Ernesto Ramirez

This week on Mindful Cyborgs Chris Dancy and I interview Ernesto Ramirez, the program director, editor and community organizer of Quantified Self Labs and the webmaster of We talked about the beginnings of the quantified self movement, its chances for catching on with the broader public and the privacy implications of sharing health data on the cloud.

As always you can listen to it or download it on both iTunes and Soundcloud, or you can just download the MP3 directly.

Full show notes and transcript inside.

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Worried-well –people who are healthy but are worried about becoming ill and so take medication or see a doctor when they don’t need to


There is often a discrepancy between our ideals and what we actually encounter. -Pema Chödrön


  • Buddhist geeks August 16-19 Boulder (Mindfulness)
  • Quantified Self 2013 – October 10-11, 2013 -San Francisco-


Mindful Cyborgs – Contemplative living in the age of quantification, augmentation and acceleration, with your hosts Chris Dancy and Klint Finley.


CD:      Welcome to Mindful Cyborgs, Episode 5. Hello, Mr. Klint Finley.


KF:       Hello there. How’s it going?


CD:      Good. Are you feeling quantified or are you feeling jetlagged?


KF:       You know, neither one. I’m feeling pretty good. I think I’m over the jetlag, actually.


CD:      Fantastic. So, we didn’t think we could do with Nathan. It was such a big show for us. And then we were lucky enough to snag Nancy Dougherty. I met Nancy, or at least observed Nancy, for the first time last year when I went to a Quantified Self Conference in Palo Alto in Stanford and it was there that I laid my eyes on Ernesto Ramirez for the very first time. He opened up a conference and spoke to some folks and I am very excited. We have Ernesto with us here today. Hello, Ernesto.


ER:       Hey, how’s it going?


CD:      Well, I don’t know. I thought I was pretty nervous chatting with Nancy, but chatting with you is kind of more nerve-wracking.


ER:       I hope not. I’m an easy one.


CD:      Klint and I have this show here where we chat about mindfulness, and cybernetics, and present shocks, and a bunch of other things. We often talk about … and Klint has written a bit about quantified work. Klint, I think you just got done talking about quantified work in Spain, did you not?


KF:       Yes, the BDigital Global Congress in Barcelona.


CD:      What did you find out? You have to tell us a little bit more about your presentation. Ernesto, for folks that might be new to you, it seems like every day there’s 500 new quantified self Google alerts. Could you tell the listeners who probably know all about you a little more about you?


KF:       Maybe also talk about how you got involved both into self-tracking and then into this specific community, maybe running the site, organizing the meet-ups, and that sort of thing.


ER:       I’ll just kind of start with what I do now and then kind of backtrack and go with where I started. Currently I’m the Program Director for Quantified Self Labs which is a small organization which is basically myself, Gary Wolf, and a few other individuals that help support the global quantified self community through the meet-ups, the conferences, our website and a few other different program entities that we try and do.


I got started in that because when I’m not working on quantified self I’m trying to finish a PhD in public health down at UC San Diego. Right around 2010, a woman named Cece O’Connor came and spoke to one of my advisors down there and said that she was given his name by someone in quantified self in the Bay Area and that he would be a good person to talk to about starting one in San Diego. Like any good advisor, he pawned that work off onto his eager young grad student which was me. So I helped start the quantified self meet-up with her and a few other people that were interested in the topic down in San Diego. That was 2010.


2011 rolled around and that was when the first conference happened in Mountain View at the Computer History Museum. I volunteered there and it turned out really great. I had a great time. Apparently I did a good enough job volunteering that they asked me to come to Amsterdam and help out with our first European Conference later that fall. The following year, starting in 2012, I started working part time as a community organizer, helping with the meet-ups and, again, with conferences. Now, I’m moving up and moving on.


CD:      When I met you last year … I didn’t meet you, I observed you. Although I’m sure you saw me in the audience somewhere overwhelmed. That was pretty new. You were really just kicking things off.


ER:       Yes, it was still pretty new for me. I was still working. I was doing a lot of work with my PhD. Now that I’m just in the dissertation phase, I have a little bit of time for other things. This QS work as really blossomed at least for me I think personally and also, if you think of it in a kind of social cultural context what it really means, not just because lots of new things are coming out but people are doing some really interesting stuff with personal data these days and it’s really fun to be a part of that conversation.


KF:       Yes. How does QS intersect with public health? One of the problems I think that has come up at some of the QS meet-ups that I’ve been to is a question of whether it’s going to be adopted by the public as a whole because right now it’s a bunch of early adopters who are concerned with our health, who want to lead a healthy lifestyle but, in a lot of cases, we’re already sort of doing that without any of these new tools. What do you see as the potential for the public at large to start using some of this stuff?


ER:       I think there’s two ways that I think it intersects with public health and public good and understanding is that you do have the worried well that are using these devices and tools to just understand that they’re already as healthy as they think they are. But what’s happening is that it’s slowly permeating into culture and that people are gathering more and more data about themselves, their behaviors. If you look at it from just a chronic health standpoint it comes down to a ton of people are now tracking what they eat and how much they move through digital pedometers, calorie logs and things like that. That’s a huge amount of data that until now has been kind of locked away in small scale study and we’re getting to the point now from a public health standpoint that researchers and funding institutions, the ones that control what we actually get to do, are starting to see the value in all the data individuals are creating on their own.


For example, this is going to sound kind of promotional, I apologize for that, but there’s a new program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which is one of the largest funders outside of the NIH for health projects in the United States and UC San Diego to start to look into personal health data. They’re calling that their health data explore program. I think there’s another thing happening – although this is still, like you said, just kind of niche and that only the early adopters are doing this. I think our ideas of what QS is, is that it’s actually starting to be adopted more readily by a large number of individuals.


For instance, I was going down the street to Best Buy the other day to see if I could pick up one of the new Fitbit wristbands and they’re just completely sold out. And one of the gentlemen that was helping people look for stuff mentioned to me that they are just having a hard time keeping any of the wrist worn type of activity sensors on their shelf because as soon as they stock them they’re pretty much being sold out. I don’t live in the greatest area in L.A. so the fact that people around where I’m living are buying these things and buying them in great quantities I think is kind of a testament to how quickly this kind of stuff is actually permeating our culture right now.


CD:      I like that. So, we had Nancy on the show. I know you’re at least familiar with her. I don’t know how much except she’s done some work with you guys. She just really has a great way of looking at things. She isn’t a pursuit of perfection. It seemed to me that Nancy Dougherty was in pursuit of understanding herself. It wasn’t any quantification method to achieve a certain goal. I mean she was very open – if it doesn’t work, she wrote stuff down which kind of led her to mindfulness.


For that, we had Nathan Jurgenson who really kind of saw this whole digital dualism and he never really talked about people being distracted about that personal data, but he did talk about we apologize our relationship with technology. In any of the work that you’ve done, you talk about the worried well, can people get too distracted with their personal data?


ER:       I think, yes. I think it’s kind of one of those situations where obviously you can go down the rabbit hole with this type of thing and you can become kind of sucked into what kind of data you can collect and gathering all the information. But, I think that is really the atypical case when it comes to individuals that are actually trying to understand themselves on a personal data standpoint. Most people aren’t actually just doing things and collecting all the data and living through their devices, and technologies, and the systems that they’re using.


I think most individuals are actually inherently very curious about something that’s going on in their lives and they’re trying to understand that thing, whatever that thing is, at a deeper more personal level. We like to think of this from a QS standpoint and this really comes from our founder Gary Wolf. We think that QS is actually partly engaged with a new process of creating knowledge and that’s creating knowledge from a very individual and personal standpoint, and that’s where things are really powerful right now.


CD:      I completely agree. When I think about some of the things I’ve seen at meet-ups – and meet-ups are really kind of interesting helping on Boulder – it seems sometimes people come in, or at least the meet-ups that I’ve been to over the past year, and some people have no idea what to expect. Some people come in and they’ve been doing this for years, except they didn’t have a name for it. When building a community, a topic that in some ways has existed as long as mankind, how do you start to bridge those relationships that people already have with themselves and their data? Do you find it hard? I read a great article by @phenatypical and I know you mentioned it in some of your tweets about capital QS versus little qs. In the rural community members, how do you bridge those worlds? It must be a little difficult, I guess, is my observation.


ER:       Yes, you’re mentioning meet-ups and I just kind of like want to put this in context here is … this is how QS actually started. It was an in-person group. It started at Kevin Kelly’s house.


CD:      Someone put a post online of the original meet-up and notes and everything. I saw that awhile back.


ER:       I think it was Tim Ferris because he was one of the people that was there. That was in 2007. Gary tells this great story that they literally had no idea what was going to happen there. They’re just kind of let’s get people interested in a room and then we’ll talk about things. Then the last person to show up, Kevin just pointed at them and said, “Okay, you’re the last one. You have to talk first.” Instead of talking about who he was, he just opened up his laptop and showed this really impressive visualization that showed us what he was doing every 15 minutes of every single day of the last year.


CD:      That’s exactly how I met Klint. I was at Cyborg camp and I opened up my laptop and people lost their minds, so I can imagine.


ER:       That kind of interaction is actually super, super powerful and this is where I think the meet-up is actually one of my favorite things. What we try and help all the meet-ups around the world do is that it’s really about understanding about what people are actually doing in their own lives rather than people preaching about what others should do or the fancy new things or the gadgets and all this stuff, it’s really about “Okay, I’m doing this…” and if you really want to get down to the nitty-gritty, we ask all of the speakers and we try and kind of, this is our mantra and sometimes it sounds like a broken record, but we ask everyone that comes to a meet-up that if they’re going to talk about their personal data they need to answer three very simple questions which are what did you do, how did you do it, and what did you learn? All the time keeping kind of a first person narrative running through that story. We found that it’s really, really powerful. Now it’s almost four and a half years later and there’s over 90 meet-ups, and we’re in like 33 different countries. It’s really a lot of fun.


CD:      If you’re interested and you want to find a meet-up, you just can go to and just type in quantified self. Almost every city I’m in now when I’m traveling I just see if there’s a meet-up running while I’m there. It’s just fun. The first step is to admit that you have data. Sorry, bad other meeting joke.


KF:       I want to just throw one more question at Ernesto. We’re recording this interview just after the NSA scandal about how companies collecting some of this data. One of the criticisms that Evgeny Morozov, I don’t know if I said his name right, is that he has a lot of beefs with everything to do with digital culture. But one thing he said that I thought was interesting about quantified self versus self-trackers is that we’re potentially normalizing a certain set of behaviors that are recording certain sets of private data into these systems and potentially creating a culture … I guess this is kind of the opposite of my earlier question of how do we get the public to do all of this stuff and then, but the other side of it is what if the entire public does start doing this stuff, is expected to do this stuff and then a small number of private companies compile some very intimate data on individuals. So, that’s a long-winded lead-up to a question of where do you see privacy going in the quantified self, self-tracker movement?


ER:       Honestly, I think it is very, very early on and hard to say that this is where exactly I see it going. I have a hope for where it would go which is privacy remains in the hands of the individual generating the information. There’s a hope that I think a lot of people and again these are kind of the early adopters that are really actively engaged with what it means to collect data and how that data is stored and what it looks like on a server and can I delete it.


There’s a running thread that the information that you’re collecting should always remain under your purview so that even if you use a device like a digital pedometer or you step on a wireless scale, it sends your individual self your body is generating that information, that it should fall under your ownership. There’s a lot of people, a lot of discussions going on about this. Actually, on our forum, a developer is taking some of the terms of services from some of the larger QS tools and applications and just working through them and saying, “Okay, this is what they’re actually saying about what they can do with your data.”


I think that’s where we’re going to have to really start, is just understanding what’s going on right now and where ownership is, where privacy is, what happens when you close an account – all of these different things that kind of relate to how our data is being used and how it’s being stored. Right now it’s still very much an open conversation and hopefully more people just start joining that conversation so that we can start to understand what’s really going on and maybe build a better future.


CD:      What amazes me about that answer, Ernesto, is as an IT professional we have been clicking our way through terms of services for years without reading them and now all of a sudden there’s terms of services involve health data we perk up. I think it’s somewhat hyperbole for folks to be a little bit freaking out about this now. When asked why I started doing what I was doing I was very simple, I didn’t know where the data was going and if it was going somewhere I at least wanted a copy of it. I think we need to have that talk.


One of the things that I see happening at least from a lot of the conversations when people approach me is people are genuinely interested in owning or at least understanding their own data. They’re just like, “How do I get started?” Very, very simple things and I think it’s one of the things that I think is sometimes frustrating is the spectrum of people. It’s almost as if we had a conversation for the last twenty years around technology, and etiquette and netiquette and all these other things and now we’re like rant all of a sudden in this personal data exhaust conversation as if we’ve never done any of these lessons in the past. Kind of understand my frustrations with this?


ER:       Yes, I completely understand. We’ve been kind of acquiescence to these large organizations that give us all of these amazing things and I don’t know what it is. Is it the rise of quantified self and the ability to actually gather personal data? Is it the fact that some journalists have done a really good job of showing what is actually possible with data and what people can actually learn? But it does seem that people are starting to almost wake up to the fact that information is supremely powerful and that the ownership of that information, it matters.


From a QS perspective, one of the great things is that some of these companies are actually starting to realize that in simply putting an export button on their service, like that is a very small step but it’s actually super powerful and saying that you can actually look at this data in whatever way that you want to. You don’t just have to use our device or our service or our visualization system.


CD:      I mean I remember switching credit card companies and bank accounts just so I could export my data and this was like 20 years ago. I got tired of paper statements and they were just starting to come online and I would just keep switching until I could get more and more and more and then finally I got one that would give it to me in a CSV, not a PDF and I almost melted. I was like thank god I can use this data. It’s funny to see the similar patterns that are happening. I was just at a conference for the news section. Do you mind hanging on and I’ll ask you questions about this conference I was just at?


ER:       Sure.


CD:      It was just a conference. Klint, I want to find out what happened with your work presentation and can we view it anywhere? But I was just at Global Future 2045 in New York City at the Lincoln Center this weekend, 15th and 16th, with a Russian tycoon by the name of Dmitry Itskov. There were two things that I took away from this conference that really just kind of merged it into quantified self for me and Dmitry and I had a chance to chat for a bit and I had a chance to chat with a lot of people.


The first one was that their ultimate goal is unabashedly aiming for immortality across the border. But underlying all of that was this theme that was best summed up in a tweet which was, “We want to be the first organization to send a human into cyberspace and safely return them.” And when I heard that I thought to myself, isn’t that really what quantified self is doing in some way where we’re going out there in the cyberspace, we’re getting this data, and, if nothing else, we’re pulling it back but, in some ways, couldn’t we send our data to cyberspace at some point? So couldn’t quantified self be the first monkey in the cyberspace?


ER:       This is an interesting point. There is a lot of over section to things like the types of individuals that are interested in transhumanism, immortality and life extension tend to over sect with quantified self quite well. I don’t know if we as a community organization say it like this is exactly what we’re about, but to speak to your second question about spinning off a QS monkey into cyberspace, there’s a thought, I don’t think we’re even close to being there yet, but there is a thought that if you can collect the data, if there’s this mythical piece of information that is, or pieces of information that make up all of the data about an individual, could you create a virtual person?


CD:      Which takes me to my second question. I met a guy by the name of George Church, who I spent some time with chatting on the rooftop of the Empire Hotel. Amazing man. He had actually read some of my stuff. He runs a project called the Personal Genome Project which is tied into the White House’s Brain Initiative Project. If you’re one of the lucky few and you apply to the Personal Genome Project it will do all of these hyper extensive tests on you, but more than that, they want to collect all of your other data which is what you and I would call your quantified self data.


As I was walking him through this process of all that different bits of data you could collect and all the things I’ve thought about, we were both talking about the idea that in some ways quantified self right now looks like the Early Genome Mapping Project. We just had the very, very smallest pieces of doing it. Your point that you just mentioned about the monkey and is there some mythical piece of data, have you considered that if we are some type of data representation, is there some RNA sequence that would just put it all together for us?


ER:       I think this might be a dangerous spot path to go down.


CD:      I’m okay with that.


ER:       Yes, I love the persuasion that this idea that there is the ability to capture all the information that makes a person a person. Whether that be if you want to go all the way down to the full genome sequencing of your microbiome all the way up to phenotypes and behavior data. I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think there is a thing as all the data because it is a growing amount of information. It’s not something that is stagnant.


A genome has a certain length and although if you [00:22:11] communications and things like that, it’s a well-defined length and something like the Personal Genome Project and the Human Genome Project has like this set goal in mind and we want to find out about this thing that has a beginning and has an end. We know kind of its structure, we just don’t know all of the things about it. Even with that, we’re still very, very early on in understanding that. I think if you take that example and try to move it to humanity or who people are, I think … I don’t know. I think, for me, personally, we’re just so far away from what’s possible, that it almost makes sense to go back down to only looking at data that people actually find really important.


CD:      Like you said – I think, Klint, we’ve had with Nathan Jurgenson at least – there is a strange overlap between the cyborg culture people that Klint and I met like Amber Case, Nathan Jurgenson who would be more of a theorist even though he’s got a cyborg blog, the transhumanists and the QSers, and do you ever sit around with Gary and talk about almost like all of these tribes from the Lord of the Rings, where they’re all kind of racing, all the clans are racing to the middle to deal with this? I mean, to me, maybe it’s just complete confirmation bias but I just see everybody heading to the exact same house party.


ER:       If you think of the house party as what is the current culture moving towards and kind of where the intersection of humanity and technology, if you even want to consider those as two separate entities are heading, I think we are kind of all going in a similar direction, which is trying to understand where this mash up of man and machine is taking us. We’re on the side of it’s helping us understand us at a deeper and more intimate level. Whereas I think maybe the transhumanists, I don’t want to speak to them, I would not personally consider myself part of that movement. But they’re looking at, how can men and machines help us live a longer, healthier, possibly immortal life?


CD:      Yes, it was really interesting. Your answers are so good. Do you study mindfulness? We don’t have any tweets this week because we’ve both been traveling around. Do you study mindfulness?


ER:       I’m familiar with it from kind of somewhat of a user standpoint. There’s some mindfulness research that’s going on near my old lab. A lot of what I do know – unfortunately I don’t actively study – comes from speaking to people like Nancy Dougherty and one of our old colleagues from quantified self, Alexander Carmichael, who is very much into looking at how mindfulness and technology actually intersect, kind of exactly what you and Nancy spoke about.


CD:      Yes, Nancy was pretty good. Klint, anything else from Mr. Ramirez who’s been absolutely gracious and wonderful dealing with my craziness? I was like, “Ah, I finally get to talk to him.”


KF:       No, I think that wraps it up for me.


CD:      We try to do tweets a week or quotes. I found a great quote for this week that I thought would try to unify some of the quantified self and mindfulness by [00:25:32]. The quote is, “There’s often a discrepancy between our ideas and what we actually encounter.” I thought that was a nice mathematical way of saying maybe we should count those things. Coming up in the future we’ve got the Buddhist Geeks Conference August 16 through 19th in Boulder. Working to get their founder on the show. And then quantified self – do you want to tell us when that is, Ernesto?


ER:       October 10th and 11th we’re going to be at wonderful Officers’ Club at the Presidio in San Francisco.


CD:      And you’ve got students and you can do if you want to help out or you’ve got a friend in the program where you can actually help out and help other people go. It’s a really great program. I encourage people to sign up and get out there and check out. You will not be geeked out of it, you will love it. You will find your tribe. Ernesto, thank you so much for being on the show. It’s definitely been an amazing experience for me.


ER:       Thanks to both of you. It was fun having this conversation.


KF:       Thanks, guys.


CD:      Until next week. This is Mindful Cyborgs.