Qualify The Quantified

Published by TomFrancis on

The Quantified Self

“Quantified Self” (QS) refers to a family of technologies and products now moving rapidly into the mainstream. By and large, these are mobile apps or wearable devices that enable you to monitor something – your activity levels (MyFitnessPalDigifit, Nike+ Fuelband), your sleep patterns (Zeo), your food consumption, your mood. A reasonably full list of current QS products is published on the aptly named Quantified Self.  They function as either specialised logbooks where you enter the data yourself, or as monitors directly reading some bodily information, or as a combination of the two. But the driving idea is one and the same: by quantifying yourself, you can quantify your Self. By reading and responding to the QS data you have generated, you can survey, understand and thus control some of the habits that make you who you are.

So QS is a set of technologies designed to help with the practice of self-scrutiny.  Much of the motivation and the conceptual scheme is shared with older and broader traditions of self-examination and self-improvement.  For example, the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, sets a similar practice at the very core of his teaching.  In his Spiritual Exercises, he recommends that people practise three Particular Examinations every day (see www.beunos.com/prayerexamen.htm).  The Particular Examination should focus on a particular aspect of one’s behaviour that one wants to change.  Every day, at set times, he urges, you should see how you are doing in respect of this behaviour, and write down your current status.  At each Particular Examination, you should also review your historical data.

The Particular Examination is all exactly a QS practice:

  • set a schedule for recording your data
  • reflect on your current score and how it relates to your track record
  • encourage yourself to improve by watching yourself improve

In two respects, though, Ignatius’ programme is radically different from anything QS:

  1. As well as the Particular Examinations, he stipulates a daily General Examination.  Here, you should look at the day as a whole, rather than just at the one area you are specifically trying to improve.
  2. Ignatius’ exercises are part of the Spiritual Exercises.  He isn’t advising readers on how to control their calorie intake.  His concern is to advise people on how to examine their actions so that they can align their will with the will of God.

So, despite some intriguing similarities, there really is a profound difference between the early-modern saint and the ultra-modern QS.  The specifically religious aspect of the Spiritual Exercises isn’t really at the heart of the difference.  It’s the fact that there is context.  Ignatius wants you to set your QS practice within two broader contexts.  Firstly, you are meant to reflect on the day as a whole.  Secondly, you are meant to reflect on your life as a whole.

Weirdly, though, amongst the QS hardcore you can see a strange tragicomic trace of this ancient insight.  Have a look at this, for example, from QS guru Gareth Macleod:

Gareth MacLeod – Holistic Correlational Tracking from Gary Wolf on Vimeo.

As he says, (01.18) “QS is most interesting when you take a holistic view of your life.” But all he means is that by measuring a great many aspects of his life he has come to see some correlations, such as that he sleeps worse if he watches TV just before going to bed, and tends to be grumpy the next day.

This is striking for what is missing. Firstly, there is the complete banality of these self-discoveries. Secondly, the disappearance of any idea of self-dissatisfaction, self-discipline and self-improvement.

There are limits to what a QS practice can achieve, and they are not overcome by adding a hundred more lines of data and running some statistical analysis over the whole set. To pull out a market-research mantra, qual has to be used to give meaning to quant. Count your calories, measure your exercise, and then look at your day, look at your world, look at whether you are spending too much time quantifying yourself. The examined life needs to be examined all ways.

As QS technologies permeate into many corners of people’s lives, they are sure to be used, misused and overused. For a few, they will be used as construction kits for vast databasable digital diaries, recording thousands of datapoints while entirely missing the point. For others, their QS feeds will be yet another line autobiography to publish to a largely indifferent world (“Look at my Digifit scores” will be the new “I had a really weird dream last night”). For most, one hopes, they will be very helpful enhancements to the discipline of self-examination.