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.


Liz said...

I read this today on the train, LG. Make of it what you will in relation to the net self:

Steve McFarland said...

God, someday – hopefully soon – someone will set up a dialogue between you and Merlin and I will pay so much money to see it.

There's so much here, and even more that I only skimmed, to fit into a comment, but thanks and I'm feeling very good about your blog these days.