This Just In: Bio Tracking

Do you know what your resting heart rate is?

JJ Abrams guest-edited a 2009 issue of Wired Magazine titled “The Mystery Issue.” From Abrams’ editorial to uncrackable CIA codes, every corner of the magazine engaged the reader with games, puzzles, and an exploration of the unknown.

At the end of the magazine, an article explored the mysteries of our own bodies. Gary Wolf wrote about tracking every facet of his life, from sleep to heart rate to blood pressure. In 2009 this was an absurd idea. Today, our phones do track data for us automatically.

(Note: according to the Wired website, this article published two months after The Mystery Issue, but my brain remembers otherwise. If only I had logged it eleven years ago, I’d know for sure.)

I wear an Apple Watch that captures all sorts of data, all stored safely in the Health app on my phone. There are now three years worth of my heart’s beats per minute (BPM), daily step counts, standing minutes, calories burned, and more.

But I didn’t stop there. Nearly a decade after Gary Wolf’s project seemed crazy, I started tracking my own body’s data. I store additional data not captured by my watch in the Health app, including daily weight, temperature, water intake, and more.

Tracking our personal data is easier than ever, but the question remains: why?

In the original article, Wolf mentions the old Greek adage, “Know Thyself.” And, yes, tracking our own bodies helps us know more about ourselves than we otherwise might. There are dozens of calorie intake apps that help manage what we eat, sleep tracking apps that record the quality of our sleep, and even apps that measure our happiness.

There are benefits in viewing data trends over time. Seeing how the pandemic affects my weight and resting heart rate, for example, points out the downside to quarantine life. But, beyond that, it’s just cool to see all this information about me that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible.

Wolf believed our era of data science, which he called the macroscope, would be as big an innovation in science as the telescope was. “Its power,” he wrote, “will be felt even more from the new questions it provokes than from the answers it delivers. The excitement in the self-tracking movement right now comes not just from the lure of learning things from one’s own numbers but also from the promise of contributing to a new type of knowledge, using this tool we all build.” A decade later and Wolf is right.

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