Social graph, pendants removedphoto © 2008 Porter Novelli Global | more info (via: Wylio)
Self-quantification has a strong allure precisely because it combines two deeply rooted promises of American culture:  that we will achieve technological mastery over every part of our existence, and that in doing so we will achieve a sense of self-fulfillment that the therapists have promised us.

Consider what avowed self-quantifier Gary Wolf, who cofounded quantifiedself.com, wrote in the NY Times:

Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery. People do things for unfathomable reasons. They are opaque even to themselves.

A hundred years ago, a bold researcher fascinated by the riddle of human personality might have grabbed onto new psychoanalytic concepts like repression and the unconscious. These ideas were invented by people who loved language. Even as therapeutic concepts of the self spread widely in simplified, easily accessible form, they retained something of the prolix, literary humanism of their inventors. From the languor of the analyst’s couch to the chatty inquisitiveness of a self-help questionnaire, the dominant forms of self-exploration assume that the road to knowledge lies through words.

Trackers are exploring an alternate route. Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.

Wolf is exactly right that people are “opaque even to themselves.”  “The purpose in a man’s heart,” Proverbs tells us, “is like deep water.”  But the aphorism goes on:  “a man of understanding will draw it out.”

Proverbs has it, I think, right.   It’s precisely at the point of deliberating about the purposes and ends of human life that self-quantification shows its limits.   The data can only tell us what and how—it cannot tell us why, and wrestling with this question is an essential part of the pursuit of wisdom.

Wolf’s suggestion that fundamentally human problems can be solved by technological solutions is an abdication of our distinct human responsibility to sound the depths of our human existence anew in every generation. For all our newfound abilities to quantify our patterns and activities, the data simply cannot answer those even more fundamental questions about the ends for which we have been created and the purposes which we should pursue.

The answers to those questions may ultimately remain opaque.  But in the trying, in the inquiry and the seeking, wisdom and understanding is found.  For as the Proverbs put it elsewhere, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • For sometime now a not-fully-formed thought has been playing with me that our technology is driving us toward a sort of functional autism — not in the medical sense, but simply in our inexorable pursuit of the self as the primary source of life’s inexhaustible riches.

    I think your recent posts on mediation are a necessary discussion we should be having on this. One writer who I’d like to see get more attention on this is Thomas de Zengotita. His book “Mediated” is quite good, and the final chapter, which is published online as
    Closure for You, Jedermensch ein Übermensch is a chilling look into a possible not too distant future.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Andy, thanks. I’ve mentioned that book in the past, but haven’t interacted with it nearly as much as I should have. It really is an insightful read, though.

  • Interesting take, but I think you might be reading too much into the trackers. Society has long been fascinated with tracking details our ourselves (e.g. diaries, journals, logs, etc) and new technology gives an the ability to keep better track of “what we are actually doing” and “what we are actually like” instead of “what we think we are doing” and “what we think we are like”. I think that data can be enormously helpful for helping people do what they actually want to do. I think your point is that determining what they want to do or why they should do it is something that the data cannot tell them, but I don’t think that’s what they are claiming.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Pat, I was somewhat worried about that as well. But I’m not the only one who has noticed the parallels. From the same article:

      “Adler’s idea that we can — and should — defend ourselves against the imposed generalities of official knowledge is typical of pioneering self-trackers, and it shows how closely the dream of a quantified self resembles therapeutic ideas of self-actualization, even as its methods are startlingly different. Trackers focused on their health want to ensure that their medical practitioners don’t miss the particulars of their condition; trackers who record their mental states are often trying to find their own way to personal fulfillment amid the seductions of marketing and the errors of common opinion; fitness trackers are trying to tune their training regimes to their own body types and competitive goals, but they are also looking to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to uncover potential they didn’t know they had. Self-tracking, in this way, is not really a tool of optimization but of discovery, and if tracking regimes that we would once have thought bizarre are becoming normal, one of the most interesting effects may be to make us re-evaluate what “normal” means.”

      In my last piece on it (at Q Ideas) I try to point out the positives, because I think there are some. But I also think there’s something really important about not outsourcing that self-awareness to machines that is lost in the self-quantification movement.

      • But if you look beyond the part you italicized, the examples seem fairly reasonable: understanding and improving ones health, attitudes, and fitness. You might be right that the most trackers (and body-hackers–as your Q Ideas piece argues) are missing the deeper and theological aspects of our bodies, but that does not have to mean that the practice of body-hacking and tracking is counter to or incompatible with the Christian life.

        You can make an idol out of you body, of course. But I think body-hacking and tracking should be seen as good things that are being treated by their lead proponents as ultimate things, rather than as bad things in and of themselves.

        • Pat,

          This is my fault (lack of clarity), so take this with a grain of salt. But I’m not trying to suggest that the “practice of self-tracking is incompatible with the Christian life” or trying to treat it as a bad thing in itself. I actually do some “self-tracking,” particularly when it comes to where I spend my time online. But I do think that to be properly understood, we need to see the movement in the context of *technique*, which is the dominance of means-oriented type thinking and the exclusion of reflective deliberation about human ends. I’m suggesting caution and that it will ultimately fail to live up to the promise that its advocates seem to be making for it–not necessarily that we shouldn’t attend to it or even use it in some limited and judicious ways.

          matt

          • I think that’s a good way of putting it (and seeing it). I suppose I’m sensitive to (what I perceive as) unnecessary lines in the sand.

            I hope you can see that my take on your take could be found in quotes like these:

            “Self-quantification has a strong allure precisely because it combines two deeply rooted promises of American culture: that we will achieve technological mastery over every part of our existence, and that in doing so we will achieve a sense of self-fulfillment that the therapists have promised us.”

            “The problem for Christians is the fundamental assumption of the body-hacking trend.”

            “But the self-quantification movement rests on a story that may be antithetical to [the Christian perspective].”