I have 581 Facebook friends.
I have Tweeted 154 times.
I am 5 foot six inches.
I have a driver’s license # and a Social Security #.
These facts are just a tiny amount of data that supposedly “comprise” me. But the idea that you can count something, and call it “data,” and feel that it is “factual” is extremely misleading. My numerical attributes are not only the ones that I am aware of (# of lovers, calories consumed today) but also numbers I am not aware of (or aware others are aware of) such as how long it took me to write this post, and how much I spent last year on my credit card for Christmas presents. I am against the very idea of the quantified self (an organization, here), which lists itself as “self knowledge through numbers.” I do not believe that you can gain true self-knowledge with numbers.
Even if Gangam Style has 806.3 million views, the numbers alone do not prove its worth. Just like the Dutch Tulip Craze and the Pet Rock, it draws its worth from a certain intersection with space and time. To me Gangam Style is more interesting as a mirror of zeitgeist, than an arbiter of quality.
There is an enormous industry devoted to productivity tools, with which I have a love/hate relationship. While I truly want to believe that there is a “right” or “efficient” way to do things, the idea of systems to monitor, track and enhance our human experience frightens me. Quite often the most efficient way of doing things is also the worst. Want to help out with global warming? Kill yourself! Need to make that stock soar? Slash and burn your workforce! Need a high score on your SATs? Hire a smart person to take them for you!
I bristle at using numbers to quantify the self. On dating sites, someone can click “hot or not.” Perhaps you only date 91/2s and 10s. The last book I read, I actually looked to see how many stars the audience gave it on Amazon. I was relieved when it only had three stars, because if people didn’t feel as ambivalent about it as I did, perhaps I was stupid or missing something. The book, I decided, had 6-10 pages out of 279 that I really thought were worth reading. The remaining 269-273 was just plain drivel.
I have 2,890 emails in my Gmail account. My blog has been around since 2005! Timothy Ferris says that I can have a Four Hour Workweek! The average person speaks about 7,000 words a day. If you write 1,000 words a day you will easily have a book by the end of the year. We only remember 90% of what we do, every day. In Co.Exist, Rick Smolan states that, “Every two days, mankind creates as much information as it did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. The amount of information that an average person is exposed to in a day is the same as a person from the 15th century was exposed to in a lifetime.”
The mathematical mind, has at times, taken over my consciousness. I recently told a friend that we were 97% friends, which I meant as an indication of how well we got along. I tried to explain to another friend recently that discipline is really just x actions over y time. It is truly frightening that someone who is as horrible at math as I am would speak this way. Yes, I have occasionally gone over to the “math side.” On the math side, everything is solid, unbreakable, and Spockian. The math side has firm land under its feet, and amazing tools like equations and algorithms. Math is strong magic to the uninitiated, almost like watching a microwave boil water in one minute. Math is the great-grandfather of data, facts and figures. Math is Zeus, and data, facts and figures are his warring children.
And why are they at war? Because everyone knows that the numbers lie. Or as Mark Twain (or Benjamin Disraeli stated), “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And while everyone seems to have a magic formula for how to live, or “optimize” one’s life, I wonder if this SEO (Self Engine Optimization) is really a good thing. Often, and I am thinking of the “Protestant Work Ethic” Americans have been known for (I suppose we aren’t known for that anymore. Instead we are known for Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga, both clearly hard-working people but not known for their Protestantism), we are so afraid to commit the sin of un-optimized or low productivity. In short, I am against the quantified self because it fuels its corollary: the optimized life.
Humans should not live an optimized life. YOLO is a ridiculous idea that gives only a wink and smile to a vague idea of mortality. You shouldn’t summit Everest to cross it off of your bucket list. Or another way that I have learned this is by living in Los Angeles—money can’t buy you class. Sitting on a mountain of money in the Hollywood Hills with a Stradivarius mounted on your mansion’s wall is not success if you have to wake up early and puke every morning because you are so afraid of losing it all. And on top of it, you don’t know how to play the violin. Ugly. Anyone who says YOLO should go to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome. Do we only live once? Let’s dig at some deeper questions here when our culture is not sanitized and our bones become art.
Another reason that I don’t like the quantified self is because it is purely commercial. The quantified self tells you how popular you are, if you weigh the “right” amount, or if you bought the car with the most fuel efficiency. The quantified self forgets to look for the deus ex machina, the ghost in the machine. The soul, in this formula, is only a willingness to “do better” and “achieve peak performance.” The soul is a never ending ladder going to nowhere under the guise of self-improvement.
A friend asked me once if my parents were soul mates. They have been together for 43 years. First off, I don’t believe in soul mates. Or more precisely, I am nauseated by the idea of “the one” which seems like some very suspicious bullshit. Sure, there are definitely some people we are drawn to more than others and I will leave the rest to love (more on that later). I responded that I have no idea if my parents were soul mates. I know that they really admired each other, and my mom pointed out that they shared the same values and wanted to live an interesting life.
Then I think of me and my friends and what we are up against in a quantified world. My mother didn’t say that my father had the right shoes, a nice haircut and listened to the coolest music. They shared the same values and wanted to live an interesting life. Back in the 50s, there were two choices: you listened to classical or pop music. You didn‘t have to advertise yourself as a sea punk shoegaze gaia worshipper who is into flea markets and locally produced artisanal beer. When they say life was simpler back then, what they mean is that your preferences weren’t so sliced and diced, that your life was not so commercialized that you began to have “faux” preferences between shallots and green onions, bibb or arugula lettuce, cheddar or Mr. Tam. Perhaps what they mean is that having not ate of the fanciest fruit, and not having tasted the difference between let’s say Miller on tap and a fine prosecco on a summer day, we were still able to love. Or perhaps our love didn’t get lost in the millions of compartments of the quantified self. Our love was unable to be ticked off an unending task list. Our love could not be improved because its nuances were private, for two, or friends and family.
Do numbers produce irony? Did I have 100% of your love until you found out I am a republican (i’m not) and then it was reduced maybe to 50% or if you are in a good mood, and if I am contrite, 75%? Did I disappoint you, or were you really not listening to me? Did I tell you I was going to get better? And how many times did I do the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing before you decided that we were just too different?
The quantified self is about tracking your data. Or the data that your existence creates— It is like your numerical dandruff sloughing off your skin. To decide to track your detritus, is the most mundane narcissism, and the data can be anything. What do my fingernail clippings, calories, emails, tea leaves, parking tickets—really say about me? I think what it truly speaks to is belly gazing OCD. And to be overly concerned with your own data dandruff is encouraged and rewarded by a commercial culture. Because the stranger you find yourself, the more alien, and unrecognizable, the more you need to buy to normalize (or optimize!) this information you have collected.
How much of the quantified self is just complete nonsense? My deep fear is that as the numbers add up it makes our more idealistic notions even more imaginary. That the iconic feelings of love, hate, heaven and hell lose their meaning when everything can be quantified. And when ideas lose their meaning, I wonder if they become even more imaginary and ungraspable. I dislike it when I say things that make me feel like I know things I don’t actually know. For example, “Oh, I can totally see why a four year old would say that, but a five year old?” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, I am not a developmental psychologist. Or when the numbers make me feel small, “I could see this project moving forward with 7,500 dollars but how do I make it on 1,500?” Numbers define the self in soul-killing ways, making one think that you can’t do it, when in reality the equation says you can. It’s the data that you are putting in the equation that is driving you mad, making you sad, and belittling your dreams.
Everyone will tell you that you can’t work with 7 or that you are a 54 or that the 1,000 isn’t enough. You are short, you only can have 140 characters. No one has ever done it with a 32. Don’t listen!
The quantified self is like a runner who has never topped 4.5 minute time in a mile race. If the trainer doesn’t tell you that you are ahead, you can beat your own record. Lies, half-truths, delusions, fantasies, and creativity are what will trick you into greatness. Illogical thought, momentary madness, deviation from the norm will show potential. We are held hostage by our own internal version of the quantified self.
And I am just as guilty, who doesn’t salivate at the idea of having unlimited funds? The amazing things that I could accomplish, simply set up the dollar bills and achieve! I think, why does money always go the boring people who sit around and do not one interesting thing with it? The truth is that I am already rich, and crafty, and diligent. I have already achieved.
Life is not like when you were 15, and after having ridiculously painful metal braces on your teeth, you believe that once they are off you will suddenly be fine. Or whatever image you had of better that whatever hell you were currently in. The braces come off, and you are not the gorgeous swan. You are a fifteen year old girl without braces, in less pain and with straighter teeth. Becoming a swan takes a really long time, like 20 years. There is no magic formula or one single thing that will finally put you where you want to be.
In contrast, I would like to sing the praises of the autonomous, the heart and lungs that beat as we think. To the unconscious, and the dreams that are the one place we have to truly give over control (except for you lucid dreamers, I feel sorry for you in a way). Appreciate your dreams, relax, listen to your heartbeat and feel your breath. They are free. You are not the sum of your parts, you are not numbers in a line, you are not a data set. You are a science experiment that cannot be replicated. A theorem as yet unproven.
Photo: Guinness Book of World Records Holder for Most Tattoos, Julia Grouse.