The latest fad for a “quantified” life threatens to robs us of the opportunities and experiences that make us human, writes Tiffany Jenkins
HOW happy do you feel right now on a scale of 1-10? What about last night, at 8pm? What did you eat, what did you drink? Did you wake up after you went to sleep and if so for how long? How much exercise did you take yesterday? How fast was your heart rate? What was your blood pressure?
You may not know the answer to all or any of these questions, but there are those that do, who can tell you immediately and precisely. There is a growing group of people, now in the thousands, if not millions, known as the Quantified Self movement, who measure and log the various metrics related to their physical and mental health, who advocate that doing so is a good thing.
Referred to as the quantified self, as well as life logging, auto analytics, and body tracking, the rise of this trend to monitor everything we do is partly driven by developments in smart technology. Apps on your mobile phone, tablet or computer can clock what you do, how often, and how you feel as you do it. I have noticed that the runners in Holyrood Park heading for Arthur’s Seat pound their way up with attachments to their body that instruct them on their pacing and advise them on their timing, like their own personal trainer. They use apps like Track My Run which tells the runner if they are missing their fitness targets so they can increase their speed and go further.
The more we start to understand the interactions between job, diet, mental and physical health, the better we can control it, advocates say. Gary Wolfe, the co-founder of the Quantified Self movement, argues that these numbers help us to better understand ourselves. The idea is that you will see causes and correlations you don’t realise are there, and I get that. If you want to lose weight you need to eat less and exercise more; these apps can assist you in adding it all up. For, as Wolfe points out, writing in the New York Times, “Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment.”
We may think we know what we are doing, but often we get it wrong. Take money, food, drink, or work. We usually think we have spent less, eaten less and imbibed less alcohol than we actually have. We usually think we have worked for longer than we have. Measurement – data - can tell us what is really going on. It can burst our illusions about how we think we are doing. It can tell us the hard truth.
But I have questions. Many of these apps are used socially, that is the results are shared (boasted about) with friends and others, such as with Nike’s FuelBand – a black band that you wear around your wrist – which has a game-like quality to it. You have to expend a certain amount of energy and compete with others as you do so, and in so doing the data is shared. But what happens to this data? Some apps will be able to text this information to doctors, which could be useful – or it could be unhelpful. And what about the different companies that make those apps, or services that have an interest in that information, who will be able to access it? There are serious implications for privacy.
Some of this number crunching is unquestionably useful, especially with a particular goal in mind, but despite this my concern is why so many of us now advocate that measurement is the best way to understand life. Wolfe’s argument is that this data brings self-knowledge – “self-knowledge through numbers” is the subheading on his website – and that it is a dream come true for those of us who really want to know who we are. Wolfe notes that many self-log without a goal; that is they don’t know why they want the particular information that they gather.
Self-logging has expanded far beyond calorie counting, or running miles. Sociologist Mark Carrigan has pointed out many people engaged in life logging collate data on mood and experiences often without a direct quantitative element. People are counting all sorts of aspects of life and activity, which suggests that there is more to this development than simple changes in technology. It suggests that the recourse to data is an attempt to give out lives some kind of meaning.
The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being, observed Socrates. But is this the sort of self-examination he meant? I don’t think so. Firstly, much of life is not meaningfully understood through data. Take the more emotional stuff. Take happiness. An app may count the number of times I tick that I feel happy in a week and note that it’s infrequent on a Monday morning but that it increases on a Friday night. But it cannot explain why I might not want to feel happy, or that feeling unhappy is a spur to get things done. It cannot appreciate that sometimes being unhappy is what I want. Only I can make sense of my emotions, with personal reflection that is not reducible to numbers. The inner life cannot be understood through quantification.
Or what about weight? This should be the most straightforward example. Even with this problem self-monitoring doesn’t always work. Most people I know on a diet, who count every bite, are overweight and have an unhealthy attitude to food. Relentless counting can have a negative impact. It certainly takes the joy and pleasure out of dining. Eating the cake may be worth it despite the lifetime on the hips.
Data can obscure and hide what is significant. Gradgrind, the character in the Charles Dickens novel, is someone who is relentlessly concerned with facts and numbers in the service of profit. But he is also devoid of feelings and emotion, and misses out what is vital about human relationships.
We are in danger of outsourcing the essential examination of life to a computer programme and reducing our wonderfully messy reality to numbers and a spread sheet. Relying on data to interpret our lives means we are giving up on doing it ourselves, through conversation, debate and private thought, through dreaming about what could be.
We should delete the data and think for ourselves. Life is for living, not logging. Nothing else adds up.