ladamic's blog research on information networks and non-researchy random musings


The unquantified self

Filed under: Uncategorized — ladamic @ 05:52

It was a sunny Saturday morning in Phoenix, AZ, when I found my friend sitting in a lounge chair outside, working with a spreadsheet, while his daughters played nearby. “Sorry you have to work on a Saturday,” I said, mildly concerned that my host was not attending to me. He looked up, and explained that this was not work, but rather all his stats: exercise, calorie intake, heart rate, sleep. I may have muttered something like “Oh, interesting,” and backed away slowly.

That was about five years ago, and since then my friends have embraced quantifying themselves in increasing and alarming numbers. The other night a friend offered to walk with us to our house after dinner while his wife drove their car. He enjoys our company, I thought. “I try to keep moving since my watch counts my steps.” Ah. And the weekend before, when we had organized a group camping trip in the redwoods, on day two a dear friend exclaimed “I met my steps goal yesterday, and I wasn’t even trying!” I thought back to the previous day, sitting by the campfire with friends, kids playing among the trees, seeing flowers I’d never noticed before, grilling up a feast, and the rain, the fog, then the sun and stars. Knowing that this = 13,387 steps (or whatever) should not matter, or at least it shouldn’t make it less. But to me it does make it less.

To care about our bodies and bodily function is human, to respond to little rewards and encouragements is human too. I don’t contest that a whole lot of people are fitter, skinnier, healthier because they’ve self-quantified. I’m even glad that my friends feel good in their goal setting and self-surveillance. But we are only alive for a short while, the world is vast and mysterious, and full of interesting people to boot. Is self-quantification not narcissistic introspection that holds us back from experiencing that which is greater than we are? At least this is the excuse I have for myself for not obsessively tracking myself, for being self-oblivious if you will.

You can imagine my horror, then, when upon turning on my brand new smartwatch a few months back, I found it cheerfully counting my steps. The first day it excitedly informed me that I had met my goal. How dare it set a goal and then claim it was mine? In frantically trying to disable it, I instead managed to set it to vibrate and light up with a message “you have been inactive for 2 hours, get moving!”, every 2 hours… while I was sleeping. Enraged I gave it a 1 star Amazon review. Then someone commented on my review and explained how you can hide the steps feature. As far as I know it’s still counting, but at least I don’t have to know.

Despite my staunch resistance to self-quantification, I have succumbed in some regards.
After decades of not owning a scale, I own a scale, I weigh myself. Life was better before.

In January, the Good Reads app prompted me over and over again to set a goal for the number of books I wanted to read in 2016. I ignored it. I did not set a goal, and yet the mere act of recording the books I read is influencing my behavior. I finish books I would rather set aside, just to add them to my tally. This despite knowing that there are many, many more excellent books out there than I could ever hope to read in my lifetime. But… but… if I don’t count them, does reading them count?

One way I am upping my stats on Good Reads is by consuming books with the Audible app. The first time the app buzzed with a notification that I had earned a “badge” I pointedly ignored it. Three days ago, when I was driving back from LA it gave me a ‘night owl’ badge for having listened for more than 8 hours in a day. I decided to finally track down these stupid badge things and see if I could kill them, though I didn’t hold much hope. I found them, along with the horrifying statistic that I had spent 10 days 14 hours and 20 minutes of my life listening to audio books. As for the badges I of course noticed that some I had earned and others I had not. I tapped on just one unearned one, the watchtower. It informed me that the way to earn it is to keep checking your stats. Hah! That is one badge I will NOT be earning.

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