Is the Quantified Life Worth Living?Posted: July 11, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Techno-Philosophy | 5 Comments »
If for some strange reason you, my dear reader, wanted to know how many hours I slept or how many yards I swam on any given day in 2008, I would be able to tell you with fairly accurate precision. This is no joke. At the risk of revealing my obsessive compulsive tendencies I must admit that at one point in my mid-twenties I was a triathlete who kept track of such things. I was by no means an elite, even amongst the age-groupers, but, I had the strong desire to become one. More important to me than my relative status, however, was my strong curiosity to see exactly how good (in this case, how “fast”) I could become in the sport of triathlon. I often wondered where, given my genetics and athletic background, my personal limits existed. The only way to figure it out, I thought, was to focus on measuring my performance and doing everything in my power to improve it.
Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, there is a belief that in order to become excellent, or even world-class, at something requires 10,000 hours of practice; it’s called “The 10,000 hour rule” . I was always an athlete growing up, but I had virtually no experience in running long distances, swimming, or biking. If it was going to take 10,000 hours to see how good I could be at triathlon, I was hell-bent on making it happen. As such, I started obsessively measuring everything I could think of that pertained to my physical fitness. And I mean everything.
I kept a log of things like daily bodyweight, calories consumed, body-fat percentage, hours slept, hours and distances spent running, biking, and swimming, heart rate statistics, and more for well over a year. At the time, I was woking in the world of high-finance in Chicago and my days were spent pouring over and analyzing data. Crunching numbers in finance is what gets you results. As such, I figured I might as well apply it to my personal life to get results as well. Aside from being able to brag about how many yards I swam in 2008, I was able to quantify, graph, and look for various correlations amongst all of these metrics as they related to my performance (with hopes of improving it).
Similarly, both my undergraduate and my current graduate studies of economics have seemed to focus almost exclusively on numbers and graphs. Many economists, in fact, suffer from a compulsion for the issues they deem quantifiable (the problem is most issues of importance are not quantifiable). Without a doubt, many economists are guilty of trying to quantify the unquantifiable and I suppose I must admit that I at one point I was a member of this camp.
Reflecting back on it, I was well on my way to becoming what Kevin Kelly calls a “lifelogger“, which is a term that refers to people who attempt to record and archive all information in their life. In my triathlon days, I had mistakenly become entranced by a silly doctrine that is still rampantly promoted at business schools around the globe, i.e., Peter Drucker’s management philosophy of: “What gets measured gets managed”. In some ways, I blame my economics background and the world of finance for my clouding my thinking (perhaps it’s still clouded). Finance, although not necessarily economics, is, in essence, all about the quantifiable. I suppose, however, that it is only fair that I take some personal responsibility for being a fool in the past as well.
Recently, the marketing guru, Tim Ferriss, published a new book called the The 4-Hour Body (disclaimer: I have not read the book) that is all about body hacking and from what I can gather, seems very similar to what I was doing in the past. The origins of body hacking, however, can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin, who famously kept a list of 13 virtues and put a check mark next to each when he violated it. Franklin believed that collecting this type of data motivated him to refine his moral compass. Mr. Ferriss, again, from what I understand, believes collecting this type of data can turn us into “super-humans”.
There is also an increasingly popular movement, that I was unaware of until the past year or so, called the Quantified Self movement, the tagline is “self knowledge through numbers.” In a recent comment, a reader guided me to the Bullet Proof Executive, which is run by Dave Asprey, a “bio-hacker” and a big player in the Quantified Self, who claims to have shaved 20 years off his biochemistry and increased his IQ by as much as 40 points through “smart pills”, diet and biology-enhancing gadgets.
In a blog post, about a Quantified Self conference he attended in May, 2011, Kevin Kelly writes:
Through technology we are engineering our lives and bodies to be more quantifiable. We are embedding sensors in our bodies and in our environment in order to be able to quantify all kinds of functions. Just as science has been a matter of quantification — something doesn’t count unless we can measure it — now our personal lives are becoming a matter of quantification. So the next century will be one ongoing march toward making nearly every aspect of our personal lives — from exterior to interior — more quantifiable. There is both a whole new industry in that shift as well as a whole new science, as well as a whole new lifestyle. There will be new money, new tools, and new philosophy stemming from measuring your whole life. Lifelogging some call it. It will be the new normal.
The Financial Times also recently had a very interesting piece titled “The Invasion of Body Hackers” that referenced both Mr. Ferriss and the Quantified Self movement. Reading about body hackers brought back some interesting memories (a few years ago I would have been gung-ho about quantifying even more bodily related data points) and has caused me to philosophically reflect on the implications of our increasingly measurement obsessed society. Does quantifying ourselves make us better and healthier human beings?
Although the body is distinctly different from, say, finance or economics, I think there are some similarities. Namely, that not everything that matters can or should be quantified. As it relates to body hacking, I’ll pontificate that an obsessive focus on measuring everything often detracts from the ability to actually live and enjoy life. In his book, Enough, John Bogle (the founder and retired CEO of the Vanguard Group) writes about trying to quantify economic and finance issues, but I think what he says can be applied to the body as well. He writes:
Today, in our society, in economics, and in finance, we place far too much trust in numbers. Numbers are not reality. At best, they are a pale reflection of reality. At worst, they’re a gross distortion of the truths we seek to measure. But the damage doesn’t stop there. Not only do we rely too heavily on historic economic and market data; our optimistic bias also leads us to misintrepret the data and give them credence that they rarely merit. By worshipping at the altar of numbers and by discounting the immeasurable, we have in effect created a numeric economy that can easily undermine the real one.
As Bogle implies, the more we try to measure what’s important, the more it seems to escapes us. I don’t, however, mean to imply that measuring is entirely useless or necessarily destructive either. In fact, I believe in some domains it is incredibly valuable. Albert Einstein elaborated on this point as well. He once said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Einstein brings up a great point, but some things can be counted and do count in the long run; I think it’s important not to ignore that reality either.
I think even one of my favorite ancient philosophers would agree that reflecting on and analyzing our lives is important (although not necessarily quantitively). The Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Younger, wrote: “Every day, we must call upon our soul to give an account of itself. This is what Sextius did. When the day was over and he had withdrawn to his room for his nightly rest, he questioned his soul: ‘What evils have you cured yourself of today? What vices have you fought? In what sense are you better?’ Is there anything better than to examine a whole day’s conduct?’” As things like “lifelogging” become more and more popular, however, I believe there is a real danger of being deluded into thinking that the absolutely quantified life is worth living. From my experience, even a semi-quantified life can be destructive. The most beautiful parts of life are not quantifiable; there is, after-all, more to life than data.
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 Here’s an interesting TED Talk by Quantified Self founder Gary Wolf.