Quantify This: Personal Data Apps Are Not the Formula for Perfection

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Dec. 27 2013 11:30 AM

The Year We Quantified Everything and Learned … Anything?

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Down the line, when our smartphones are writing our cultural histories, they may pinpoint 2013 as the year the quantified self movement started to go mainstream. Personal data tracking is, in a way, old tech: Ben Franklin did it, noting down on paper every time he violated one of 13 personal virtues (temperance, frugality, or most often, silence). But the practice soared this year thanks to apps that chart your insulin levels, your stress levels, your sleep cycle, your cholesterol, the calorie count on your baked potato, the number of steps you took on your morning run, and more.

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The endpoint of self-quantification might look like something from The Matrix—material reality endlessly dissolving into a stream of green figures. For now, though, the focus is on eating and working out. There are thousands of health and fitness apps in the iTunes store; the New Republic reports that the most popular, MyFitnessPal, has more than 40 million users, with an additional 1.5 million signing up each month. (Also popular are Fitbit, Fuelband, and Jawbone.) The apps often feature a goal-setting component; a tracking component in the short- and long-term, so you can see trends; and a system of nudges and rewards. You might enter your data—meals eaten, miles logged—directly into your phone or clip activity sensors onto your glasses, shoes, socks, or other clothing. As Mark Joseph Stern explained in Slate earlier this year, dieting via device has pros and cons. Research suggests that keeping food and exercise journals may help some dieters meet their goals. Others, though, feel hounded, shamed, or hopelessly overwhelmed by all the numbers.

But whose fault is that? Self-trackers (or quantrepeneurs) favor a kind of utopian business-speak that is both inspiring and strange. They are “quantifying biometrics we never knew existed” and “shedding light into a dark unknown.” Technori’s Mark Moschel writes, “Suddenly, we are all scientists and our discoveries are limited only by our imaginations … As a self-quantifier, I see the potential to control my own health and to modify my behaviors to optimize the length and quality of my life.” Sounds good, but something about that last sentence—maybe the one-two-three punch of quantifyoptimize, and control—gives me the creeps. Does it imply a mindset that shuts out inestimables?

Greg Linster, mulling brilliantly over this question at Coffee Theory, quotes John Bogle, founder and retired CEO of the Vanguard Group:

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 … 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.

Linster notes that “the more we try to measure what’s important, the more it seems to escape us,” which seems right. I was talking to a colleague whose friends had started to compete with one another on Goodreads, the self-tracking app that records what books you’ve read. Your recommendations carry more weight the more titles you’ve burned through. My colleague said that once his buddies realized they could rack up their scores by picking shorter books, it was curtains for windy greats like Melville and Tolstoy. This is perfectly reasonable in the world of the quantified self (two books > one book), but ridiculous in the real world. How do you put a number value on the experience of reading Moby Dick? It’s data at the expense of meaning.

In the same way, attaining all your goals on Fuelband does not suggest to me that you necessarily have a healthy relationship with food or exercise. It suggests that you are at least a bit obsessive and that I will probably regret having dinner with you (because you’ll be plugging away at your smartphone the whole time). The world beyond quantification may be where the best parts of life happen—but if we’re served a particularly ineffable bowl of chocolate mousse, will you even care?

Of course, I’m exaggerating. One can track a few useful metrics without losing all sense of perspective. Yet the compulsion seems to be to generate more and more data—if we want, we can flood ourselves in fun-but-worthless stats like how many minutes of activity our dogs get a week. Passionate commitment to a hobby (nerdery, really) is such a bulwark of the tech world: If you want to quantify, why not Quantify It All? At the same time, we risk cheapening the things we needlessly measure.

Last week, Alice Gregory explored the dangerous allure food and fitness apps hold for eating disordered women. These women, already quick to fixate on every last pound, stride, or calorie, are seduced by the inexorable simplicity of the apps’ rows and columns, goals and consequences. Gregory quotes an anorexia patient: “It’s really easy to keep rigid track of everything you do [with dieting apps]. I started to become rigid on foods I’d never had to think about before. Nothing’s really OK anymore because everything ‘counts.’” Reading the piece, what became clear to me was not just that weight loss apps provide “cover” for eating disorders, but that relentless quantification is itself a quasi-disordered impulse. It flattens out ambiguity. It promises an illusory control. And it has a kind of obsessive glamour reminiscent of the anorexic thrill: I am a data junkie! I am enthusiastically disciplined. I will count every bite.

“Know thyself,” reads the 2,500-year-old inscription above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi. “Self knowledge through numbers,” insist today’s life loggers. Here are some more numbers: 100 million Americans are currently on a diet. The weight-loss industry pulls in more than $20 billion a year. You can’t blame app developers for wanting a piece of that action, but it’s worth remembering that the people behind Fitbit, Jawbone, and the rest are on their own missions to quantifyoptimize, and control. Regardless of how well they work as life hacks, tracking behavior and assigning numerical values to things are great business strategies. (That’s one reason debate has swirled around whether quantified self data is secure.) It makes economic sense for companies to promote the collection and storage of lots of personal information. And no, understanding that shouldn’t necessarily dissuade us from downloading the app that will help us drop five pounds. But as long as we’re turning our lives into a stream of data points, we might as well consider that there’s always a bigger spreadsheet.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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