how much to quantify the self?

Over at Scatterplot, Jeremy’s been writing about his life gamification experiment, which involves giving himself points for various activities he’d like to be doing more of. I find this sort of thing totally compelling and have to admit I’m now giving myself all sorts of points in my head. (Finish unpacking one box — 5 points! Send an email I’ve been procrastinating on — 5 points!) Although not in 100 million years could I get my husband to play along with me, even for brunch, of which he is fond.

Anyway, the game brought to mind this post from Stephen Wolfram, in which Wolfram presents a bunch of data from the last 25 years of his life. Here, for example, are all the emails he’s sent since 1989. (Note the sharp time shift in 2002, when he stopped being completely nocturnal.) He’s also got keystroke data, times of calendar events, time on the phone, and physical activity.

Plot with a dot showing the time of each of the third of a million pieces of email

Fascinating to read about, but perhaps not terribly healthy to pursue in practice. Although in Wolfram’s case, it sounds like he was mostly just collecting the data, not using it to guide his day-to-day decisions. Others become more obsessive. I don’t know if David Sedaris has really been spending nine hours a day walking the English countryside, a slave to his Fitbit, or if he’s taking poetic license, but it’s a heck of an image.

Clearly there are a lot of people into this sort of thing. In fact, there is a whole Quantified Self movement, complete with conferences and meet-up groups. One obvious take on this is that we’re all becoming perfect neoliberal subjects, rational, entrepreneurial and self-disciplined.

For me, though, what is fun and appealing as a choice — and I do think it’s a choice — becomes repellent and dehumanizing when someone pushes it on me. So while I’ll happily track my work hours and tally my steps just because I like to — and yes, I realize that’s kind of weird — I hate the idea of judging tenure cases based on points for various kinds of publications, and am uneasy with UPS’s use of data to ding drivers who back up too frequently.

It’s possible that I’m being inconsistent here. But really, I think it’s authority I have the problem with, not quantification.

Written by epopp

July 15, 2014 at 10:27 pm

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I would love to be able to make an e-mail graph like this, although I’m a little frightened about what it would show.



    July 15, 2014 at 11:33 pm

  2. From observation, I see a trend emerging towards ‘the management’ in organizations collecting data kicked off by their employees’ wearables and related sensors. This is nothing short of surveillance and doesn’t bode well for the type of organization I’d want to be part of.

    Rather, I champion designing a future with socioveillance – a personal and private service monitoring our interactions with our socios. It negotiates data exchange with others’ service according to our respective privacy policies to enrich our mutual understanding within comfortable boundaries.

    Here’s a recent related article you might enjoy:

    And then there’s the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which you may already know about of course:



    July 16, 2014 at 11:33 am

  3. David Sedaris in action on BBC 4’s Ramblings, a radio program about people walking around the countryside:



    July 17, 2014 at 12:29 pm

  4. @eischwartz: That has got to be the most BBC program ever. Also, the best line:

    Interviewer: What’s your routine for when you’re writing? How much do you split, do you give yourself certain hours at the desk?

    Sedaris: I get up and I go right to work. And then I work until lunch. After lunch I usually get on my bike and pick up rubbish. Until it gets dark.

    @philipsheldrake: Interesting links (and approach) — I think the work/surveillance question deserves a post of its own and am going to add it to the list.



    July 17, 2014 at 6:15 pm

  5. In Baxter’s view the care for [self quantification] should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage…


    Peter Levin (@plevin)

    July 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm

  6. Related art video is fun. Not trying to be a fear monger (because the video is certainly a bit overdone), but the quantified self movement seems to support an addictive mechanism similar to much mobile gaming. Candy Crush-ify my workouts, please.



    July 18, 2014 at 2:42 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: