Digging Deep Into the Self: A Chat on the Impacts of Quantified Self With Rajiv Mehta and Gary Wolf

Rajiv Mehta, Founder & CEO of Atlas of Caregiving, and Gary Wolf, Founder & Director of Quantified Self, teamed up to define and explain the concept of the “quantified self” and how it will be used to help achieve the goals of the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Community Caregiving Initiative. For a firsthand look at this fascinating tool, come to the April 25 event “Discovery the Quantified Self” in downtown Santa Barbara or contact Phylene Wiggins, Senior Director of Community Investments, at pwiggins@sbfoundation.org.

Q: In your own words what is the quantified self?

Wolf: I am a journalist by vocation and I formerly was part of the group of writers and editors working at Wired magazine when it was just in its infancy. It was a really interesting time because it was the beginning of the popularization of the internet and the adaptation of different types of technology into culture and everyday life. In 2007, my coworker Kevin Kelly and I became really interested in what happens to our sense of self when technology comes all the way into our lives – whether through clothing, music, or even all the way into the body. Although this began as pure research, we quickly discovered the global community of self-trackers that become “quantified self.”

Mehta: Around this same time, I was looking into how people remember to keep track of their health, such as remembering to take medicine every day or going to yoga, and understanding the tools that they use to do so. I heard of a meeting that Wolf was organizing in the California Bay Area and was completely surprised to find that there were so many other individuals thinking deeply about similar issues and inspired about how we could collaborate to create stronger, more vibrant communities.

Q: Why do you think that the concept of the quantified self is valuable?

Wolf: On a general level, it is useful for people to have the power to use what is normally seen as a scientific procedure involving data and observation to solve their own problems. It empowers people to answer their own questions using their own data, which supplies hope and confidence that sometimes experts cannot instill.

Mehta: The thing that I find most surprising is that we even ask this question. We take tracking, learning, tinkering and making small improvements for granted in so many aspects of our lives It surprises me that we do not do it more to address other aspects, specifically our mental, physical and emotional health.

Q: Can you provide some examples about how it is useful?

Wolf: The thing that is so great about quantified self is that there is a wide range of technical and non-technical projects and endless tools. The tools range in complexity, enabling people to get the result that is most beneficial to them, whether in sports, education, mental health, or chronic disease. Its fundamental value is not the tool that is used, it is what you learn, which makes it very adaptable and useful to a multitude of people.

Mehta: In terms of family caregiving, we have a number of examples where encouraging family members to keep careful track of their day-to-day activities has given them a new appreciation for what they do. For example, one woman who takes care of her son that has emotional issues participated in our worksheet tracking exercise. The first thing she said she learned is that she does not need to feel guilty about being tired at the end of the day because she was able to see how much she really does.

Q: Why apply the concept of quantified self to family caregiving?

Mehta: When I first started exploring this concept, I was looking at how tracking can help people care for themselves, remember to take medicine on time, etc. I quickly realized you cannot separate medical health from total emotional, mental and physical health and that you cannot really separate the self from the family. Care happens in circles of family and friends. To take care of one person, you need to take care of the entire support group. By encouraging family caregivers to observe and measure their day-to-day activities, we get a more complete picture about how we can better assist family caregivers.

Q: How do you hope quantified self will help the future of caregiving?

Mehta: As caregivers continue to learn more about their own situations, they will be able take steps to find their own solutions or will be able to better explain to others what is hard and where they need help. Additionally, the eventual accumulation of this knowledge will help those providing services, such as hospitals or social services, to better serve families. It will present a richer picture to service providers about the varied issues facing family caregivers and help them learn how to cater to their needs.

Q: What do you hope attendees take away from the April 25 event?

Mehta: Two things. First, I hope that community members learn something or become inspired and empowered to use quantified self to help them in their own lives. Second, I hope that we can recruit some family caregivers in the Santa Barbara community to come work with us so we can continue expanding our work and gain a deeper understanding on how we can help. With the Community Caregiving Initiative, Santa Barbara County is already doing so much related to caregiving and I hope we can have a two-way dialogue at this event.

Wolf: I hope that attendees will share what they are doing in the form of self-tracking. We want to talk to you and we want to learn from you because that is the way that we move forward together.

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