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Measurable Me: Some Thoughts On The Quantified Self

One of my all-time favorite jokes is about the beat cop who discovers a clearly inebriated guy staggering beneath a street lamp, eyes to the ground.

“What are you doing?” the cop asks.

“Looking for my car keys,” the drunk answers.

It’s not just accountability and its snarky twin, judgment, that I fear. It’s the notion of being goal-driven in every domain of life.

“Where do you remember last noticing them in your pocket?” inquires the cop.

The drunk points to a dark alley down the block. “Over there?”

“So why are you looking here?”

The drunk heaves an exasperated sigh. “Because this is where the light is.”

I thought of this exchange while attending a recent market research conference. The keynote speaker, pacing the stage in his ironed jeans and casually unbuttoned black silk shirt, was extolling the promise of mobile apps to count your calories and the number of steps you take in a day, to measure your body temperature and heart rate, to record your wait time at stoplights and the number of pages you read each day. Then he stopped in the center of the stage and declared (with the kind of glib confidence that separates keynote speakers from the rest of us), “The quantified self is the fulfilled self.”

I’ve been brooding about his pronouncement ever since, careening between cautious open-mindedness and deep unease.

The theory of “the quantified self” is simple. If you record behavior — like exercise and calorie consumption, or other-directed behavior, such as when and how often you nurse your baby, change her diaper, let him cry — you’ll begin to see correlations. These patterns can then inform your future behavior, presumably to help you achieve some goal, that is, some desired outcome.

I can see the utility of this approach. If my goal is to lose weight (as it always is), then the act of recording and counting the calories of everything I ingest makes me more self-aware, thereby cutting down on mindless eating. And if I can see causality in the numbers — behavior A leads to result B — then quantifying my every action, will indeed help me reach my goal.

For an overweight person like me, losing pounds is a pretty unassailable goal. But not all goals are created equal. What outcome is a quantification enthusiast trying to achieve when she records in a spreadsheet when her child is sleeping or pooping or playing? How do couples feel when a mobile app evaluates their sex life based on the number of thrusts per minute and the decibel level of their moans or cries? What about tracking your own happiness, hour by hour, day by day, on a 10-point rating scale, as another self-measurement proponent advocates? I can’t so easily embrace the goal of having a well-regulated child. In fact, I find the idea of having a predictable one downright frightening, and the illusion of control that comes with obsessive recording to be dangerous. And perpetual happiness? The idea of inching up my contentment average from a 3.9 to a 4.1 doesn’t really make me happy either.

Why not? What am I afraid of? Being accountable, for one thing. If I’m not measuring, I must not be committed enough. But it’s not just accountability and its snarky twin, judgment, that I fear. It’s the notion of being goal-driven in every domain of life.

Now even seemingly innocuous ambitions — bucket lists or the 50 places you must see or books you must read before you die — reflect an imposition of metrics on all we do.

“The quantifiable self” is really just a more personalized expression of the motto that guided manufacturers, then all kinds of corporations in the early 1990s: “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Now even seemingly innocuous ambitions — bucket lists or the 50 places you must see or books you must read before you die — reflect an imposition of metrics on all we do. We are commercializing ourselves as products to be tracked and measured. Do we really need first quarter compassion targets in order to feel good about being kind, or annual helpfulness quotas that can be relaxed once our goal has been met? It took 27 years for my husband and me to stop keeping score of who put away the dishes, cleaned the fridge, initiated sex, or suffered through feature-length Smurf movies with the kids. Do we now have to resume measuring our deeds to achieve a goal of absolute reciprocity?

My daughter used to swing from the monkey bars until her palms bled, not to go farther or stay aloft longer, but simply because she loved doing it. As for me, I love serendipity. My happiness meter ding ding dings when I’m wondering in a strange city or drifting in a canoe, free of directed activity.

So sure, by all means, let’s shine the light on what can be seen, counted, weighed, and measured. But let’s not be afraid to grope and bump our way in the dark. That’s where the keys are.


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This program aired on September 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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