Linda Stone’s Antidote to Quantified Self: The Essential Self

The Quantified Self movement emerged in the late 2000s in response to an absence: the lack of useful data about our bodies as we move through the day. Before the QS era, an EKG could show you your heart rhythms; a lab analysis could show you your cholesterol levels; a treadmill stress test could measure your general fitness. But these tests were expensive, infrequently administered, and hard for non-physicians to interpret. The first generation of commercial QS technologies, from companies like Nike, Fitbit, Polar, and Garmin, were a big step forward because they started to put health and fitness data directly into the hands of consumers.

But the Quantified Self approach to health is also defined in large part by an absence—that is, by what it ignores. QS is all about sensors like scales and accelerometers. These sensors produce numbers; the numbers must be interpreted by your thinking brain; and only then can they inform decisions about your body. It’s all several steps removed from your lived experience.

To put it another way: a fitness-tracking watch can tell you how far you’ve walked today, but it can’t tell you how you feel. What if the self your devices are quantifying isn’t the same person who feels hungry or sated, energetic or tired, happy or sad? What if it isn’t your essential self? And why are we collecting all this data, anyway? Is it helping us bring meaning into our lives?

Those are the kinds of questions Linda Stone, one of the 19 original Xconomists, has been raising lately in a series of recent talks and Web posts. And it was the main theme on the table when I interviewed Stone over lunch last week in Kendall Square.

Sometimes our five old-fashioned senses are more helpful than any amount of data, Stone argues. On the lecture circuit and in pieces for outlets like the Huffington Post and O’Reilly Radar, she’s described the essential self as “that pure sense of presence”—what our bodies are telling us about our experience in the physical world right now, without displays and readouts and spreadsheets in the way. Stone isn’t necessarily saying that we should eject monitoring technology from the equation. She’s just asking what might happen if these technologies were redesigned to give us direct sensory feedback, in a way that might serve the essential self, or what she calls “embodiment.”

This turn to slightly squishy notions about presence and embodiment might at first seem surprising, coming from someone who’s long been one of the country’s leading thinkers about the relationship between humans and computers. After all, Stone spent seven and a half years working on multimedia technologies at Apple and eight and a half years at Microsoft Research studying virtual communities and computer-mediated social life; she’s best known for originating the concept of continuous partial attention, the technology-exacerbated pattern of being superficially attentive to many different inputs without fully alighting on any of them.

But once you learn a bit more about Stone’s recent experiences, it’s easier to see where her questions are coming from. In 2004, due to surgeries related to a jawbone infection, she was afflicted with trigeminal neuralgia, a form of facial pain said to be one of most excruciating conditions known to medicine. During this period, all of Stone’s former competence at self-tracking went out the window, she says. When the data is troubling and chronic pain is an issue, she found, streams of health data can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Stone says she realized that Quantified Self technology is designed for people who are already healthy, not for those who are trying to heal. It occurred to her she’d be better off if she stopped focusing on the data and did a better job of listening to her body, using breathing and meditation to manage the extreme pain.

“My mind couldn’t direct my body to get better,” Stone told an audience at the MIT Media Lab earlier this year. “My mind and body needed to be friends. They needed to be partners in health. There might be a way to contribute to that through technology, but Quantified Self technologies did not feel kind, and I wanted to do things for my body that were kind. ”

Any technology that proposes to connect us to our essential selves, Stone argues, should speak directly to our senses through sound, light, vibration, and other stimuli. As an example, she cites devices like the HeartMath emWave, a heart rate variability monitor that uses lights and computer graphics to help users control stress levels. Computer users can clip the emWave lead to an earlobe while they work, and use cues from the software to remember to take an occasional break to de-stress. “Rhythm, sound, music, vibration, pulsing—especially the rhythms of the body, including heartbeat, pulses, and breath rhythms—are likely the most powerful technologies to support us in embodiment,” Stone says.

While Stone’s ideas about the Essential Self are still at the early, theoretical stage—without scientific studies to back them up—she says her audiences are getting excited about the new apps and devices waiting to be built and the opportunities waiting to be explored. Ultimately, Stone says she’d like to see the Essential Self idea develop into a movement alongside the Quantified Self—not replacing it, but paralleling it. “The question is: in what context are the numbers more helpful than our senses?” she writes. “In what constructive ways can technology speak more directly to our bodymind and our senses?”

Prior to our lunch, I hadn’t seen Stone since 2004, when I attended a social computing symposium that she co-organized for Microsoft Research (years before “social media” became a commonplace concept). She still lives in the Seattle area, but she stopped in Kendall Square on her way to the Media Lab, where she’s on the advisory board. Below is an edited writeup of our conversation.

Wade Roush: Can you say a bit how your thinking about the “Essential Self” emerged from your own experiences with illness and recovery?

Linda Stone: What I realized was that I could heal when my mind and body were not at war. I started to think about if there were technologies for embodiment, what would there be?

But even before that, when I was in the midst of dealing with this bone infection, I was getting chronic respiratory infections, and my doctor suggested that I take a breathing class. So I went and worked with someone who taught something called Buteyko breathing. And I went home with the exercises and I would dutifully walk as far as I could every morning and then sit down and do the Buteyko breathing exercises. Then I’d go to the computer to respond to e-mail and do some writing, and I’d get to the computer and I’d realize that I wasn’t breathing—that I was shallow breathing or breath-holding, and that my posture had changed from a posture that would allow me to breathe, to a posture where I was absorbed by the computer.

I began to think of the computer as a prosthesis of mind. And I wanted it to be a prosthesis of being. I wanted to bring my full self to it, my breathing self—the part of me that can think clearly and is fully engaged, and not just the part of me from the neck up.

I wanted a different relationship with technology. So as I became aware that I was shallow-breathing or breath-holding when I was at the computer, I got very interested in why that was happening, and what I could do. But I also started observing and talking to a lot of other people, and informally talked to and observed over 200 people in a seven-month period. I also talked to researchers at NIH and physicians and body workers and all kinds of people. And what I learned is that first of all, once we are on a smartphone or at a computer, one of the things that happens is … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Steve Sisgold

    I really liked your article and your work is awesome. I wrote a book, “What’s Your Body Telling You? Great to find you. Steve Sisgold

  • LEE STEIN

    fantastic read and brilliant as always….

  • http://eric.jain.name/ Eric Jain

    Quantified Self isn’t meant to replace your senses; in fact QS tools are often used to help get a better sense of e.g. what your heartbeat feels like when you’re exercising in a certain zone, or to increase your awareness of your breathing or posture when necessary.

    Recording data is also useful to monitor long-term trends, something for which we have little sense, and for sharing our progress with a coach, or with friends, be it for advice or for motivation.