Today we travel to a future full of spreadsheet approved lives. A future where everything we do is tracked and quantified: calories, air quality, sleep, heart rate, microbes, brain waves, finances, happiness, sadness, menstrual cycles, poops, hopes and dreams. Everything.
This episode is longer than our usual 20 minute jaunts to the future, because the future of quantified self is so huge. We cover everything from biased algorithms, to microbiomes (again), to the future of the calorie, and more.
The first person we talk to this week is Chris Dancy, who is basically living in this future today. He’s been called the most quantified man in the world. Every day Chris wears and carries around over thirty devices that track everything from his heart rate to his brain waves. You can see a live stream of his data here. Chris started tracking his life in 2008, and has upgraded his system continuously to become more streamlined and include more forms of data.
There are all sorts of video profiles of Chris online. Here’s one from Mashable, for example.
But, as I was watching a few of these videos (including the one above), I felt kind of uncomfortable. Because a lot of them treat Chris kind of like a freak show. Like this weirdo guy that we should all kind of laugh at, or shun, or see as this maniac with too many devices. But in talking to Chris it became very clear to me that he’s very thoughtful about what he’s doing. The point isn’t just to track for tracking sake, Chris is on a mission. And it’s the same mission that you or I might have when we start tracking steps or workouts or calories or menstrual cycles: to be better. To be healthier and happier. And, for Chris at least, it worked. He dropped 100 pounds, stopped drinking and abusing drugs, and feels way healthier now than he did before.
A lot of people have called Chris the most quantified man, or the most surveilled man, or the most tracked man. But he thinks about it another way. He calls himself a mindful cyborg. But being a mindful cyborg takes a lot of work. He spends $30,000 a year on his quantified self, and it’s essentially his full time job. Not everybody can do that.
When you ask Chris what the future of the quantified self looks like, he’s actually not super optimistic about it. Because right now, Chris uses all these devices to gather data, but he sometimes has to fight companies to actually get access to it. In most cases, he has to buy his data back from them, in order to use it for what he wants. He says he sees us going to “the dark future,” where all our data is mined by companies, and not used to make us healthier or happier.
To dig a little deeper into the possible dark side of personal tracking, I called Claire North, the the author of a book called The Sudden Appearance of Hope that’s coming out this summer. The main character, Hope, sort of has the opposite of face blindness, she is totally unmemorable to anybody who meets her. Which makes her an excellent thief, and the book started out as a book about thieving. But as Claire was writing it, she started getting interested in something else, the fact that without any friends or family or other humans that can even remember her, Hope has no real way of measuring her life.
There’s still plenty of thieving in the book (it’s very exciting) but there’s an added layer now. The story kind of centers around this app called Perfection. Users give it access to everything: their bank accounts, their location, what they’re eating and drinking, who they’re hanging out with, how they’re sleeping, everything. And in return, the app gives them suggestions. Don’t eat there, eat here. Don’t do that, do this. And when users link up their accounts, and comply with the app’s instructions, they get perks. Coupons to restaurants or access to special events. Users who get enough points even get plastic surgery.
But to me, the thing that’s perhaps the most sinister about Perfection isn’t that it offers you plastic surgery. But rather the way that the app decides what Perfection actually is. Instead of finding out what you want, and helping you achieve it. Perfection decides what you should want. Men should want to be muscled and have lots of money and cars. Women should want to be thin and conventionally attractive.
And the idea that data mining might be used to push people in the direction of certain, highly biased, desires or outcomes, isn’t the realm of science fiction at all. That’s how they work now, and we talked to computer scientist Suresh Venkatasubramanian, about his work on data mining and what’s called “algorithmic fairness.” Suresh explains what data mining is, and how it’s already being used to make decisions about everything from where things are in the grocery store, to who gets released from prison and who doesn’t.
(As a side note: When I was reading Claire’s book, I actually thought the name of the app, Perfection, was kind of on the nose. Certainly our future terrifying personal data app would have a softer, slicker name. Maybe “You” or “Well” or something like that. But then I went to a bodyhacking conference in Austin and I walked into the main ballroom where the first talk was being given, and up on the stage, behind the podium there was a huge banner it said “Nobody’s Perfect. Yet.” So, perhaps she was right!)
Of course, not everything about data mining is creepy and evil. Chris feels much better about his life now. And Jessica Richman, the CEO and co-founder of uBiome (who we spoke with last week as well) says that people can and will use their microbiome data to improve their lives. But Richman also knows that what she has at uBiome is a huge database of sensitive personal data. And she has to be careful with it.
One of the big questions I always have about tracking and personal data is this: I have a limited amount of time and money to track things, so, what should I be tracking? What variables are important? And it turns out that often, what we’re tracking in these systems, aren’t the right things. They’re simply the things we know how to track.
The last segment of our show this week centers about a really good example of that: the calorie. But it turns out the calorie might be a bit of a red herring. And to tell us about that, I called up Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, the hosts of a podcast about food called Gastropod. (Which is a great show you should totally go listen to it.)
They recently did an entire episode about the calorie, and asked some questions that, I had never really considered, like what actually is a calorie? How is it measured, and, perhaps more importantly, is it useful? And the answer is, for the most part, not really.
The amount of calories it says on the package doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of calories you actually get when you eat that package, or, I guess the food inside it. Don’t eat the wrapper. But they talked to one scientist who found that if you were to eat a pack of almonds that was, according to the calorie measure on the wrapper, 100 calories, your body actually only gets 70 of those calories. That’s a 30 percent difference! Plus, each person breaks down and absorbs energy from food differently, so 100 calories to me isn’t necessarily 100 calories to you.
Cynthia and Nicola walk us through the possible replacements for the calorie, like your microbiome or your metabolome, and we imagine a future with very personalized readouts for what each individual should eat and in what combinations.
By the end of our conversation though, I felt kind of exhausted. Not because Cynthia and Nicola aren’t delightful to talk to (they are) but because the idea of breaking down every single food I eat into a series of variables, and being told in great detail what I can and cannot consume, just seems totally exhausting.
And we close out the episode with a conversation about when tracking starts to ruin our enjoyment of things, and of each other. Are we happier when we track? Does it make us better humans? Does it help us understand yourself and others better? Does it make us happier? Does it make us better friends? I don’t know, and I think the answer will be different for everyone.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Casey Broughton, Rory Carroll, Suzanne Fischer, Sheila Gagne, Eddie Guimont, Tamara Krinsky, John Oloier, Mat Weller. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, want to give us feedback on the show, or just want to say hi, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing from you! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.
Hello! And welcome, to Flash Forward! I’m Rose, and I’m your host.
Flash Forward is a podcast about possible, and not so possible futures. Every week we take on a specific potential tomorrow, and try to really overthink what it might be like. Every episode starts with a trip to the future, before we zip back to now, to talk to experts about what we just saw, and what it would really be like. Got it? Great.
This week, let’s start in the year 2029.
Voice1: Good morning Sam. You slept for a total of 5 hours last night, but with frequent interruptions. Tomorrow night try playing some calming music at 62 bpm, and drinking a glass of water at 10:45, statistically those things correlate with deeper sleep for you. Remember, sleep is the foundation on which your day is built!
total calories 213
Next time try cutting the honey — strawberries are sweet enough as they are. Your health is important Sam.[traffic] Voice 3: Your heart rate is elevated. Take a deep breath. This is the fastest route to your destination. Would you like me to play some meditative music? [drive through] Drive through voice: Welcome to Pepy’s how can I help you
Person: Hi yeah I’ll have a number 4 with a diet coke and
Voice2: Hamburgers are full of saturated fats and salts, are you sure you don’t want to make another choice
Person: And a large fries
Voice2: Your health is important Sam. [Office sounds] Voice 4: There is tension in your back. Focus your gaze on the end of your nose. Lift your chest, breathe deeply in through your nose. Feel the vertebrae straighten and lengthen. Bad posture can take years off your life. [Office sounds] Voice5: This month you’ve spent $342 on pet supplies. We estimate that your dog supplies about $250 worth of happiness for you. Try cutting back on this expense.
Voice1: Good night Sam. Did you drink a glass of water yet? Drinking water before bed is correlated with better sleep for you. I will wake you at 6:30 to walk the dog. Sleep tight.
Rose: Okay so today we’re taking on the future of our quantified lives. A future in which every food we eat, every hour we sleep, every poop we take, every elevated heart beat, every… yes, every breath we take. Is counted, logged, measured and compared to our own baseline, and the rest of the world. Quantified Self, is what this is called, and if you count calories or steps you already do this. And the future is probably full of even more of it.
Since this is a big topic, today’s episode is going to be a little longer than usual. And we’re going to talk to a bunch of different people working on different aspects of the quantified life. But let’s start with someone who’s living this future life, today.
Siri: What kind of businesses are you looking for?
Chris Dancy: Oh my gosh Siri just came up, did you hear her? That’s so weird I didn’t even say Siri. See! I’m telling you they’re monitoring me!
Rose: This is Chris Dancy. He’s been called the most quantified man in the world. Every day Chris wears and carries around the following sensors.
A clip on camera
Two different fitbits
Two different Jawbones
An Apple Watch
A Pebble watch
A Samsung watch
Two different heart rate monitors
A posture sensor
An EEG monitoring Headband
A calorie tracking armband
A respiration tracker
A band that stimulates the nerves in his head
He also wears devices that help him control and interface with all the data he’s gathering like a smart ring and an armband that can control his technology using gestures.
In his house, Chris has sensors that measure air quality, temperature, light quality all sorts of stuff that synchs up with his personal data.
Chris: Sleeping data is fine but without environmental data in your bedroom sleeping data is useless because there’s so many thing that can happen outside of your body that impact your sleep.
Rose: All of these are also hooked up to systems that react and control various pieces of his house. If his heart rate gets elevated, for example, the lights in his office dim to sooth him.
But before Chris was the most quantified man in the word, he was a regular guy, working in tech. And he was in bad shape.
Chris: My health was kind of crap, I had a bunch of companies who were propping me up, allowing me to continue behaving in unfortunate ways. Just a lot of drugs and drinking and prescriptions and shit like that. I was, you know, a 300 pound chain smoking mess still, it was not pretty.
Rose: As a way to try and get ahold of his life, Chris started quantifying it, from the quality of the air he was breathing, to his mental states, and exercise. In 2010, he started using a clunky series of fake Google accounts, Twitter profiles, and spreadsheets. Eventually, he put all that information into a Google Calendar.
Chris: Moved everything to 10 categories by 2011, everything from financial to spiritual to environmental to physical, so they would be weighted properly coming in, they’d be then categorized and color coded.
Rose: If you look at this calendar, which you can on his website, it’s, overwhelming. There is a ton of information in all these colorful boxes on every day. But Chris was able to take this information and actually use it.
Chris: So I just basically started saying on days that I do X what do they look like? What does the color coding look like. What are the specifics, when I look in diary view on Google Calendar? And I just started creating more days like the days I liked, and I started looking for reasons why things were seemingly linked. Sometimes they were linked, sometimes they weren’t, but just the belief that I can control was enough.
Rose: In 2013, the outside world got word of Chris Dancy. He was on the cover of magazines, profiled by Wired, invited to speak all over the world about his life. There are a bunch of video profiles of him on the internet, which you can watch and which we’ll post the links to on our site. But, as I was watching a few of them, I felt kind of uncomfortable. Because a lot of them treat Chris kind of like, a freak show. Like this weirdo guy that we should all kind of laugh at, or shun, or see as this maniac with too many devices. But in talking to Chris it became very clear to me that he’s very thoughtful about what he’s doing. The point isn’t just to track for tracking sake, Chris is on a mission. And it’s the same mission that you or I might have when we start tracking steps or workouts or calories or menstrual cycles: to be better. To be healthier and happier. And, for Chris at least, it worked.
Chris: Within 18 Months I dropped 100 pounds, and I quit smoking, I was off my blood pressure medicine, off my antidepressants, off of drinking wasn’t using drugs as much it was just crazy.
Rose: A lot of people have called Chris the most quantified man, or the most surveilled man, or the most tracked man. But he thinks about it another way. He calls himself a mindful cyborg.
Chris: A mindful cyborg versus a freak with too much fitbit.
Rose: Today, being a mindful cyborg is basically Chris’s entire job. It’s what he does. And it’s a lot of work.
Chris: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s a crazy amount. No one ever asks me about the work god bless you. It’s a crazy amount of work. I mean having 100 fake Twitter accounts is ridiculous in managing it, not to mention how many emails you have to opt out of from Twitter. I spend about $30,000 a year on my quantified self which is a ridiculous amount of money
And he recognizes that most of us don’t have the time or money to be mindful cyborgs. But if Chris is living in this future today, what does he see coming? Well, in the future, it’s pretty clear that data collection is probably going to be even more ubiquitous. And Chris doesn’t actually see this as a necessarily good thing. Because right now, Chris uses all these devices to gather data, but he sometimes has to fight companies to actually get access to it. In most cases, he has to buy his data back from them, in order to use it for what he wants.
Chris: Right now we’re definitely headed toward the dark future, where people are having to buy back our data, and companies are figuring out ways to harvest our behavior. We are way deep in the dark side of the woods in my opinion right now becaues we haven’t really thought about all the choice that’s been removed for convenience.
To dig a little deeper into the possible dark side of personal tracking, I called Claire North.
Claire North: Obviously like every other human being on the surface of the Earth really who’s connected in this Internet age, I’ve gone through all the things, must exercise more, must eat better, don’t like exercising, don’t like eating better. Ahhh how shall I motivate myself? And the motivate yourself is a massive part of it. So I’ve dabbled in productivity apps, and calorie counting apps, and I’ve usually rejected them all after about a week with a cry of “I hate everything about this and what it’s doing to me.”
Rose: Claire is the author of a book called The Sudden Appearance of Hope that’s coming out this summer. The main character, Hope, sort of has the opposite of face blindness, she is totally unmemorable to anybody who meets her.
Claire: You can meet her, talk with her, have dinner with her, but the second you turn your back you begin to forget her.
Which makes Hope a really good thief. And the book started out as a book about theiving, Hope running around stealing diamonds and evading the police. But as Claire was writing it, she started getting interested in something else, the fact that without any friends or family or other humans that can even remember her, Hope has no real way of measuring her life.
Claire: I got really interested in apps and social media and all the technology we used day to day to kind of tell us “well done you have eaten 400 calories and this is good,” and the “I am monitoring you going running” stuff. And this world build up of a life that’s sort of told whether it’s any good by a machine.
The book kind of centers around this app called Perfection. Users give it access to everything: their bank accounts, their location, what they’re eating and drinking, who they’re hanging out with, how they’re sleeping, everything. And in return, the app gives them suggestions. Don’t eat there, eat here. Don’t do that, do this. And when users link up their accounts, and comply with the app’s instructions, they get perks. Coupons to restaurants or access to special events. Users who get enough points even get plastic surgery.
Claire: Hey you want to be perfect, we’ve got this great tie in deal with a guy who’ll fix your nose. And it starts to eat every part of your life, buying every aspect of your data, from what you eat to what you spend to how you look, and becomes quite sinister.
Rose: But the thing that’s perhaps the most sinister about Perfection isn’t that it offers you plastic surgery. But rather the way that the app decides what Perfection actually is.
Claire: The deeper you get into it, the more you realize that the lifestyle you desire is actually tailored by Perfection. It’s not necessarily helping you achieve what you want to be, it has a very strong algorithmic basis that says what you want to be is essentially what the internet says you should be. If you’re a woman you want to be skinny, you want to be rich, you want to be charming. If you’re a man, you also want to be right but you want to be muscley and you want to own a car. And so Perfection becomes less about who you are as an individual and more about you achieving this celebrity lifestyle notion of being the perfect person, the perfect human being.
Rose: And that’s a real danger with data-based algorithms today. When you have a quantified life, you’re giving companies access to data. And companies are mining that data for insights about you and about people in general.
Suresh Venkatasubramanian: The story goes something like this. Grocery stores wanted to know which items people bought at the same time, so they could put them in close proximity to each other. So they collected a lot of data on what people would buy in the store, so you have a person coming in, they buy a bunch of items and you have a record of all the things they buy. So you have this gigantic table of people and what they buy, and you want to find things that show up together a lot. And, allegedly, they would find the beer and diapers were bought together a lot. So the thinking is the stressed out new father who has to buying diapers and is getting some beer along with it. So the idea is that maybe you want to put these things closeby so when you buy diapers the beer is right nearby and you can pick it up.
Rose: That’s Suresh Venkatasubramanian,
Suresh: And I’m an associate professor of computer science at the Univeristy of Utah.
Suresh works on something called algorithmic fairness, a question of how to make these systems that mine data less biased. Which might sound weird. How can data mining be unfair? But remember: algorithms are made by humans, and humans are full of latent bias. So even if nobody at a company is saying “hey let’s discriminate against certain people using data!” they might accidentally build their systems to do just that.
Suresh: So with the work on algorithmic fairness we’re attacking this issue head on in the sense that the people thinking about this, they’re thinking precisely about how to prevent these from being weaponized. The weaponization is happening already, people are using machine learning for all sorts of purposes and in fact we’re saying no no no let’s try to make them a bit more reasonable in what they’re doing.
Rose: So an algorithm might take all the personal data that it’s fed, and start making decisions about you based on your race or gender. And if that happens when you’re being sold Amazon books, it sucks but, not the end of the world. But if it happens in other cases, it can be really bad. And one of the places Suresh is most worried about how this kind of quantified self comes into play in the judicial system.
More and more, courts in the United States are using algorithms to help decide whether or not someone should be allowed bail. They basically take a bunch of data, put it into an algorithm, and have the algorithm spit out information about how likely they think a person is to wind up back in jail.
Suresh: So the way this works at least with one of the systems, there’s this extensive questionnaire that is conducted by some trained personnel at the jail. There’s this set of 130 questions, and they ask them all kinds of things, they range from basic where did you live before this, what does your family look like, to more general questions like, do you feel anxious, do you feel depressed. And these answers are put into this model, which is proprietary and is built by a private entity, and out spits out a set of predictions. And the input going in is a combination of your personal data, information about your past, your friends, your network, information about your social network, your feelings, your mental state, all kinds of factors are going in. And coming out is this prediction.
But since the algorithm itself is a black box, nobody really knows if it’s discriminating against prisoners based on their race, or their gender. This is an extreme example, but it encapsulates some of the ways that companies might use your personal data against you in the future. Fitbits have already been used in court. Your insurance company could compare your personal data with what your doctor recommends for you to do, and if they don’t match they could up your rates.
Chris: I call it phone fracking, so what can you get out of your phone if you were to say “how do I empty out every single apps, all the sensors, and rearrange it in a nice way.” And that’s really scary, because if people are already thinking about that you know that companies already have, and you wonder when and how that’s going to happen.
Rose: When I was reading Claire’s book, I actually thought the name of the app, Perfection, was kind of on the nose. Certainly our future terrifying personal data app would have a softer, slicker name. Maybe “You” or “Well” or something like that. But then I went to a bodyhacking conference in Austin and I walked into the main ballroom where the first talk was being given, and up on the stage, behind the podium there was a huge banner it said “Nobody’s Perfect. Yet.”
So, of course, I immediately took a picture of the banner and sent it to Claire.
Claire: It was wonderful, it thrilled me and horrified me all at once. I really apprecited it, yay!
Now, part of what makes this kind of thing creepy, is that you’re giving a big company access to your personal data and you don’t necessarily know what they’re going to do with it. Or how well they’re going to protect it.
Jessica Richman: Breaches of healthcare data have gone up exponentially, there’s more data to breach and more people motivated to do it. So yeah, privacy and security are a huge drawback.
Rose: That’s Jessica Richman, if she sounds familiar it’s because we talked to her last week for our episode about the microbiome. Jessica is the cofounder and CEO of uBiome, a company that will sequence your microbiome for you. And in the future, that kind of data might be really useful to do things like predict what drugs will work for you, or cure infections and diseases, or solve murder cases.
But in the case of the microbiome the data is only useful if it’s connected to other people’s data, and the rest of your health data. Knowing the species of microbes in your gut isn’t super helpful unless you know whether that’s normal, or whether that changes when you’re feeling weird. And Jessia is well aware that she’s handling a lot of sensitive data.
Jessica: I don’t mean to be a technoutopian here. There are huge, privacy is something that’s always on my mind about this, because there are some really terrifying implications of this. It’s great that you know about your health and you can predict all of these things are going to happen, but what about the government and the insurance company you don’t want to know, and you know other individuals, your employer you may not want to know. So privacy is a huge aspect of this.
Rose: Sometimes, to me at least, talking about personal data and what I should or shouldn’t be doing with it can be really… overwhelming. There’s just so much of it. I mean Chris tracks so many different variables that I can’t even begin to list them all here. Coming up we’re going to dive into one particular type of data that people track, and talk through how it might change in the future. But first, a quick word, from our sponsors!
<<Flash Forward is a part of the Boing Boing podcast family, and I want to take a second to tell you about some of the other shows you can find on Boing Boing. There’s You Are Not So Smart, a show about how good we are at deceiving ourselves. There’s also a show called “Home,” which is all about what that word means to people. There’s Incredibly Interesting Authors, which is, pretty much exactly what it sounds like. And there’s GWeek, a variety show full of interesting media, science, science fiction, video games, comic books, board games, TV shows, music, movies, tools, gadgets, apps and more! You can find all the Boing Biong shows at http://boingboingpodcasts.com/. Okay! Back to the fuutuuuuuuuree!!>>MUSIC
Rose: So, this week’s future is all about our quantified lives. And that ranges across so many different arenas. We’ve talked about everything from data that determines whether you’re let out of prison, to data that tells you what books to buy, to data that tells you what bacteria live inside your guts.
But there’s this problem with quantified self that comes up all the time, and that’s that the things we are tracking aren’t always the things that are the most useful.
Chris: There’s a mathematician named Richard Tapa who said, “we don’t know how to measure what we care about so we care about what we measure.”
Rose: And I want take a closer look at one particular form of quantified self that might be exactly that, something that we’re measuring not because it’s useful, but because we know how to measure it. It’s one of the most common forms of tracking, and one that people have been doing long before apps or wearables, and that’s calorie counting.
Today, there are approximately a billion apps that can help you track your food intake. And most of them gather all the information, all the food items you put in, and combine them into some kind of report. Today you ate this many calories. Your target was that many calories. Good job, you hit your goal, or, oops, you went over, try cutting back tomorrow.
But I learned recently that the calorie might be kind of a red herring.
Nicola Twilley: Well I mean I ended up just thinking that it’s really not a useful thing at all, it is broken, it’s wrong, in all sorts of interesting ways. It just made me realize that we measure the calorie but it’s not the right thing for us to measure.
Rose: That’s Nicola Twilley and this is Cynthia Graber.
Cynthia Graber: And so I was a little different from Nicky here. I agree with what she said, obviously, and I think there are a lot of problems with the calorie. But I actually think think for a lot of people who are trying to lose weight and that is a lot of people, it’s kind of one of the measurements that they can use, as flawed as it is. It gives a good comparison, so you can say well in theory this salmon dish might have less calories than that huge cheeseburger and french fries.
Nicky and Cynthia make a podcast called Gastropod that’s all about food and it’s awesome, you should absolutely go listen to it. My favorite episode so far is about Mezcal, and it’s the reason I now have 6 bottles of mezcal at home. Listeners, send me mezcal! Anyway.
On a recent episode of Gastropod, they investigated the calorie. That ubiquitous little number on all of the food labels we see all the time. But Cynthia and Nicky asked some questions that, I had never really considered, like what actually is a calorie? How is it measured, and, perhaps more importantly, is it useful?
Nicola: I was really really intrigued once you start looking at the calorie you realize it came out of an era where getting enough food is what mattered, and that was the struggle. And now, so many of us, not everybody, but so many of us live in an environment where there are way too many available calories, and still we’re obsessing about measuring our food in this one way, which is all flawed and broken and which we can’t do accurately at home anyway. So why? Why when there are other ways to think about food? So I came out of it being like, ditch the calorie.
Rose: The calorie, it turns out, is not a particularly useful way of measuring what you’re getting from food. Because the amount of calories it says on the package doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of calories you actually get when you eat that package, or, I guess the food inside it. Don’t eat the wrapper. But they talked to one scientist who found that if you were to eat a pack of almonds that was, according to the calorie measure on the wrapper, 100 calories, your body actually only gets 70 of those calories. That’s a 30 percent difference! Plus, each person breaks down and absorbs energy from food differently, so 100 calories to me isn’t necessarily 100 calories to you.
Nicola: And the idea that it’s 100 like that, it gives you this false sense. Like okay well I can have this whole packet of 100 calorie cookies because it’s only 100 calorie snack pack and I’ll just do an extra five minutes on the stair master and then I’m all set. And it’s like, it really doesn’t actually work like that and it gives you this false sense that you can make these sort of accounting decisions with your intake that are much more precise than they actually are.
Cynthia: Yeah it’s definitely not like taxes you can’t be an accountant for your calories.
Rose: So if counting calories isn’t actually telling us what we think it is, what should be count instead? There’s no way that our future doesn’t involve some kind of food related tracking. But instead of tracking calories, Cynthia and Nicky say that we’ll probably be tracking other things, a whole bunch of variables that then combine to give us a personalized readout of what, EXACTLY, we should be eating.
To get that personal readout, we’ll probably be combining a whole lot of personal data. Like our microbiome.
Nicola: Maybe,, I just sampled my gut microbiome, for the first time. It was an enjoyable experience involving a very large q-tip. Maybe the future is we have to do this every morning, and it says, you know what, you’ve got a lot of those gut bacteria that are really good at extracting energy from what you’re eating, you need to cut down on consumption today, maybe have a probiotic. It might be, if you want that personalized recommendation and your gut microbes fluctuate every day, maybe we are going to all be going into the stall with a giant q-tip every day.
Cynthia: That sounds appealing
Nicola: I just try, it’s not all jetpacks people, it’s not all jetpacks.
Rose: And as weird as that might sound, it’s not actually so far off from where we are now.
Jessica: We do have a lot of people who have subscriptions.
Rose: That’s Jessica Richman from uBiome again.
Jessica: And what they do is they look at, as subscribers they’re often charting the changes in their gut in regarding to their own habit changes or in regard to natural fluctuations. Often people have something where they’re not quite sure what’s going on, or they’re trying to optimize something specifically to either alleviate a symptom or to have for weight loss or weight gain and they want to see how their microbiome changes in response to that.
Rose: And on top of the microbiome, we also might start tracking something called our metabolome.
Cynthia: Yeah so metabolomics is the study of all the chemicals of our body, and there are, as of the latest reading, tens of thousands of those. And then it’s also the study of all the chemicals of all the metabolomes in foods, which is another tens of thousands of chemicals, and then it’s kind of the way they all interact together. So it’s this crazy complicated science that David Wishart, which we spoke to, at the University of Alberta, he thinks teasing this all out could be more complicated than understanding the human genome.
Nicola: Because the thing is when we, we already have all of these tens of thousands of chemicals circulating in our body and then we ingest something that has those tens of thousands of chemicals. And we don’t typically eat one meal that is oranges and one meal that is steak, so then we’re combining all the different metabolomes in our food as well and that combination and the interaction between all those chemicals as they meet in our bodies, is uncharted territory for the most part. But what they are finding is, as they start to chart is, that it does have an effect on then how we process that food.
Rose: So instead of counting calories, we might be combining our microbiome with our metabolome to come up with super specific tailored meal choices and food combinations.
Cynthia: When we were sort of imagining a future scenario, and we did this for our episode as well we were talking about this, we were kind of imagining that you would walk into a store and you would have something had all the information on your metabolome, and then it would take a snapshot on what you wanted to eat and it would do all these werid calculations and tell you how it would match up with your metabolome and wehther or not you would get a certain amount of calories or a certain amount of nutrition. And it would be maybe a different readout than someone shopping right next to you shopping might get. Which just seems completely crazy, but that’s the spiraling out of what this scenario might be. And so Nicky and I when we were talking about this Nicky and I kind of spiraled and we were thinking well would this mean in the future you could have some kind of printout that was like well if you want to eat that Twinkie or that chocolate chip cookie then you should eat these other foods with it because those compounds will help protect against the absorption of the sugar in that way, it could get kind of crazy.
Rose: Now, if I’m honest, this all sounds… exhausting? How are you supposed to order at a restaurant?
Nicola: Or just even family dinner, I mean to me this is the downside of going in this direction. I feel as though, I mean Michael Pollan calls this way of thinking about food nutritionism where you just sort of prioritize all of this effect on your health over the other aspects of food which are connection to our environment and connection to the people around us, which are very very very important too.
Rose: And here’s where we run into one of the big issues that I think a lot of people have with our increasingly quantified selves. It’s a lot of work, and it can sometimes make things that should be enjoyable into something, else.
Cynthia: Right, and because to go along with something Nicky was saying it takes away the pleasure from food, if all you’re doing is quantifying everything and you’re quantifying calories and you’re quantifying your blood sugar spikes, and then you’re quantifying I don’t know what these particular foods would do together so you should eat them together, you miss out on the incredible pleasure that food brings you. And that’s to me one of the biggest points of it, it’s the social aspect of it, but it’s also this very sensual thing that you get to do multiple times a day. And I would never want to give that up just to get all these numbers taht might make me a little bit healthier.
Nicola: I feel as though it’s possible to imagine but to want is a different matter
Rose: Some people might want this kind of detailed personal tailoring, this spreadsheet approved life. It’s okay to want to track, and it’s okay to not want to track. Lots of people have different opinions about how much, and what kind of data they want to gather on their own existence.
Cynthia: I do that thing the one thing that you said every woman does, and every month on my calendar I track my period.
Nicola: I don’t do that. I leave it, I see where I am on my birth control pills so that does it for me. I track nothing. I track people’s birthdays, so I don’t forget them, does that count?
Cynthia: Oh I don’t even do that I forget people’s birthday’s all the time.
Nicola: Oh! And I write down, I’ll tell you the other thing I do, I write down what I gave people because I found I was giving people the same gifts two years running.
Cynthia: Oh that’s so smart I should totally do that!
Nicola: That makes me sound like I’m 72 or something but yes, truly it happened, so I track that now, but that’s really it.
Suresh: When I’m sporadically going to the gym I do track my workouts, and when I was going regularly I would track them regularly and keep track of what I was doing. I have found, so as a podcaster and blogger you know the feeling right, when I have a blog, and there was a time when I used to obsessively track my stats, and I found my perspective getting very warped, I would literally think what should I write next to get more hits? And at some point I started looking back at myself like what am I doing here?
Jessica: People have very different philosophies about what they want to know, and I’m so clearly, there’s sort of continuum, you could view it as a Likert Scale of you know, on one side I don’t want to know anything about my health if I’m sick I’ll go to a doctor take care of me healthcare system. And on the other side you have I want to know everything whether it’s useful or not maybe some day it will be useful for something. And I’m very far to one side where I want to know everything. But there are a lot of people who just aren’t , that just, in my experience that’s just a philosophical orientation, some people want to know and some people don’t.
Claire: My partner and I have very different views on this. He quite likes that things are tracked he likes the fact that he doesn’t have to spend extra time typing in a search term, or that google knows where his home base is and can instantly calculate a trip home for him. He likes the fact that there’s an evil data overlord who can help him. But for my part I massively dislike companies having too much data on me, partly for the fact that I hate advertising and I hate the idea that advertising is being customized to me.
Rose: But just like counting calories, or whatever we replace counting calories with, the big question we’ll all have to tackle in the future is why? Are we happier when we track? Does it make us better humans? Does it help us understand yourself and others better? Does it make us happier? Does it make us better friends? I don’t know, and I think the answer will be different for everyone.
Chris: They’ll follow me on Twitter and then they’ll link into me on Linkedin, and then they’ll try to be my friend on My Fitness Pal, okay, so you know where I work and you know what I like and now you’re friends with me on Facebook so you know what animals I have, now you know what I eat on My Fitness Pal, oh now you’re friends with me on Fitbit so you know how I’m sleeping, oh look at that now you’re following me on 23andMe so you know how many diseases I’m going to have in the future. You know, at what point do you have to tell your friends, how much information do you need on me, to fucking pick up the phone and call me?[MUSIC UP]
What do you think? Do you track anything about yourself? Do you hate the idea of tracking? Where do you draw the line? What would you like to track that you can’t? Tell us! Leave a voicemail at (347) 927-1425 or send a voice memo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Casey Broughton, Rory Carroll, Suzanne Fischer, Sheila Gagne, Eddie Guimont, Tamara Krinsky, John Oloier, Mat Weller. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
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That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.