “to examine and communicate their habits and routines.”
Felton, who now works for Facebook, has compiled and published the equivalent of corporate annual reports about his life activities. His 2010-2011 biannual report, for example, reveals that he worked 2,395.5 hours during that period, walked 1,309.5 miles, spent the equivalent of 8.5 days riding the New York City subway, traveled to 40 cities in six countries, consumed 251 cups of his favorite beverage (ice coffee), listened to 26,015 songs, and spent more time with family members in March and July than he did in January or August.
Another self-quantifier, actress Lisa Betts-LaCroix, told Newsweek that she gathered data on events ranging from marital arguments to times that she cooked dinner for her husband, in an effort to strengthen their relationship.
In addition to smart phones and computers, Big Data users often employ even more sophisticated gadgets to gather intimate information about themselves, such as 3D accelerometers that will track a person’s movements, and the Fitbit, a sort of Swiss Army Knife for self-trackers that measures caloric expenditure, weight and even sleep patterns.
Social psychologist Lehmiller said that self-tracking, in addition to helping people manage their health better, could benefit them by providing more clarity and confidence in their feelings. On the downside, “it could make life less fun. If you’re constantly obsessing and worrying about the behaviors that you’re monitoring, you’re not going to have as much fun in life. And it could be stressful, as well.”
Daytum co-founder Fenton wrote in a September 2013 essay for FT.com that “I’d like to believe that collecting data about myself has changed my lifestyle for the better, but it doesn’t always work that way,” and he sometimes takes Big Data to extremes. Recently, for example, he started collecting data on the number of teeth lost by his cat, “which I accept probably does sound a little weird to some people.”
But Cukier notes that personal Self Data is still at the 1.0 stage.
Within a few years, he expects that personal monitoring devices will become so cheap and unobtrusive -- "imagine a sensor the size of a grain of salt, embedded in your earlobe, that will gather data on five vital signs" -- that they'll be ubiquitous.
"What today looks like a bunch of fitness freaks and narcissists, tomorrow we'll call health care," he says. "This is how society evolves. You have an small avant garde group that eventually becomes the mainstream."