Quantified Self (Loathing)

12

Magritte Mirror
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Ditto the over-examined life, which is why I’m dubious of the so-called “quantified self” movement taking root with smartphones and smartypants hither and yon.

This is how it works: Use new consumer tech and apps to track everything about oneself, use the data to enforce self-improvement regimen in an endless feedback loop of self-knowledge that suggests a kind of narcissistic moebius strip.

Others, however, not only embrace the data, they thrive on it and share it through gamified interfaces that all but promise the meaning of life can be crunched from the resulting stream of digital data. The movement has a thriving online community. The slogan of one site, predictably named site QuantifiedSelf.com, reads “Self Knowledge Through Numbers,” which sounds enough like “Better Living through Chemistry” to cause me pause. A pause long enough for me to realize I prefer chemistry. And ignorance. I’m not interested in the starring role in “The Man Who Knew Too Much … About Himself.” There are corners of the self better left unknown, methinks.

I don’t need to know my blood oxygen level, my relative state of arousal (always, duh) or how many calories I’ve consumed or burned whilst sitting in front of my laptop. What I need is a means of converting calories into words. Is there an app for that? A one-calorie-per-word ratio would be about perfect. A couple of gingersnaps equals a solid paragraph. A three-course meal with wine and dessert and you’ve got a short novel on your hands. A week at McDonald’s and you have a book with the girth of “War and Peace” and the waistline to match. Is there such a thing as a “Happy Meal Ending?”

It’s been said that Jack Kerouac would burn 10 pounds in a single sitting when on a good writing jag. Albeit, he was on speed. In fact, he could have burned 10 pounds on speed without writing but then we wouldn’t have On The Road. We also would have saved untold quantities of fossil fuels and carbon emissions from all the copycat road trips that he inspired the past 56 years. In point of fact, Kerouac was a one man ecological nightmare, quantifiably speaking.

Of course, the endgame of the quantified self is to improve one’s performance in all endeavors great and small. Issues around productivity loom large – large enough that an entire industry has arisen to support it. Recently, my brother turned me onto the Pomodoro Technique, a time management process that features a couple of seductive premises on its site: “Eliminate the Anxiety of Time” and “Enhance Focus and Concentration.” The phrases read like they were lifted directly from a can of snake oil. It’s only missing “Cures Hysteria in Women.”

So far as I can tell, the Pomodoro Technique requires you to set a timer and work until it goes “bing.” Then you do something else until the timer bings again. Do this ad infinitum. I think. I’m not sure because I didn’t want to pay for the course or any of the sundry (or would that be “sundried?” hahaha …) items the site sells, including a branded tomato timer and the means to become a “Certified Pomodoro Master,” which sounds more like a maker of spaghetti sauce than time-management guru.

I later learned that my brother had yet to try the Pomodoro Technique himself. He wanted me to try it first as his personal guinea pig and report back. He learned this trick from professional lifehacker Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour Work Week,” the gist of which is “outsource everything.” I know this because my brother didn’t actually read the book but got me to read it then tell him about it.

If I had recorded the amount of times my brother has duped me in this regard, I might learn something about myself. But then, we’d probably never talk. A certain amount of self-deception can be useful. This is how I rationalize fudging the numbers when quantifying myself. As Socrates might say, “It’s ‘qualify’ not ‘quantify’ that counts.”

Via SonomaNews.com

12 COMMENTS

  1. This post did make me laugh – so it may not have been intended seriously at all. But I’m quite interested in the Quantified Self movement – and to be serious briefly, I wonder if you would be more likely to gain from it if you measured only on the things you do actually care about, not the stuff you don’t.

    • John-Paul – True, I wasn’t being serious as such, so I’m glad you got a laugh out of it. I’m sure you’re right about benefitting by only measuring those things that matter to me. In fact, I found while doing National Novel Writing Month back in November that I began using self-quantifying methods to track and improve my daily word count. I was able to ascertain when I was most productive and found that tracking my output became gamified in an ersatz sort of way. I simply came to love seeing the little progress bar reach closer to the 50k word goal. It became sort of compulsive. Do you have any insights on gamificiation as it relates to QS? Thanks, DH

      • Thanks for the reply! Not sure if this counts as gamification, but there’s a guy I’ve come across who rigged his domestic rowing machine to show his progress as if circumnavigating the equator… Not something I would want to do myself, but I find it quite a playful process if I’m logging something that interests me and utterly, totally, distressingly boring if it’s something I don’t really care about.

        • The rower sounds like he has a potential app on his hands. I’m beginning to think that gamification might be the sugar that helps the medicine go down when it comes to managing info that’s “utterly, totally, distressingly boring.” Anyway, enjoyed your Tedx Talk and am looking forward to the Kindle release of How to Change the World. Congrats! DH

  2. This post did make me laugh – so it may not have been intended seriously at all. But I’m quite interested in the Quantified Self movement – and to be serious briefly, I wonder if you would be more likely to gain from it if you measured only on the things you do actually care about, not the stuff you don’t.

    • John-Paul – True, I wasn’t being serious as such, so I’m glad you got a laugh out of it. I’m sure you’re right about benefitting by only measuring those things that matter to me. In fact, I found while doing National Novel Writing Month back in November that I began using self-quantifying methods to track and improve my daily word count. I was able to ascertain when I was most productive and found that tracking my output became gamified in an ersatz sort of way. I simply came to love seeing the little progress bar reach closer to the 50k word goal. It became sort of compulsive. Do you have any insights on gamificiation as it relates to QS? Thanks, DH

      • Thanks for the reply! Not sure if this counts as gamification, but there’s a guy I’ve come across who rigged his domestic rowing machine to show his progress as if circumnavigating the equator… Not something I would want to do myself, but I find it quite a playful process if I’m logging something that interests me and utterly, totally, distressingly boring if it’s something I don’t really care about.

        • The rower sounds like he has a potential app on his hands. I’m beginning to think that gamification might be the sugar that helps the medicine go down when it comes to managing info that’s “utterly, totally, distressingly boring.” Anyway, enjoyed your Tedx Talk and am looking forward to the Kindle release of How to Change the World. Congrats! DH

  3. This post did make me laugh – so it may not have been intended seriously at all. But I’m quite interested in the Quantified Self movement – and to be serious briefly, I wonder if you would be more likely to gain from it if you measured only on the things you do actually care about, not the stuff you don’t.

    • John-Paul ? True, I wasn’t being serious as such, so I’m glad you got a laugh out of it. I’m sure you’re right about benefitting by only measuring those things that matter to me. In fact, I found while doing National Novel Writing Month back in November that I began using self-quantifying methods to track and improve my daily word count. I was able to ascertain when I was most productive and found that tracking my output became gamified in an ersatz sort of way. I simply came to love seeing the little progress bar reach closer to the 50k word goal. It became sort of compulsive. Do you have any insights on gamificiation as it relates to QS? Thanks, DH

      • Thanks for the reply! Not sure if this counts as gamification, but there’s a guy I’ve come across who rigged his domestic rowing machine to show his progress as if circumnavigating the equator… Not something I would want to do myself, but I find it quite a playful process if I’m logging something that interests me and utterly, totally, distressingly boring if it’s something I don’t really care about.

        • The rower sounds like he has a potential app on his hands. I’m beginning to think that gamification might be the sugar that helps the medicine go down when it comes to managing info that’s “utterly, totally, distressingly boring.” Anyway, enjoyed your Tedx Talk and am looking forward to the Kindle release of How to Change the World. Congrats! DH

Any thoughts?