Thursday, July 21, 2011

Technology We Can Really Use: Feedback Loops and the Measured Life

You may recall a post from a year or so ago about a presentation by Jesse Schell where he described the many ways in which various technologies would enable individuals to turn every aspect of their lives -- including behavior-- into a game. As Schell predicted, the Internet of Things is beginning to take shape, and it provides many opportunities for personal productivity-- and a chance to use technology instead of technology using us.

As described in an article from Wired entitled "Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops", personal devices and sensor technology are allowing individuals to actively improve health and behavior. It has been accepted for many years that feedback loops are very effective at changing behavior by encouraging good habits and rewarding progress: "Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it) , then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors." The idea just articulates the management adage that "You Can't Manage What You Don't Measure."

Accordingly, a feedback loop has four stages:

"First comes the data: A behavior must be measured, captured, and stored. This is the evidence stage. Second, the information must be relayed to the individual, not in the raw-data form in which it was captured but in a context that makes it emotionally resonant. This is the relevance stage. But even compelling information is useless if we don’t know what to make of it, so we need a third stage: consequence. The information must illuminate one or more paths ahead. And finally, the fourth stage: action. There must be a clear moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, make a choice, and act. Then that action is measured, and the feedback loop can run once more, every action stimulating new behaviors that inch us closer to our goals."

The challenge to the actual use of feedback loops is largely one of measurement: is has been difficult to collect personalized data. In other words, even if data is important, capturing it involves too much friction. Heart rate is a good example: every human being benefits from knowing how her heart rate changes over the course of a day, but very few people can or will stop what they are doing, put their hand on their wrist, and write down the result. We don't measure it, so we can't manage it.

The availability of sensors is changing all that, and making the collection of personal data cheap and easy. As described in this article from Technology Review entitled "The Measured Life," companies are bringing to market devices that can measure and monitor food intake, sleep, fatigue, mood, and heart rate. As described by groups like the Quantified Self, this type of information can help create positive feedback loops and make better choices about health and behavior.

If technological change is seemingly complicating your life, turning your profession upside down and (dis)stressing you into a Loaded Gun, doesn't it make sense for you to harness that technology in service of something that really matters, your own well-being?