Quantified Self & Accountable Me
When I was a teenager, my fellow classmates used to tell me to “get a life”. They assumed I must have been studying the whole time to get the best marks in all subjects, so they thought I had no free time.
While they were wrong about my free time, I have to admit that they were right in some sense. At that time I used to measure the value of my life in terms of the grades I received. I have always felt the need to be accountable for how I spend my time. Because fun cannot be measured easily, I decided to let my happiness depend on cold numbers instead. As much as one can argue how representative grades really are of one’s knowledge and skills, they are perceived as an “objective” metric. They enable us to participate in the performance game and rank us according to our alleged worth to society.
The quality of life is hard to define and numbers are easy to look at.– Adaption of a quote from the Nature article on “Fewer numbers, better science”
Relating happiness with accountability didn’t stop at grades for me, though. I measured anything that can be put into numbers: how many tasks I had completed, how often I had gone running per week, how many TED talks I had listened to while running, how many pages of a book I had read and so on.
To quantify the self is becoming a trend, thanks to technologies that enable us to monitor our steps, our meals, our heartbeats, and our sleeping patterns. “Quantified self” is an expression that denotes how much value we put into collecting personal data to monitor our well-being. According to Hirschman & Berman, authors of “The Sociology of Quantification: Where Are We Now?”, this movement “has all the features of an emergent community or social movement, from local meet-ups to conferences”. We can use self-tracking to improve our health and to achieve a variety of goals, like monitoring and evaluating ourselves (“was I productive today?”), eliciting sensations about our performance (“how do I feel at a particular glucose level?”), satisfying aesthetic curiosity (“what patterns can I see in a map of my bike rides?”), debugging a problem (“which foods trigger my migraines?”), and cultivating habits (“can I hit 10,000 steps a day?”).
What we often don’t realise is that quantification of everyday behaviours changes our subjective experiences. Are numbers liberating or disciplining? The Quantified Self movement assumes the former, but is it really true that self-quantification only improves the quality of life?
After years of self-tracking, even before it became a trend, I noticed that I have become tired of it. By valuing quantity over quality I felt I was missing out on the real essence of life, all because quality is more difficult to measure. When I read Hirschman & Berman’s paper on the sociology of quantification, I could totally relate:
“We stop observing experiences in their uniqueness, situated in time and place, and begin seeing them as abstractions represented first and foremost through the data they produce.”
The paper points to another consequence of the Quantified Self movement:
“Self-quantification is generally a freely chosen activity — at least until your life insurance provider requires it.”
Self-tracking seems to be a blessing and a curse at the same time. Moderate self-tracking can improve our well-being, but too much of it reduces our lives to numbers deprived of any essence of the life they represent. Do we really want to be reduced to numbers, which then can be played against us by future employers, insurance agencies, and other entities that may not have our interest in mind?
I decided a few years ago that I want to enjoy the essence of life instead of rating and ranking everything. It is hard to get rid of a well-ingrained habit, though. To avoid falling into the self-tracking trap, I decided to ignore all kind of self-tracking tools and train myself to be happy about things that can’t be measured, like fun and contentment.
Do you perceive putting numbers on your experiences as liberating or disciplining? Do you find it fun or does it cause you stress? Or both of course :). Do share your thoughts in the comments below or via the contact form!
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 15th June 2022