Commentary

Quantified Selves Can Be Real A**holes

“I have to get in my steps,” my wife explains as she jogs in place beside my armchair at 11:30 p.m.

Sad to say this has become a familiar ritual in our lives. As is parking our car in an outermost slot at malls and grocery stores. Because ”every step counts,” my wife tells me. In fact, we have come to call this sparse collection of cars at the edges of parking lots the “fitbit club” of fellow quantified selves who are counting steps and pressing themselves to up the daily count at every opportunity.

If she forgets to recharge her fitbit and it peters out during the day, she is crestfallen and enraged, both at the device and at me. As longtime readers of these pages already know, in my family I am held personally accountable for all digital malfunctions everywhere. If software crashes, an error message pops or a device freezes, it is presumed I had a hand in it somewhere.  

My wife is a step counter, while I am more of a calorie Nazi and heartrate watcher. My Apple Watch goes on first thing so that every waking moment of resting and active calorie burn is guesstimated by the device. I yell at it for undercounting my burn rate during heavy aerobics and openly resent its stupidly nudging me to stand every hour when I am already at a standing desk.

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Jerk!

No, really -- there seem to be four people in this marriage now, and two of them are a**holes. The quantified self is a nudge, a pest. It drags me out for late-night walks in a dicey city neighborhood. It sends me cloying “good job” prompts and “goal achieved” congrats when I stand for more than a couple of minutes. And I am sure that these notes are laden with smirks and insincerity.  

But more than that, the quantified self is a sworn enemy of delusion.

The QS -- can I call it “QS”? I feel we are on intimate terms -- is forever deflating my padded estimates of how active I really am being and how hard I just worked out. In the beginning this seems to have a lot of upside. It egged us on. My wife started measuring her run lengths and times, which she never did with any precision before, and this compelled her to join marathons. The revelation of my lack of workout intensity pressed me to increase the levels on my step machine.

But at this point, QS is a persistent reminder that I am overestimating myself, fantasizing my levels of fitness. It is making self-delusion a bit more difficult.

And if you extrapolate a bit from the limited data set QS now gathers around rudimentary physical activity, you can see how this can become a problem. What happens when we have ingestion sensors that accurately gauge caloric input? Now that will be a wakeup call for America. Our culture of obesity is likely based on an uncanny ability to round down from the calorie counts and servings sizes listed on packages -- convincing ourselves that we are gaining weight for no discernible reason.

But this small-scale reality check of fitness measurement does raise an interesting question as the data sets of the QS become more intimate and crosslinked. How many times did I call my mother in the last year? Or check in with my daughter? Say “I love you” to my wife?” How much of those 13-hour days I think defines me as a proud “workaholic” are spent being genuinely productive?

When the final measure is taken, maybe I am not nearly the good son, father, husband and employee I think I am.

Every major advance in technology of the last two centuries has forced a reevaluation and repositioning of what constitutes human. Automation, the rationalization of work life under industrialization and corporate bureaucracies, computing -- all have cast our gaze inward to ask how humanity remains singular in the face of increasingly sophisticated machines. As this year’s best speculative film about AI, “Ex Machina,” suggested, whenever we purport to give the Turing Test to artificial intelligence to gauge its humanity we are really giving it to ourselves to understand what we mean by “human.”

But what if some level of delusion is fundamental to our identify? Perhaps inflated and distorted views of ourselves are necessary to maintain some sense of distinction from one another, some lyric fantasy about our own humanity? Maybe a quantified self will be at constant war with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves? Self-styled realists often argue that an unsentimental view of our own capacity and situation is a preferred state? But is it? Is a fully objective self-view even possible, anyway? Just as I argue daily with the calorie counting of my Apple Watch, we likely will always negotiate with our quantified self and question the methodology. But having this ever more detailed quantification of so many aspects of our everyday lives surely must introduce some kind of dialectic between our messy, lyrical, mildly deluded self and this increasingly robust and self-like quantified self.

At the very least this could represent a windfall for self-loathing.              

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