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The unquantified self

One of my favorite runs is the Mayfield Slough loop, which winds through the heart of the wetlands above Shoreline Amphitheatre. It’s often deserted at sunset, devoid of anything man-made, and the bruised light makes the marsh land bridges feel haunted, desolate, post-apocalyptic. It’s a hell of an escape, one I’ve never quite been able to reproduce.

I tried tracking it with a pedometer and GPS once, and I hated it. I fiddled with the gadgets, watched the trail on the map grow, chided myself for slow splits and basked smugly in fast ones. I did pretty much everything except immerse myself in the flow of the place and time.

A decade ago, I loved tracking myself. Call it what you want – quantified self, personal analytics, lifelogging – I was on board. I logged everything I did for years, slicing and dicing and generating lots of charts and graphs. I didn’t have a specific goal, just the usual “track stuff because I can!” engineer mentality, but it was still fun.

I’ve been off the bus for a while now. As conversations with my friends fill with Fitbits and Withings and UPs, and hacker acquaintances put together entire personal APIs, I’ve developed an allergy to tracking myself. At this point, I’m enough of an unknown quantity that I’m pleasantly surprised to be alive at all.

Why? It’s not the privacy thing. I’m pretty happy with my life, so I don’t think it’s fear of the unknown. I’m definitely not unwilling or unable; I’ve spent my career building and running large software systems and stressing about metrics.

Part of it is that I’m not ambitious, or competitive, or hungry. If you are, I can see how tracking works for you, but not me. I enjoy learning new skills, but I don’t like overanalyzing the process. Outside of work, nothing turns me off faster than measuring things or crunching numbers.

It’s more than personality, though. I treasured the sensation of that sunset run – I still do – and tracking killed it. I only checked the stats and screens occasionally, but it didn’t matter. Just knowing the data was flowing was enough to pull me out of flow and the joy of the trail.

Conscious attention and mental energy are largely zero sum games. You can improve them over time, but in the moment, thinking about one thing means you’re not thinking about something else. We’re already saddled with petty brains that prefer to worry about our kids’ next report card, or the zinger we should have delivered in yesterday’s meeting, than what’s going on in front of us. Be here now and live in the moment are cliches for a reason. Therapists don’t often say, “You’re too outwardly focused. Dwell on your own issues more!”

At the same time, compelling experiences in the real world are fleeting, easy to spoil or miss altogether. Just showing up isn’t enough; you have to be open minded, paying attention, ready and willing to jump in with both feet. We all know that checking Twitter on our phones doesn’t cut it, and for me, tracking causes the same problem. I’m there physically, but my head is only half in the game. The other half is picturing the bump in my stats and composing the perfect status message to share them with.

If this sounds like a cliche, I apologize, and I commiserate. Nothing makes me glaze quite as fast as tired canards like technology is dehumanizing, smartphones are turning us into zombies, or put down the video game and go outside. That’s not where I’m coming from, promise. Technology and data are wonderful, powerful tools that empower us in ways we couldn’t imagine even decades ago, and largely still can’t. I take full advantage, and I’m grateful.

Still, the usual caveat applies. Tools aren’t inherently good or bad, it’s how they’re used that matters. I’ve spent years chest deep in analytics and time series data, aggregating and trending and anomaly detecting, and I’ve seen firsthand how fragile meaning is and how easily it drowns in a flood of numbers. I know tracking is meant to complement real life experiences, not replace them, but I wonder if it often does more harm than good. It definitely does for me.

This is the same reason I’m uncomfortable with social first, pictures or it didn’t happen, if you didn’t blog it, it didn’t happen, and even you can’t improve what you don’t measure, at least when we apply them to our personal lives. (Don’t get me started on Klout.)

As usual, smarter people put this more eloquently than I ever could. David Foster Wallace’s This is Water is introspective as usual:

Probably the most dangerous thing…is my tendency to to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract thinking instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me.

And Jaron Lanier gently chides in You Are Not a Gadget:

It is easier to set up a rigid representation of human [life] on digital networks…and that reduction of life is what gets broadcast between friends all the time. What is communicated between people eventually becomes their truth.

The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction…more than the real people who are networked.

The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits. Since people will be inexorably connecting to one another through computers from here on out, we must find an alternative.

I could record that run in full GPS and HD video, track every biomarker and sensor and timestamp, and I’d still never capture the exhilaration of flying over a sliver of land bridge through purple water and yellow sky and air so still I was scared to breathe. Even worse, I’d lose it in the moment. It’s not true for everyone, but if I can’t have my cake and eat it too, I choose experience. As Hamlet would say, there are more things in heaven and earth than are aggregated in my data.


12 thoughts on “The unquantified self

  1. Really great post. I find myself taking pictures less often on vacations than I ever have, because I want to invest my energy in being present instead of documenting it for my future self. I wonder if the memories will last as long as the pictures, though. Am I’m bankrupting my future self?

  2. Love the thoughts Ryan. I have gone through this a lil myself.

    “What isn’t tracked isn’t managed” – Drucker

    That lead me to start tracking a lot as I tried to get healthy. It helped at first as the progress lead me down a path.

    But then I found two things:

    1: the tools were running me. I wouldn’t do weights and instead go for a run to get more “points”? WTF. I instantly changed to use any inputs as just an input.

    2: I was missing out on so much. Having the gadget on me when I ran sucked. At first I thought I needed the distraction, but then I just left the house and ran. It was the best feeling ever. Almost magical. 10 miles and I felt amazing (that was more than I had run before). Being in the moment was a special charm, and ever since then I have “just run”.

    I am measuring some things. I use WellnessFX so I can see my “numbers” but focusing on that kind of output vs. some number of steps or other input.

  3. Ted Chiang explored this recently in his talk at MoMA EXPO 1. He expects the quantified self and lifelogging trends to continue and took a deep dive into what that means for us, given that our memories are much worse than we think they are, and that we probably don’t learn from our mistakes as well as we should. Definitely worth watching/listening to.

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