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.

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