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Bytes of Life

"For a certain type of person," says Wolf, the Quantified Self founder, "data is the most important thing you can trust. Certain people think a feeling of inner certainty is misleading."

Wolf says he's one of them; Messina can identify with the sentiment.

"I want to understand the changes that are actually happening [in my life], not just my perceptions of them."

Has it really been a month since you last had sex, or does it just feel like that? Did you really floss five times last week, or was it more like twice? Now that you realize that, are you a little less angry at your dentist for that painful last appointment?

Computers don't lie.

People lie.

This part's actually good science:

"We all have the tendency to see our behaviors in a little bit of a halo," says Jayne Gackenbach, who researches the psychology of the Internet at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada. It's why dieters underestimate their food intake, why smokers say they go through fewer cigarettes than they do. "If people can get at some objective criteria, it would be wonderfully informative." That's the brilliance, she says, of new technology.

But it's one thing to use a computer as a tool for behavioral therapy, and another to treat a computer as a life-guiding oracle, ego to our id, telling us how we feel and what we need. Or perhaps, treating the computer as a person -- while we become the machines, subject to our tracking Web sites' every direction.

Michelle McGillivray, a mom in Oregon, signed up for MyMonthlyCycles.com when she was trying to conceive her first child. She has a toddler now, but McGillivray still uses the site, relying on how it says she should be feeling (based on her previous data input) to inform her behavior. If one month she was particularly irritable at a certain point in her cycle, she'll make sure to keep to herself at that point during the next month. She'll even wear the clothes she noticed made her feel best the last time around.

Most of the trackers interviewed for this article haven't been tracking long enough, in their opinions, to adequately gauge how it's affecting their behaviors. (Messina has only been on some sites for a few months). But the possibilities are endless.

For example: Analysis of your stress levels, cross-referenced with other things, could tell you not only that you needed a vacation, but also when and where to go, says Messina.

Brewster and Horn see untapped potential for optimizing productivity and life experiences. If you could learn which foods, people, activities, sleep patterns, driving routes and television shows left you the most content, think of how much better your life would be.

Complicated decisions, diluted to data.

It's a happy thought.

Still, a reporter has one niggling question about this improved world, in which there is no wasted time or effort, in which daily activities like reading TechCrunch would be chopped from the schedule if they did not produce enough "noticeable output."

Is a smile a noticeable output? the reporter wants to know. What if productivity decreased in the hours following, but the time spent on the Web site produced 3.2 chuckles and 2.4 interesting pieces of information learned?

Brewster pauses for a few seconds before looking to her boyfriend, Horn, for assistance.

"David," she says finally, "this is a bigger algorithm."


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