The quantified self: What are the consequences?

We’re drowning in data and wearables are pushing the information overload
Quantified self: Too much data?

You're walking down the street wearing your virtual reality specs. An email pops up in your eye line. You start dictating a reply, but you're also following directions, you've just got a text message, another alert has buzzed your smartwatch, now it's telling you the weather, and oh, it thinks you might like this coffee place up on the right…

This might sound extreme, but it's not that far fetched. Take the Lifelog software for the Sony SmartBand Talk. The aim is to account for every minute of your day. Go for a walk, for example, and it'll tell you how long you spent on the phone, texting and browsing the web, who you contacted, and when and where you took photos. It also logs your hours playing videogames, watching films, listening to music and reading. If only it could tell us how long we spent ploughing through useless data.

Information overload

It's a problem of presentation. Most wearables don't edit the info before showing it to you. It's like data willy waving – they serve up every imaginable nugget of info and hope it's useful, or at least mildly interesting.

"Most devices inundate users with data like graphs and charts," says Daniel Matte, head of the Wearable Technology Analysis Service at Canalys. "They don't do a very good job of simplifying it and making it relevant and useful. It's a common refrain about wearables.

"The problem is, most hardware vendors aren't very good at software," he goes on. "If you add a heart rate monitor, you can't just then show the user their heart rate. You have to have a software experience to go along with that."

The market is crowded, so everyone gives us more data in a bid to stand out. But if anything we need less information in our lives, or at least less useless info.

Worries about information overload are nothing new. Since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, people have fretted about being deluged with data. But the problem is getting worse. Psychologists say we're living in the data age – according to a paper by Martin Hilbert from the University of California, we each receive enough information every day to fill 175 newspapers. That's more than three times as much as in 1986. Wearables, with their constant trickle of dopamine-stoking alerts and notifications, inevitably add to the problem.

This can be challenging psychologically. We're constantly trying to multitask, which has been proven to be ineffective. In trying to do too much, we're doing nothing well.

A study by McKinsey & Company showed that multitasking doesn't help us work quicker. Instead, it kills productivity, dampens creativity and even makes us less happy. In a recent talk at the London School of Economics, Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload, said this mode of thought actually makes us less smart. He quoted a study that said that knowing you have an unread email in your inbox effectively lowers your IQ by 10 points. You unwittingly use brain power wondering what it could say.

Every notification means a decision has to be made; reply now, forward it on, mark it for later – and each takes up valuable brain power. "It takes as much glucose to make an unimportant decision as it does to make an important one," Levitin says. As the brain's glucose levels deplete, 'decision fatigue' kicks in, which harms your judgement. That's no biggie if you're doing a menial task. But it could spell disaster come major decision time.

We're so used to all this information we might not even notice we're suffering. Steven W. Anderson, author of Content Curation: How to avoid information overload, recommends asking yourself a few questions. "Do you still enjoy non-digital activities that you've always liked?" he asks. "Are you withdrawn from friends and family? Look for the signs digital is taking over your life and find a good balance." He advocates going offline completely with a 'digital detox' every now and then. Psychologists recommend making important decisions first thing in the morning. Your brain's glucose levels are higher and you're on top of your game.

The data will disappear

From a user point of view, wearables are getting better at sifting information. Think of the Withings Activité with its simple activity dial. We're seeing more with quiet modes too, when you won't be disturbed by notifications.

The internet as we know it on smartphones and tablets will disappear, replaced by smart devices that talk to each other

Apple's involvement changes everything, to use its own phrase. "The Apple Watch has some very subtle details in how it presents information," Matte says. "It's so simple. It doesn't tell you your heart rate, just calories burned, which I think is more useful. It's as much about what it doesn't show as what it does. It's the best UI of its kind."

The ultimate is to give us exactly the info we need, when we need it, like a more advanced version of Google Now. Bring in the internet of things, and the dream of the connected self could finally be realised. As Eric Schmidt said, the internet as we know it on smartphones and tablets will disappear, replaced by smart devices that talk to each other.

Imagine it. You get home from work and your front door unlocks because it knows it's you. Your thermostat adjusts based on your body temperature and heart rate. Sensing you're stressed from the way your heart is pounding, Spotify plays some relaxing music. Meanwhile, your vital signs are analysed, and if any health issues are detected, it will advise you what to do.

"The situation right now will pass," says Yulia Silina, a researcher specialising in wearables at Queen Mary University of London. "There's a lot of confusion, but we're on the way to something more cohesive. It just won't happen anytime soon."

The privacy issue

There are also ethical issues to consider. Who owns all this data? Where does it go? Who else has access to it? And what immoral uses could it be put to? In the US, medical wearables will soon be regulated by the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration), but consumer products will be left alone. And the data they record? It's catnip to marketers.

"Companies are fighting it out over the data," says Rob Milner, head of smart systems technology at Cambridge Consultants. "No one knows what the appropriate privacy policies should be. It's going to take some time to play out."

"A huge amount of data is being generated, and that has a lot of value for a variety of stakeholders," says Peter Bath, professor of health informatics at The Information School at the University of Sheffield. "The issue is how they might use it for marketing and advertising products, but also more nefarious purposes, like insurance." Got Domino's on speed dial? Don't be surprised if your life insurance premium goes higher than your blood pressure.

The good news is this debate is starting to happen but the FDA and similar bodies will need to make like Warren G and regulate.

Matte at Canalys points out that most wearables companies sell users' (anonymous) data to third parties. "A lot of people don't realise what's being tracked and collected," he says. One Sony-style breach, and that data could fall into anyone's hands.

"It's the next step from Google monitoring our search habits," Bath says. "In a way it's more subtle, because the data is inherent – someone's heart rate, sleeping habits and so on – rather than what they're searching for."

This makes the possibilities even more worrying. Collate GPS data too, and you could find out who is seeing who at what time and what they're doing together. Even their hearts rates - love-struck philanderers beware.

Sound like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four? So does a TV that eavesdrops on you. As Bath puts it: "We can't imagine the complete range of uses such data could be put to. But if there's a way to make money, somebody will think of it. And if they can access [the data], they will."

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