Thursday, October 28, 2010

what you can't know.

we all have beliefs that are unresponsive to facts and arguments. we all have beliefs that make life as we know it possible (or so we think on some level so deep that it's probably not quite right to call it thinking) and the job of a belief like that is to be unmoving. and notoriously there will be other beliefs whose job it is to buttress those pillars, those supporting beams in the architecture of our belief systems-- to innoculate against doubt. they'll often be things like 'the kinds of people or facts that would challenge this belief are not to be trusted' or 'the more others criticize this view the more steadfast you'll proved yourself by continuing to believe in the face of others' doubt'. and while it's true that what i've said so far about these kinds of beliefs is famously argued by those public intellectuals attempting to explain the religious mind, i've sat in the offices of those public intellectuals who have famously attempted to explain the religious mind and i've talked with them on other subjects, and i promise you: they have their own support beam beliefs, stubborn in the face of facts and arguments, which make life as they know it possible, and which are insulated from doubt in a very similar kind of way. i'm not talking about some of us, i'm talking about us all.

reading about ginni thomas and her damn fool behavior this week, i've been full of feelings. first, obviously and passionately, is the feeling that a lot of people seriously owe anita hill an apology. this was true even before last week, but there's something about the spectre of an apology being demanded from the very person who is actually so deeply owed an apology and has never asked for one that really raises that middle-school feeling of intolerable injustice in the human heart.

but my feelings for anita hill aren't exactly feelings against ginni thomas. her behavior is, i think, deeply human and has been instructive to me. the impulse to philosophical inquiry is deeply human, and so, too, is this stubborn antithetical fear of knowing-- the refusal to know what we fear can't be born. in some meaningful sense i think it's true that ginni thomas can't (or at least couldn't) know the truth about her husband. she's cited in an interview as saying that they got through "that dark time" during the confirmation hearings by pulling the kitchen curtains closed and listening to religious music.

i'm reminded again for the millionth time that the fear i have of knowing myself or others or the facts or where the argument leads-- any fear i have at all-- will undermine my philosophical aims in ways that it would be hubristic of me to think that i'll recognize at the time. the struggle to know more is often enough the struggle to fear less. i hope i never get through anything by pulling the the curtains closed. it's understandable, but i don't imagine it's worth it.

update: a couple of relevant links!
discover magazine - facts don't persuade climate skeptics, so what does?
wired science - stubbornness increases the more people tell you you're wrong

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

on knowing what i am doing. (part I)

i'm taking a seminar this semester on the philosophy of action. it's an area of philosophy in which we worry over what differentiates our intentional actions from the broader category of human behavior. what is the distinction between the things we mean to do and those things we do unintentionally? if i know that i'm doing something, does that necessarily make it intentional? (what about cases of collateral damage, where i know that i will hurt someone, but hurting them is not my aim? is that a harm i inflict intentionally?) if i do not (consciously) know that i'm doing something, does that necessarily make it unintentional? (what about cases in which i am directed by motives that are only clear to me in retrospect, if at all? can't i have meant to do something without realizing it until later?) and if we can come up with some way of distinguishing intentional actions from mere behavior, what should its moral significance be? are we more or only responsible for intentional behavior? does intentional behavior have unique moral significance? is an agent who does intentional harm somehow morally worse than an agent whose behavior persistently results in unintentional harm? why is it? anyway, it's a subject near the center of my academic interests in will, responsibility, self- and personhood.

one of the central features attended to in this literature is that everything you do, the smallest movement of your hand-- a keystroke-- can be described in infinitely many ways. you're moving the air. you're pressing a button. you're making a certain sound. you're arresting someone's attention, or failing to. you're typing a letter (the letter 'a'). you're typing a letter (to your sister). you're reconfiguring the innards of your laptop in ways that you may or may not understand or think about. all of these things (and so many others) are things you do when you strike the key. your action answers to many descriptions, some almost certainly of things you intend to do, and others that you just as certainly didn't. some things you do that you didn't directly intend, you could probably have anticipated if you'd thought about it. other things you never in a million years could have imagined. some will be written in familiar language, while others will be written in terms of the most abstruse physics.

pei says the things you regret are the things you didn't do, and i believe him. it's a sentiment with plenty of currency, corroborated by sages and the common sense. it captures something true in the experience of a particular kind of person who i particularly admire. but i've never been able to understand how it works in a moment where it might make a difference. it's rare that i feel like i'm choosing between doing something and not doing it. i'm choosing between doing something and doing something else. and even that's misleading. because for everything i do, there are infinite things i don't do. with every actual step i take, i annihilate infinite possible futures. the vast majority of them will never cross my mind. the vast majority of those that cross my mind i won't be troubled by the loss of. to make sense of this sentiment, then, one would need some kind of anchor. one would need to know what makes some possible paths The Things You Didn't Do and others nothing at all to you. what property does the former have that distinguishes it from the latter? it has to be something more than just facts about individual temperament-- individual propensities to regret in general or not to regret in general. i suppose that The Things You Didn't Do must be something like the times you might have defied the inertia of fear and habit and followed your heart-- the times you might have taken a personal risk where the benefits might have been great-- the times you missed yr chance to have done something different than you'd done before-- something deeper.

ok, so here's where i bring it all together. (thank you for your patience.) the infinitely describable nature of action (and of possibility) makes it so desperately impossible to sort The Things You Didn't Do from the things you did. i began by saying something about all the different things you do by the smallest movement of your hand. and each action we might have undertaken, like each action we do undertake, is likewise infinitely describable. and whether or not it constutes a Thing You Didn't Do (as i understand it) depends on which description you adopt: whether or not a course of action constitutes a break from the past or more of the same, following your heart or acting out of fear, is in large part a matter not only of how you describe the potential options-- the different courses you might take-- but how you describe what's come before. we don't just change more or less, overall-- we only ever change in some particular respect. it's relative, i mean. but there's no one thing that answers to the name "what came before"-- as i've said, there are infinite possible descriptions of a life that draw out different shades and patterns. what constitutes a break from the past depend on what aspects of the past one takes to be important. and given how much and complexly we love and fear it will often enough times be the case that almost any course of action open to a person could be accurately described in terms of either-- as constutiting either a change or more of the same. and i'm still only talking about the descriptions that are warranted-- forget all of the ways we describe things to ourselves which amount to misleading rationalizations or self-protecting spin. even if we could be so lucky and so good as to only consider the truest truths about who we are and what we've done, we're still, as we stand there considering our options, weighing and comparing, in a shifting matrix. try to focus your eyes anywhere and it goes fractal, folds into some infinity.

and then there's that funny fact of life-- how we always end up back where we started, anyway-- how we end up with exactly what we took ourselves to be running from.

two paths diverged in a yellow wood-- ok. but i don't believe it was so obvious which was which as it seems in memory to have been. or that, in fact, there were only two. it's such quaint idea, two paths. anyway, 

agree times a million that we regret the things we didn't do rather than the things we did, but i wonder how often it ever seems clear in the crucial moment, in the pinch, which future matches which description.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

"i've carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. i'm not carrying it because i like it. the contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. i've carried it with me because there was nothing else i was supposed to carry. still, i guess i have grown attached to it. as you might expect."

haruki murakami
what i talk about when i talk about running

i put up a post awhile back that began with a discussion of the fact that we are attached to our particular lives-- generally unwilling, even in theory, to trade them in for better ones-- even when we don't like them much. murakami puts this phenomenon really nicely. and he draws out the deep implicit connection between this attachment we have to our characteristic features, the good and the bad, and the view that our most characteristic behaviors, the good and the bad, are better described as just that-- as expression of our character, rather than than as acts of our will. the above passage is immediately prefaced by a discussion of murakami's "own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself":

i didn't start running because somebody asked me to become a runner. just like i didn't becomes a novelist because someone asked me to. one day, out of the blue, i wanted to write a novel. and one day, out of the blue, i started to run-- simply because i wanted to. i've always done whatever i felt like doing in life. people may try to stop me, and convince me i'm wrong, but i won't change.

he neither seems to approve nor disapprove of this fact.

in the comments section of that other post drew claimed that perhaps we ought to bite the bullet and concede that we should be willing to trade in our lives for better ones, regardless of our inclinations-- that it's irrational not to. given my own views on personal identity, to say that we ought to be willing to trade in lives for better ones is to say that we ought to be willing to give up our lives for the greater good-- for the sake of things being better, overall. because there is no us beneath all of those projects and characteristics to survive the loss of the old ones and bear the new. and maybe morality is that kind of thing-- it can demand of us that we give up our lives for the greater good. but to be attached to and to grieve for the loss of the perfect little storm of beliefs and aims and memories that we are, independent of how they stack up against some other, doesn't strike me as being irrational at all, even if the attachment and the loss don't ultimately undermine morality's claim.

i think that the right kinds of views about personal identity can themselves suggest that the best descriptions of our choices and acts will be in terms of expression of character rather than acts of will. i'm not at the point of being able to say it yet the way i'd like to, but i think reductionist views about personal identity and deflationist views about the will and revisionist views about blame and responsibility, while they all get a bad wrap for seeming not to capture the depth of our sense of ourselves and each other, are in fact the only terms in which we'll ultimately be able to do that sense any real justice.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

part III: 'the data-driven life' (pragmatism, lantern consciousness, and flow)

[this will probably be a little confusing if you haven't at least read part I of the series (one of my favorite things i've ever written), and maybe part II]

perhaps it's true that the data-driven approaches to self-knowledge are inextricably entwined with dubious self-improvement projects ('We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves?') , the nature of which somehow skews the inquiries' results.  but there are plenty of people who would argue that it makes no sense to try to conceive of any truth except in the context of practical inquiry-- as the answer to some question that we raise as a means of accomplishing some goal. on this view, there is no purer truth for truth's sake. there is no purer method that generates self-knowledge for its own sake. truth is a function of practical inquiry and it's utterly misguided to seek a truth external to it.  so perhaps, in this, data-driven approaches to knowledge are no different from any other-- the answer will be largely a matter of how you ask the question.  but even if we're thoroughgoing pragamatists, we can hold that there are better and worse kinds of practical inquiry. it still might be the case that the particular practical context of this data-driven stuff (which, historically at least, has been to maximize efficiency and thereby profit for capitalists) is the problem, but then there is a burden to show what other kind of practical inquiry would be superior and how it would be.

another way of explaining the pragmatist point is to say that we are planners, and that our beliefs are always on some deep level inextricable from our plans. what it is to be an agent, the idea goes, is to understand everything we see, at a very basic level, as a set of opportunities. we think only in the context of doing. but then, we may not have always been (or always be) planners in this way. it's debatable. i'm currently reading alison's gopnik's new book on baby thinking, in which she argues that to be a baby is to be a little buddha, experiencing 'lantern consciousness' ('that vivid panoramic illumination of the every day'), which she contrasts with 'flow' ('the experience we have when our attention is completely focused on a single object or activity'). neither of these is our daily experience. rather, each is a different way in which we lose ourselves. the latter is accessible only to adults-- the experience of being absorbed in work. the former, though, seems to be a state in which we genuinely perceive in a way that is utterly divorced from planning-- no inner directedness at all-- and it's a state we achieve through certain kinds of meditation practice, and that we experience as babies. young children, according to gopnik, don't have a sense of self, or the 'inner executive', that projects forward and backward, and what this means isn't that they have no inner consciousness (indeed, gopnik argues that they are in some sense more conscious), but that their inner consciousness is undirect-- ' a journey of exploration rather than conquest'. so it seems as though a pure state of awareness (should we call it knowing?) is possible, independant of any particularly inquiry or plan.

this is where i should move into the discussion of buddhism and the quantified self that i'd like to end with, but my discussion partner and fact checker in these matters is in nepal for a month. so i'll end it with this for now: the suggestion is that maybe there is a way of knowing that stands outside of our projects and desire for conquest (most notably the desire to conquer ourselves, which so many self-quantifiers seem driven by), and whether or not that's true means something for what the burden of proof should be for the quantifiers. the data nerds' holy grail (perfect productivity/functioning) may require that they appeal to this notion of 'lantern consciousness'-- productivity being best acheived when we are able to move as directly as we can from lantern consciousness to flow and back again-- to move from the utter openness of undirected play to the consummate work of flow, and back. i suspect that that's what gets the most brilliant ideas off the ground, as this excerpt from an interview with gopnik suggests:

there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great  evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and  put  it to use...children are like the R&D department of the human species. they’re the  ones who are always learning about the world. but if you’re always learning,  imagining,  and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world.

but to argue that such a hyper-open and -productive way of living is even possible puts the data collectors in the position of having to defend against the charge that their approach, born as it was of this desire for a kind of self-conquest, is itself antithetical to achieving the the desired state. something in the daily acts involved in quantifying our ourselves seems to preclude both the imaginative openness of lantern consciousness and the consummate focus of flow, but particularly the former. the question, then, is whether something in the nature of the quantifiedself-ers methods, given their ultimate goals, makes their whole project sort of self-defeating.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

part II: on "the data-driven life" (a modest defense)

the funny thing about 'priorities', and 'job descriptions', and all these kind of capital letter nouns is that they always make a lot of sense in abstraction, but it can be really complicated to square them up against reality. i'll give you an example. if i just grabbed you on the street and i said, 'what's the most important thing in your life?' you would say something probably like, you know, your family, or your church group, or, you know, maybe your career, or, you know, your kid, or your pet, or whatever. and the thing is, in some part of your heart, that's absolutely true. but do you have a sense of the extent to which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claimed is really important? because if a lot of people actually looked at where their time and attention went, the parts that they do have control over, it would like the most important thing in their life was facebook.

merlin mann

in part I of this little series i went over the basics of gary wolf's feature, 'the data-driven life' and what i take to be some of the best reasons to be skeptical of the notion that wolf's methods provide some viable alternative to the talk therapy (or meditation, or the kinds of conceptual analysis adopted in western philosophy ) as a way of coming to know oneself. but my allegiances in this discussion between the "quantified self"-ers and their critics isn't so clear, even to me.

over the past several years, largely by way of my excellent friend steve, i've become a regular peruser of the world of certain what you might call 'productivity gurus'-- in particular the various blog posts and podcasts of merlin mann. there seems to be a sort of clan of them writing and thinking about how and when and why we get our work done-- for the purpose, of course, of being able to offer people advice and the proper tools for getting their work done. that's what they're paid to do, it seems-- help tech people and other 'knowledge workers' bogged down by meetings and a million emails a day manage it all and increase productivity by way, ostensibly, of a kind of self-awareness about certain measurable features of their circumstances, allowing for greater focus and self-mastery. (in the same lecture that i quote from above, mann recommends that his listeners use a particular program that tells you exactly how much time you've spent doing what on your computer all day.) i'm casting a pretty wide net here, but these would seem to be some version of our quantifiers-- advocating particular (digital) tools and systems aimed at increasing (in some measurable way) productivity, while gesturing toward grander things-- values, life projects-- invoking buddhism, even.

it's troubling, of course, if the grand gesturing toward self-understanding through self-measurement begins to obscure the original ends of these measurement projects ('efficiency', 'productivity', etc.) and they are presented as just a new approach to self-understanding as an end in itself. but wolf's grandiosity aside, there's something obviously compelling in mann's very particular observation, and something obviously useful in the 'quantified self'-ish tools he suggests for helping us to see the problem more clearly. the point seems to be that, even putting to one side the question of whether or not we are living the lives we should be living, it is often the case that we aren't even living the lives we think we are living. the minutes slip by, and no natural faculty of ours (for most of us anyway) seems up to the task of keeping us in the honest know about how we're spending them.

these data nerds aren't even close to the first people to point this out-- that we are awfully limited in our capacity to see ourselves clearly-- or to suggest a method for correcting the problem, and though there are reasons to approach and inspect their methods with care before adopting them, my initial feeling is this: inasmuch as we are (1) already oriented by certain values, and (2) able to really look at the data we gather about ourselves without turning away, that data can, in certain limited ways, help us to see how and when we are failing and succeeding at living according to them. in favor of this proposed method of self-knowledge i will say that where it fails i think it's important to remember that other much older and grander methods have also failed (neither psychologists nor philosophers nor buddhist monks have yet ushered in an age of perfect self-knowledge, and god knows most psychologists and philosophers, at least, aren't even particularly adept at coming to know themselves). as a word of profound caution i'll add that where it succeeds it only does so by appeal to and reliance upon the partial successes of those same methods: if we aren't agile conceptualizers with an independent commitment to self-knowledge, the data is less than nothing. though numbers can certainly tell us a stark and surprising truth, if we can't approach them with openness and equanimity then we can ignore or misinterpret the truths they have to tell us just as we can ignore and misinterpret truths we can't bear to hear when delivered in any other form.

when the "quantified self" rhetoric isn't ratcheted up to the almost religious (and certainly the best of it isn't) i don't have so much of a problem with it. the questions of how and when and why we do what we think we ought to are at least as much a part of ethics as questions of what it is we ought to do, and some of these guys seemed to be doing some interesting thinking on that topic. so i've been eavesdropping a little, and i'm frankly pretty fascinated. the trick, i think, is to keep firmly in mind (1) that we manipulate and interpret the data according to rules that must have some other source (more on this later) and (2) that when it comes to these data-collecting methods in particular, as a contingent fact of human psychology, we're extremely vulnerable to being distracted from our goals by the very methods we're using in our attempts to reach them.

but then no one seems more aware of this pitfall then mann, a dude working within that very tradition. one of the things I've found so compelling is how deeply aware some of these thinkers seem to be of the risk that these methods and systems designed to help us get our work done (work in the broadest sense) will themselves becomes the focus of our thinking-- the real danger that adopters of these methods will come to use them as yet another way of avoiding what they fear-- to avoid finding or embracing the purpose to which those methods are meant to be put. the best are at least as aware of certain of the risks associated with their methods as the critics of those methods are, and they ought to be given credit for it.

anyway, dudes like wolf want to throw their hat in the ring and put forward these methods as a means of potentially coming to know ourselves, i think they should have their day in court, and that it would be worth our time, as critics, to look beyond wolf and try to respond to the best and subtlest pictures that can be sketched of what the approach would be. but i do hope that the advocates of this kind of method understand what they're in for in being taken seriously. when the data guru begins to make claims about the nature of the self, or the power of her method to reveal it, she will find herself in territory in which she may be distinctly uncomfortable: beyond the realm of the clearly testable or quantifiable-- her bets, in adopting this method, are not just empirical but in some profound sense normative.
while the power of massive data sets is that they allow us to carefully test and potentially falsify certain beliefs we hold about ourselves or the ways in which things affect us, the larger (often implicit) claim motivating these projects-- the meta-claim of the data-guru that legitimate self-knowledge can be had by this method-- is not itself a purely empirical or testable claim, and so can't be legitimized by the data-guru's preferred method. 
here's what I mean: the buddha says that truth is the nirvana we discover when we follow the breath and sink below the surface chatter of our conscious minds, and plato tells us the truth is a heaven of ideal forms that we gain access to by a process of correctly abstracting from the apparent world of sullied particulars. suppose the alleged truths we discover by either of these methods conflict or fail to jibe, in principle or practice, with the alleged truths of the data-guru. suppose one tradition says "this is what you are, as revealed by our method", and another tradition (say, the tradition of the data-guru) says "no, this is what you are, as our method reveals." these aren't, though they may seem to be, typical empirically testable claims. what set of data can the data guru gather that could falsify or vindicate their picture over the others? if we're comparing different and possibly antithetical methods of getting at the truth about ourselves, and likely differing claim about what those truths are, we can't usefully appeal to one of those self-same methods in deciding on one over another, and there's no independently existing blue print against which to compare the picture of selfhood each tradition generates.

Friday, May 21, 2010

on silverman.

i love sarah silverman. i do. i think she's funny, independent of any view that i might have of myself on any particular occasion for thinking that. so i was listening today to her interview with tom ashbrook on on point, and of course the topic is roughly: "is anything sacred?" "is everything fodder for your jokes?" and more subtly the topic turned to the question of (1) whether it makes a difference (a moral difference, is the implication) whether or not the listeners are in on the joke, and (2) if it's better to say what we're all already thinking. if sarah silverman makes a joke about kids with mental retardation, and the "real" joke is that she (or, rather, her on-stage persona) is morally obtuse, well, what does it mean that some people are laughing at the joke of her obtuseness and some people are laughing at retarded kids? and are we all really laughing at the kids, while a few sophisticates are simply able to tell themselves that they're laughing at the former rather than the latter? and is it better, as she claimed, to give a voice to the -isms that would otherwise be there, tamped carefully down upon. is there something potentially redeeming about being forces to confront that in ourselves?

i think that there's some merit to these defenses, but listening to silverman kind of vaguely and uncomfortably offer them (she is humbly uncomfortable in the role of theoretical explicator or moral philosopher), i thought, as i often do, of this passage from arendt's on totalitarianism, in which she addresses the actual impact of the work of another group of artists (silverman is clear in expressing her belief that comedy is art, and that this means the comic, like other artists, has no business telling the audience what they ought to make of their work) looking to expose some middle-class hypocricy:

Since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest. What a temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate and pretended to be gentle...

At the time, nobody anticipated that the true victims of their irony would be the elite rather than the bourgeoisie. The avant-garde did not know they were running their heads not against the walls but against open doors, that a unanimous success would belie their claim to being a revolutionary minority, and would prove that they were about to express a new mass spirit or the spirit of the time. Particularly significant in this respect was the reception given Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper in pre-Hitler Germany. The play presented gangsters as respectable businessmen and respectable businessmen as gangsters. The irony was somewhat lost when the respectable businessmen in the audience considered this a deep insight into the ways of the world and when the mob welcomed it as an artistic sanction of gangsterism. The theme song in the play, ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann dommt die Moral,’ [LG translation: first comes a full stomach, then comes ethics] was greeted with frantic applause by exactly everybody, though for different reasons. The mob applauded because it took the statement literally; the bourgeoisie applauded because it had been fooled by its own hypocrisy for so long that it had grown tired of the tension and found deep wisdom in the expression of the banality by which it lived; the elites applauded because the unveiling of hypocrisy was such superior and wonderful fun. The effect of the work was exactly the opposite of what Brecht has sought by it. The bourgeoisie could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy, whose popularity proved they had been right all along, so the only political result of Brecht’s “revolution’ was to encourage everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob.

obviously, this isn't pre-war germany. despite some insane shit going on at the moment, i don't think that we're on the verge of a collapse into totalitarian dictatorship from the right or left. and i don't think, where our -isms are concerned, we're anything like eager to drop the pretense to embrace our worse selves. i don't think that we're weary in the right ways to start thinking that our worst selves are our true selves. but the point is, there are worse things than hypocrisy. there are worse things than tamping down on our base impulses. there can be a sophomoric holden caulfieldish naivete in the urge to point out and rile them.

of course no one decried hypocrisy more directly than hannah arendt, who famously referred to it as 'the vice of vices' ('integrity,' she said, 'can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.'). so the lesson isn't 'tolerate hypocrisy for fear of something worse', but i does suggest that there are real moral and political risks in even an act so seemingly righteous. our moral responsibility doesn't stop with being honest or demanding honesty. taking a hard look at the worst of ourselves is not, itself, morally worthy-- though it can lead to acts of great moral (and artistic) worth.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

part I: on "the data driven life"

I believe there is only one story in the world, and only one…. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity, too—in a net of good and evil…There is no other story.’ John Steinbeck, East of Eden
The New York Times Magazine recently featured a piece on the growing number of people attempting to amass serious data sets cataloging the state and changes of their own bodies, thoughts, behaviors, etc., as a method for gaining self-knowledge, generally with an eye toward some kind of self-improvement or -mastery. The projects cited range from a relatively modest record of drinks consumed or the effects of a particular drug on the body, to moment-by-moment accounts of time spent over the course of a work day or speed over the course of a run, to serious longitudinal records, stretched over the course of many years, of mood changes or new ideas.
What I’d like to do is to try to take this claim seriously: That full self-understanding is aided by, if not dependent upon, our facility at quantifying ourselves. I’m naturally sympathetic to those who conceive of the drive to understand ourselves in terms of numbers and data sets as dangerous and misguided, particularly as intertwined as these projects have historically been with corporate efficiency goals and some of the more obviously facile “self-improvement” goals. But I can’t ignore the sense in which this movement shares a motive with a discipline as old as thought, and one with which I’m also naturally sympathetic: Western and Eastern philosophy alike are also founded on the claim that we can get free—of the cave, of our futile struggles—if we’re willing to surrender to a method, putting by the daily cud-chewing of ordinary thought with all of its erratic and sad circularities to follow the breath or the mantra or the syllogism—eyes closed, one hand in front of the other—toward truth, which is also freedom.
In this, part I of a series I hope to write over the course of the summer, I'd like to focus on offering what I take to be the best case against the "data-driven life" approach to self-knowledge: that engaging in the methods it prescribes for making progress in fact systematically distracts us from what matters-- from real self-knowledge-- from meaningful life projects-- derailing any hope of actual progress. I agree with the critics that the “data-driven” approach to self-knowledge is often a way for its practitioners to avoid rather than confront certain deep human fears-- fear of the body, of mortality, of intimacy-- the confrontation of which are ultimately essential to self-understanding. To gather and gather and look to these numbers for the source of our problems is sometimes merely to be blindly subject (subjected blindingly) to the very forces that self-understanding demands we detect. But it doesn’t seem entirely implausible to me that for those with a certain kind of independent commitment to self-knowledge, this approach might furnish certain tools useful in that pursuit.
Anyway, a little more about the “quantified self” phenomenon”: These quantification projects generally differ in scope from run of the mill calorie counting and checkbook balancing, though not necessarily in kind. What sets them apart is, first, the use of new developments in portable technologies. Most, though not all, involve the use of tracking devices that can account for steps, breaths, drops in blood sugar, and websites clicked through, with a mechanical precision and regularity formerly unattainable for your average human being. And some, though comparatively few, are distinct in a more fundamental way:
For many self-trackers, the goal is unknown. Although they may take up tracking with a specific question in mind, they continue because they believe their numbers hold secrets that they can’t afford to ignore, including answers to questions they have not yet thought to ask.
Unlike balancing a checkbook or counting calories, the folks engaged in these projects don’t always know in advance what it is they’re looking to find out—not only in the sense that we don’t know before we analyze these data sets what the answers to our questions might be, but in that we may not even know in advance what the question are.
The central idea driving these projects is, I think, one that we can all (advocates and critics alike) agree on: we often get ourselves badly wrong when we rely on intuition and eye-balling it—“Our memories are poor," says Wolf-- "we are subject to a range of biases; we can focus our attention on only one or two things at a time.” These cognitive limitations, bias foremost among them, limit our capacity to understand ourselves, leading us to systematically under- and overestimate stuff like the amount of money or time we spend on what, and leaving us only crudely aware of the crucial but sophisticated workings of our own hearts, lungs, digestive and endocrine systems. The idea specific to the data-trackers is that better mechanical tracking devices are an essential tool for self-understanding, and not just understanding of the body, but of behavior-- of the self in some more fundamental sense. When we look at the numbers, we see ourselves more truly—we achieve a better self-awareness. We look at the numbers, and we come to understand ourselves as we are—and, the idea goes, gain a traction that may allow us to become better—to see how and where we can.
In 2005 Mark Greif wrote an essay (“Against Exercise”) in which he presciently excoriates the very phenomenon that Wolf descibes in the NYT piece: “Almost imperceptibly,” Wolf writes “numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal. Sleep, exercise, sex, food, mood, location, alertness, productivity, even spiritual well-being are being tracked and measured, shared and displayed.” Wolf's statement of the phenomenon he takes to be the solution to our problems could be taken, almost word for word, from Greif's perspective, as an indictment of that same phenomenon. (Side note: One of the most fascinating things about this discussion is that the advocates of this approach often understand their movement in exactly the same terms as its most disdainful critics. More on this later) Greif, in his earlier essay, addresses the case of exercise specifically, but delivers what I think is still the best formulation of the general distaste that a certain class of cultural critics (to whom I am hugely sympathetic) has for this approach to self-knowledge (I’m going to quote from this essay extensively, because it doesn’t seem to be otherwise available online, but feel free to skip over it—or, better yet, go read the whole thing here or here):
The only truly essential pieces of equipment in modern exercise are numbers. Whether at the gym or on the running path, rudimentary calculation is the fundamental technology…a simple negative test of whether an activity is modern exercise is to ask whether it could be done meaningfully without counting or measuring it…
in exercise one gets a sense of one’s body as a collection of numbers representing capabilities. The other location where an individual’s numbers attain such talismanic status is the doctor’s office. There is a certain seamlessness between all the places where exercise is done and the sites where people are tested for illnesses, undergo repairs, and die. In the doctor’s office, the blood lab, and the hospital, you are at the mercy of counting experts….The clipboard with your numbers is passed. At last the doctor takes his seat, a mechanic who wears the white robe of an angel and is as arrogant as a boss. In specialist language, exacerbating your dread and expectation, you may learn your numbers for cholesterol (two types), your white cells, your iron, immunities, urinalysis, and so forth. He hardly needs to remind you that these numbers correlate with your chances of survival.
How do we acquire the courage to exist as a set of numbers? Turning to the gym or track, you gain the anxious freedom to count yourself. What a relief it can be. Here are numbers you can change. You make the exercises into trials you perform upon matter within reach, the exterior armor of your fat and muscle. You are assured these numbers, too, and not only the black marks in the doctor’s files, will correspond to how long you have to live. With willpower and sufficient discipline, that is, the straitening of yourself to a rule, you will be changed…
The curious compilation of numbers that you are becomes an aspect of your freedom, sometimes the most important, even more preoccupying than your thoughts or dreams. You discover what high numbers you can become, and how immortal. For you, high roller, will live forever. You are eternally maintained.
It seems like the idea is something like this: The data-collection method of achieving self-knowledge seems patently absurd if the method itself serves as a daily means of distracting us from our own fear of mortality and intimacy—particularly if it does so in part by giving us a false sense that we are in fact gaining some traction on these very “problems”. Perhaps my drive to keep careful records of my heart rate on each daily run and how I’ve spent the minutes of my day is itself the function of a fear of death and the inevitable passage of time—a fear that record-keeping can momentarily hold at bay but can neither detect nor ultimately assuage. The thought seems to be that the promise of self-knowledge that mere data collection and analysis promises is not only false, but ultimately serves to mask and distract us from that very thing.
Also prominent in Greif's essay is the notion that we’re distracted from the project of living a meaningful life by the pointless but self-sustaining project of preserving and maintaining an otherwise meaningless life of endless preservation and maintenance. This is a criticism that the modern exerciser may be particularly vulnerable to, but anyone devoting the kind of time required to implement and maintain data-gathering systems on any aspect of their lives seem equally vulnerable. We may, in this way, “dispose of the better portion of our lives in life preservation.”[1] But the complaint isn’t just that act of recording oneself as data becomes (like some self-referential nightmare) the daily content it was meant to record[2] (this content might otherwise have just been some other relatively meaningless daily bullshit anyway), but that, but their very nature, these number games distracts us from the particular projects that are likely to make a life meaningful. Even if our systems of data-collection, once implemented, take up little of our actual time, their impact may be huge and unpredictable: We are by nature self-regarding animals. Change the way we look at ourselves, and you change the selves we're looking at.
I hope that even proponents of this movement won't consider any of this merely the vicious slander of a bunch of liberal arts majors. The data-collectors, at least as they’re represented in the Times piece, do seem to understand their own movement in some of the same (sometimes troubling) terms as their critics:
(1) as an outgrowth of the (emotionally and spiritually hollow-sounding) movement toward ever-greater efficiency (i.e. greater productivity in the context of capitalist economies in which the end is, I guess, money):
I suspected that the self-tracking explosion was simply the logical outcome of this obsession with efficiency. We use numbers when we want to tune up a car, analyze a chemical reaction, predict the outcome of an election. We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves?
i'm not inclined, as some are, to hear this kind of talk-- of "optimizing" ourselves like cars on an assembly line-- in ungenerous or even dystopic terms, but i think it rightly gives many of us pause. let's consider with some care how we are or aren't like assembly line projects.
(2) as an (perhaps superior) alternative to therapeutic means of self-knowledge—to verbal analysis of our “thoughts and dreams". The following is from Wolf:
Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery. People do things for unfathomable reasons. They are opaque even to themselves. A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words. Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.
I've already said a little bit about why therapeutic methods might be better suited than data collection methods when it comes to self-knowledge, so I’m not going to keep hammering on this, but I hope it’s obvious why thoughtful people might suspect that this data-collecting stuff is, at best, a pointless distraction from what really matter and, at worst, the importation of utterly creepy, soulless and ultimately destructive capitalist business models into to the very heart of our personal lives. Whether one ultimately agrees with all of this or not, it strikes me as irresponsible not to at least take these sorts of concerns very seriously. The stakes are not small. In Greif’s words
The consequences are not only the flooding of consciousness with a numbered and regulated body or the distraction from living that comes with endless life-maintenance, but the liquidation of the last untouched spheres of privacy, such that biological life itself becomes a spectacle.
…The thinness we strive for becomes spiritual. This is not the future we wanted.
A final word against all of these numbers: I began this post by drawing a parallel (which I will draw out further in subsequent posts) between this method of overcoming cognitive limitation to see ourselves my clearly on the one hand, and Eastern and Western philosophy on the other-- and particularly the claims made by the founders of these two tradition. Both Socrates and Buddha offered us methods for getting at freedom by way of seeing ourselves truly. And, you know, it's hard for me to see, off the top of my head, how self-tracking could have helped the Buddha or Socrates to understand themselves better than their own methods allowed them to. Which is to say that data gathering is not obviously necessary (though it may be useful) for self-knowledge. And I don't think that even the most avid data-gather would claim that data gathering is sufficient. It can't tell us what questions to ask or make us capable of properly analyzing the data-- or even being able to bear to look at the results. Despite the dreams of the engineer, the data can’t tell us what questions to ask, and the data can’t open our eyes to see what we can’t or won’t see. It seems to me that having conceded that these methods are neither strictly necessary nor ever sufficient for self-knowledge, maybe there could be some space for discussing, in a way that is palatable to the critic, what valid use these methods could be put to.
[1] Greif here is referring to preserving our bodies through exercise, but I don’t think I’m making too much of a jump by understanding the phrase in this broader sense—by understanding the keeping of detailed numerical records of the states and changes of our minds and bodies as itself a form of “self-preservation”.
[2] Collecting numerical data would, after all, be no more subject to this criticism than, say, writing incessantly in a journal.