Last year for my birthday my brother got me a speedometer for my bike. It’s super-easy: You attach a sensor to your front-wheel spoke and a meter to your handlebars and presto, you can see how fast you’re going and how far you’ve gone. It even does automatic averages and times your rides. I’m such a fucking rocking chair, I didn’t even know this technology existed.
It’s a great gift because I never would have bought it for myself. I’m not constitutionally a gadget-guy, and my kneejerk reaction is to roll my eyes at technology that meets a need I never explicitly articulated. I got my first cellphone in 2006.
Now that I have the speedometer, it’s startling how much harder I work when I’m biking. I have an objective, blinking, real-time report on how fast I’m going and how far I’ve gone, and I want to beat it with every pedal. No matter how tired I am or how raining it is, I’ll get off and walk before I let my speed dip below 24 kilometers an hour. Even when I’m biking uphill. It’s a sickness.
In the past few months of doing this, I’ve come to see it as a metaphor. As soon as you start monitoring something, you want to improve it. Before I had the speedometer, if I was tired or it was windy, I simply biked slower. Now that I have constant feedback on my performance, I strain myself harder to reach a target, no matter how self-generated or arbitrary it is.
I wonder if the next wave of technology will be an extension of this concept: Quantitative monitoring of things that you used to only estimate.
A few years ago we were all smitten with pedometers, which measure how many steps you take per day:
In a review of more than two dozen studies, researchers at Stanford University found that people who used pedometers to monitor their daily activity walked about 2,000 more steps every day, or about one extra mile, compared to those who weren’t counting steps. People who used pedometers also showed statistically meaningful drops in body mass index and blood pressure.
Now we have the FitBit and Philips’ DirectLife, which monitor daily activity, sleep patterns and link you to online reports and IM-dates with fitness coaches.
Imagine a gadget that could quantify how many calories you take in every day, and of what nutrients. Having a real-time meter of, say, carb intake that leapt up with each bite at Applebee’s could be a ferocious motivator of cutting portion sizes (OK, so I have no idea how such a gadget would work without being surgically installed, but still, it would be really cool).
A real-time meter of, say, how many kilowatts of energy you consumed or how many particles of pollutants you breathed in could also be a powerful driver of behavior change and political activism.
You could easily do this with other areas too. Imagine a little microphone that counted and recorded all the words you use all day and gave you a summary report on your average number of syllables and daily functional vocabulary. Or a word-cloud! Or a graph of your average swears!
OK, I’m getting carried away. And again, I have no remote inkling of how such gadgets would actually work, but self-monitoring culminates the two most fundamental things we use technology for: Self-improvement and narcissism. Anything that gives us a new way to watch ourselves is bound to be gangbusters.
As soon as you start measuring something, you want to improve it. Maybe the best way for us to use technology isn’t to make our lives easier, but to give us a reason to make it a little harder.