My wife recently entered the world of the quantified self and wearable computing when she got a FitBit activity tracker. It’s really interesting to see how quickly the device, the app, and the “10,000 steps a day” target has changed her behaviour. We are walking to places where before we would have driven.

I’m in a quandary about this. On the one hand I can see immediate evidence of the efficacy of such tools. It’s changed her behaviour. But on the other hand I worry that such machine-driven bossiness leads us to personal influence through the rules of Goodhart and Campbell – namely that by using a number as a way to promote a change in behaviour we both change the meaning of that number, and we also tend to cheat to be able to hit it.

In the 10,000 steps case, that’s become totemic in the same way that things like “two litres of water a day” and “eight hours sleep” have. There’s no doubt great reasons behind how these numbers were first derived, but that meaning is lost along the way and we end up doing things in an unthinking way. The goal becomes the number – and no bad thing (potentially) – unless we start to game it.

Those ten thousands steps could be from the tobacconist to the off licence to the pie shop and back. With the meaning lost, all we have is the number and then that’s all we focus on hitting.


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