Tracking Applications Offer Users False, Unhealthy Sense of Control

Last week, the Review ran a story about a new app being deployed by the Counseling Center to check in with and keep track of the mental well-being of students.

The structure of this check-in, as reported in the article, is as such: each week, users are asked a question focused on one element of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s eight dimensions of wellness framework, with consistent reports of poor mental health being reported to the school.

While I don’t have any firsthand experience using Early Alert, nor does the concept particularly appeal to me, it made me consider the way in which it is common to track, quantify, and organize various elements of our lives in an age of handheld tech.

I’ve had what some might euphemistically refer to as a “personal habit” of logging various aspects of my life for quite some time, all on the shaky assumption that it might help me track the status of my various physical and mental states. An example of this compulsion was the time I had to buy a blood pressure monitor — upon dumping the contents of the box onto my bed, I had to exercise mental restraint against my desire to start using the daily “blood pressure log” they gave me with my purchase.      

The apps available for this kind of personal data stockpiling are surprisingly numerous, especially when you consider real-world application vs. advertised intended use. For example, health apps such as Health for Apple iOS, MyFitnessPal, and the Fitbit app (when accompanied by the prerequisite hardware), are commonly used as a means of justifying tracking calorie intake, weight, and physical activity on a compulsive level, rather than a legitimately health-based one. 

What this ultimately amounts to is a cultural habit of control-seeking behavior rooted in a kind of quantitative journaling. For me, it offers an alternative to the ritual of keeping a consistent account of my day — something which I have tried to maintain as a habit perhaps a dozen times. But I always end up discontinuing it after a week or so out of boredom or a lack of desire to see a bad day written down in poor handwriting.  

Joan Didion writes about this same disinterest in keeping a fixed diary in her 1966 essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” but to a vastly different end. 

“The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” Didion writes. “That would be a different impulse entirely … my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best.”

I like this essay because what Didion reflects upon is ultimately that same desire to control that I see spread out in lists and cell phone notifications within the much more technically interesting routine of, in her words, “keeping in touch.”

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Didion continues. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

If we were to apply this theory to the modern phenomenon of record keeping, the obvious question would arise: what loss? For Didion, that “loss” is made up of experience — as she puts it, the “dialogue overheard in hotels and elevators … [the] careful aperçus about tennis bums and failed fashion models and Greek shipping heiresses,” etc. But for us, that loss takes different forms.

When it comes to logging health, the motivating factor becomes the act of “being better” than the day, week, or month before. There’s also a certain grounding element — in order to prevent oneself from becoming out of touch with their daily routines, software like this offers a calculated sum of the day’s activities. In this sense, one’s loss of well-being is supposedly obstructed by means of measurement.

With social media, the motivation to impede potential loss is even greater. Memories captured through picture and video preserve fun had and youth well spent. Meanwhile, the general stream of consciousness online allows those who consider their thoughts worth preserving to import them into a space where they won’t be lost to the confines of one’s own mind or the relative obscurity of one’s own notebook.

While I’m not arguing that these habits of record are completely meaningless, I would advise those who engage in this sort of filing to consider whether they have developed a habit which actually allows them to maintain control over their lives or if it instead represents a loss of judgement and ability to make decisions on their own. 

Although I don’t see myself abandoning these rituals any time soon, I recognize that there is a fine line between the practice of genuine introspection and something effectively akin to maintaining a record of one’s failures.