On quantification

I started swimming again, after a year out of the pool and then, the year before that, something like fifteen years away. I was grateful to discover that, as was the case the last time I returned to swimming, the skills and motions I practiced so much at twelve came back to me with little difficulty at thirty (a fact which raises the question of why I quit being a pretty good swimmer at twelve to be a mediocre soccer player for years and years after).

Last week, I swam ten and a half miles. I did this largely because I enjoy swimming more than I’ve enjoyed any other exercise. That enjoyment stands in particularly sharp contradistinction to my feelings about running, an activity I loathe and have loathed my entire life, despite a decade of fairly serious soccer and uncountable attempts to get back into shape by hauling my recalcitrant and intensely unhappy carcass from point to point in search of the elusive and, I’m fairly certain, entirely fictitious “runner’s high.”

The other reason I swam ten and a half miles last week is that each day I recorded my yardage on my calendar, and there’s a deeply satisfying thrill to adding them all up on Sunday converting them to miles. Not that the final number was a surprise: I was aiming for a ten-mile week, and I knew exactly how far I needed to swim on Sunday to hit that target.

The thrill of adding those numbers up and hitting a target brings to mind David Sedaris’s recent and very funny essay on his Fitbit in the New Yorker. I read it on the plane from Houston to Atlanta, and if I hadn’t been trapped in a flying tin can, I probably would have ordered myself a Fitbit then and there. Sedaris describes a satisfaction in seeing the numbers creep up each day that I found immediately familiar: “During the first few weeks that I had it, I’d return to my hotel at the end of the day, and when I discovered that I’d taken a total of, say, twelve thousand steps, I’d go out for another three thousand. ‘But why?’ Hugh asked when I told him about it. ‘Why isn’t twelve thousand enough?’ ‘Because,’ I told him, ‘my Fitbit thinks I can do better.’”

Sedaris gestures toward the darker side of quantification only as the set-up for a punchline, writing of the moment his Fitbit gave out on him, “Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?” It doesn’t take him long to order a new Fitbit, and to be completely honest, I spent quite a bit of time reading reviews of various activity trackers once the plane landed. To many readers, Sedaris’s obsession with walking further and further each day probably sounded a bit manic, but I found it kind of appealing.

I went the cheap route and bought a pedometer instead–I already have a fancy swim watch that tracks my yardage and split time and which strokes I swim. Now I note the number of steps I walk every day along with the number of yards I swim. All I’ve learned so far is that I don’t walk enough, but I swim a lot.

But for some reason, I need that thrill of writing down my yardage and adding it up each week to get me out the door to the pool. Never mind that swimming is good for me and I feel better on days that I swim. There’s Sedaris’s question again: what use are the yards and miles I swim if they’re not being logged and counted?

The Fitbit, any number of tech articles and the occasional thinkpiece will tell you, is bringing the quantified self movement to the masses. What was once a geeky fringe movement has become the newest buzzword among technology manufacturers and (of course) corporate employers. Josh Bersin at Forbes rounds up what the quantified self movement means for employers. The Economist declares that “Better information about your actual exertions makes for more informed decisions.” And the “digital fitness device market” was evidently worth $330 in 2013.

With all the focus on technology, it’s easy to think of the desire for a quantified self as a very modern, very twenty-first century phenomenon, the individual instantiation of big data’s ascendance. But when I sit down to enter my daily yardage on my Google calendar, my first thought isn’t that this rich and fascinating record of my daily life is bound up in proprietary technology hosted on some corporation’s servers. That’s my second thought–my first thought is about Benjamin Franklin and his 13 virtues.

Franklin’s system for tracking his performance at 13 key virtues looks pretty familiar today. If the paper calendar he used is a bit too eighteenth century for you, there’s even Ben’s Virtues iPhone app.

Franklin’s virtue calendar is a reminder that the current cultural obsession with quantification and (implicitly) individual perfection has its roots in some pretty well-worn Enlightenment values. Store up enough carefully gathered information and you’ll be able to make rational decisions and accurate predictions about everything from your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits, to the time of day when you do your best work.

But as striving for perfection goes, it’s pretty bankrupt. The quantified self may owe a lot to Enlightenment rationality, but it has all of its blind spots (primarily, the elevation of reason and the attempt to circumvent the messy chaos of being human) and none of its merits (a sustained interest in moving human knowledge forward, for instance). It’s a Puritan work ethic without any of the religion–work at perfection not for the glory of God, but just for the sake of perfection.

Which, I suppose, is the legacy of capitalism: take a practice that is rooted in some larger context, evacuate it of that context and its connection to other humans, sell it to people as an introspective, highly individualized product that will make them more effective workers and better consumers. Call it a movement.

That it works, that people buy Fitbits and log their eating and exercise and sleep habits, is also capitalism’s legacy. Those numbers are standing in for something, or perhaps adding up to something. Gather enough data, and maybe daily life won’t be so hard. Or if it’s still hard, at least you’ll have the traces that show you’re living it.

Up next: quantification in the workplace/productivity’s past and present

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