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.

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