Finding the Quantified Self

The practice of self-examination was pioneered by ancient philosophers ruminating on universal questions of truth.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” explained Socrates before he was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth into thinking that perhaps our fate is not in the hands of Greek gods, but really in ourselves.

Today fate may seemingly be in the hands of the latest fitness app or Apple Watch in a scientific movement that takes the philosophical principal to a quantified extreme.

The Quantified Self movement believes that to know the numbers behind behavior is to allow for healthier decisions on physical and mental wellbeing.

These quantifiers are utilizing self-tracking technology to measure all the different facets of life. They’ll figure out a precise numeration on weekly hours of sleep and frequency of sex to build towards a greater synergy within themselves.

The goal is to hopefully make changes toward an ideal self that tallies up to a healthy life.

Maggie Delano, for instance, suffered a debilitating concussion after helping a friend move one afternoon. Buried in a depression of post-concussion syndrome, she found herself in a mental fog to what behaviors she could do to heal better.

She decided to keep track of her attempt to progressively recover from the head injury by using computer applications like Habitica and Sleepio–the former for tracking daily habits and the latter for tracking sleep patterns.

In her speech at the Quantified Self Conference in 2015, Delano explains that her focus on building healthy habits and learning to sleep longer hours carried her through the pain of building herself back up again.

Using Habitica, a game of sorts that has an avatar and tracks behavior of daily habits, Delano was able to visualize which daily habits she was keeping up with as they progressed in colors from green, to yellow, to blue as her consistency grew with them.

She found that each habit was very different. Flossing for instance was a habit she found herself easily taking back up again, while running was something she had to tailor to make more reasonable as her health improved.

The difference between Delano’s behavior and that of someone who writes down their daily expenses, is that these quantifiers analyze and learn from their data. Using apps like Habitica aggregates information into insightful trends and reports.

The name of this movement is attributed to a journalist and contributing editor at Wired magazine, Gary Wolf, who co-founded the Quantified Self website in 2008. As a technology and science writer, he became fascinated with the idea of “self-knowledge through numbers.”

Along with his colleague Kevin Kelly, Wolf began running regular meet-ups with people who were conducting personal data projects, according to a New York Times article he wrote on the subject. He felt the self-tracking obsession was a logical outcome to the efficiency so much of the tech world strives towards.

“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?” Wolf proposed.

There was only one flaw in the incessant climb for perfection through measurable traces: What was the goal?

It’s easy to conclude on the prized outcome for a car running smoothly or a business gaining income, but for humans, our inevitable flaws seem to make us all the more interesting and special. To eliminate such flaws is to, in essence, eliminate our humanity.

“For many self-trackers, the goal is unknown,” admits Wolf. “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.”

Time and time again, we find that quantifying does not lead to efficiency. Items like standardized testing and IQ examinations are proof that the sole numbers are not what make the entire human or truth of outcome.

“The distinction between the two ways of measuring is often overlooked, sometimes with disastrous results,” criticized Robert P. Crease, a professor of philosophy at Stony Brook University and author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement.

He argues that our ideal is far too complex to be reduced to figures on a graph. Modern literature is filled with examples of the de-humanizing effects of measurement that play true to the failures we see in an SAT’s ability to measure an entire student.

However, the allure of ideal self through ideal numbers continues to attract more than 50,000 members to the data-driven craze. There are also more than 200 Quantified Self meet-ups around the globe, which evidences its international appeal.

Delano claims in her speech that she was able to reach a newfound understanding to recovering from her concussion through allocating and analyzing how she functioned day-to-day.

Yet in order to achieve true synergy with the intricacies of human nature, it seems our increasingly quantified world needs to measure more precisely where and how our urge to measure fails.

Featured photo courtesy of Marc Smith.