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Quantify Here Now

What wearable technology reveals and obscures about ourselves

Lite/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Lite/Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else may exemplify our current age, few would doubt our passion for measuring ourselves and the world around us. As children enter school, they are inscribed with value as they begin a journey into the so-called normal distribution of grades, ranks, and outcomes. When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he was referring to our tendency toward community-making and indeed, our inclination to view community as intrinsic to being human. Anticipating postmodern ideas of the relational self, he grasped how our sense of self derives from the community of others. Aristotle also said, as quoted by the psychoanalyst Frank Summers, “What is honored in a culture will be cultivated there.” In his book, The Psychoanalytic Vision, Summers makes the case that in modern America, we are immersed in a culture where any and all value is quantitative. He states that, “The dominance of quantity in the American value system is easily seen in the tendency to quantify virtually all human activity. It is difficult to find any area of American life that has not been assessed on a scale of quantification.”

There is no shortage of what can be measured when it comes to ourselves. Our economic, political, and even religious lives are narrated and interpreted in quantitative language. The beneficiaries of the Enlightenment, we live in a world of personal responsibility and achievement through hard work. Infrastructures of self-assessment and surveillance make good sense when it’s all up to us.

Witness the proliferation of wearable technology. When it comes to our physiology, we imagine a surplus of benefit from carefully tracking our weight, shifting moods, sleep patterns, and resting heart rate. To be sure, gadgets like the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Jawbone seem to offer benefits to users and are clearly enjoying massive popularity. 2014 was considered by many technology observers to be the “Year of the Wearable,” with an explosion of smart watches, fitness and health trackers, smart jewelry, and even smart fashion. The wearable device market is estimated to reach 18 billion dollars by 2018. Yet wearables are not just the latest gadget for the technophile; they are really encompassed by a culture of self quantification.

The expression “quantified self” seems to have originated with Wired magazine editors, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly around 2007. The movement centers around capturing massive amounts of personal data in an effort to change behavior and improve self-knowledge. Quantified Self conferences were held in America and Europe beginning in 2011. The Economist describes users of such technology as, “an eclectic mix of early adopters, fitness freaks, technology evangelists, personal-development junkies, hackers and patients suffering from a wide variety of health problems. What they share is a belief that gathering and analyzing data about their everyday activities can help them improve their lives – an approach known as self-tracking, body hacking or self-quantifying.” The theory guiding the quantifiers is that if tracking can help you understand your habits, you can improve on them.

Of course, the technology may be new but the values are as old as science. A major debt to our quantification-obsessed culture is owed to the field of psychology. The first individual to call himself a psychologist was the German professor and physiologist, Wilhelm Wundt. In his textbook (the first psychology textbook), Principles of Physiological Psychology, he sought to define psychology, “as a new domain of science.” In post-Enlightenment, 19th century Europe, Wundt—like others that would soon follow—set forth a project of empirical inquiry into the nature of consciousness. As the fledgling new science of psychology crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century, it became more enthusiastically quantitative and mathematic. E.L. Thorndike, who had been a student of William James at Harvard, had an enduring faith in the quantifiability of human experience. He once said that, “Whatever exists at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality.” Psychology continued its outward turn from subjective experience to so-called objective, quantifiable expressions of behavior with the advent of American behaviorism (epitomized by its chief architects, first John B. Watson and later, B.F. Skinner).

Unknown/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

One possible outcome of quantifying one’s various physiological and psychological states is a heightened sense of guilt. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud saw the creation of the superego as the origin of a sense of guilt, which he viewed as “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” In our age of science and reason, we elevate experts to god-like, superego status. Freud claimed that “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.” While there may be some benefit to our data collection, we may unwittingly be creating unrealistic (and even irrational) demands for ourselves in our perpetual efforts at self-improvement. The price we pay for self-monitoring may be self-condemnation.

As useful as wearable devices are, we might helpfully wonder about what they reveal and obscure about ourselves. While no one doubts their potential health benefits, they keep us transfixed on some aspects of our experience while hiding others. Whatever else is true, they broadcast our most cherished commitments—to personal health, beauty, initiative, and happiness. There is a quote—erroneously attributed to Einstein (who is alleged to have had the remark on his door)—the author unknown: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

© 2015 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved.