Shitting on Quantified Self: Fitter, Happier, More Productive.

The other day I had beers with some friends and noticed one of them had a Nike Fuel Band. We got into it (we were a touch sauced to be fair) where I was basically ripping on the whole notion of the Nike Fuel Band. Most of my friends in tech know that I shit on quantified self every chance I get. It ruffles my feathers, and I instantly put on my grumpy blowhard curmudgeon hat. 

The more I think about it, the more liberal-arts-degree I sound, and perhaps that betrays my narrow mindedness about the whole thing. So now Nike is going to tell us how many steps we should take? Nike is going to help me understand health because… Nike is a good samaritan? Love the mutual win-win of me striving towards a quantified goal, and Nike selling more shit to get me there. Do child laborers and sweat factory workers have Fuel Bands? I bet their scores are off the charts! 

Ok that's the emotional reaction, the geezer reaction. And it's probably no different than how the generations before felt about TV, and before that, radio, and before that, those raunchy dirty (delicious) Shakespeare plays. 

And aren't I just a hypocrite? Seeing as how I used Google Maps to get to the bar, which told me how long it would take and how to get there. As my friends would argue, is the device telling me what to do, or is it just a dumb machine that provides me with information that I request from it? And who says that quantified data is the only thing controlling the Fuel Band wearer's life? Why can't quantified data merely add more information to help inform decisions I make, just as much as qualitative ones do? What is so wrong with measuring it?  

I really can't argue against any of these points within the context of the discussion. Ultimately, the Fuel Band is a tool like any other - use it, like TV, at your own discretion. 

The world is a more orderly and organized place because of research, data analysis and a/b testing. I prefer Mailchimp newsletters to random poorly designed emails, there's no argument there. There's nothing wrong with using science and measurement to help change things in our lives. I'll never argue against that because I'm thankful for science in as much that I've never been prescribe a drop of wolfsbane in the ER.

So I grumbled and mumbled something about Radiohead and the Matrix but conceded the debate and we parted ways. 

But days later, something still bugs me about the Fuel Band. Quantification, at least in my limited world view, seems to be a convenient end goal for discovery. We gravitate towards numbers because they're so easy to understand. How's your business doing? Use growth (where growth equals increase in profit) to measure it. Did the late great old man Scooter live a good life? Use fulfillment (where fulfillment = amount of happy activity * total number of days lived) to measure!

Not knowing is scary, but not nearly as scary as the relative uncertainty in the knowledge you have. Quantification is a fantastic way to ground that knowledge in relative truth... which just isn't that much different than just believing in deities. 

When I see tweets like "WiThings says I need to lose .5 lbs this week, almost there!" that depresses me greatly. You shouldn't obey WiThings' commands any more than the bag of Doritos telling you to keep eating those delicious Monsanto monstrosities. WiThings, and weight loss on such an incremental level, replace larger (and admittedly more nebulous) concepts such as "feeling healthy and happier."

And my Fuel Banded friends agree here. Quantification as an end goal isn't their intention. Quantification does less to help us frame our questions and much more to help us measure our discoveries. For them, it's the added measurement aiding in questions or desires they've already framed. 

Sounds good to me. But again, do I really believe the vast majority of people are so conscious of the limitations of quantification? The same world that gave birth to Bear Sterns, Enron, and Walmart is going to err on the side of couching quantification within the greater goal of living a "happy life?" 

Closer to home, tech is rife with data driven copy editing, and UX experts in search of percentage points. We are bombarded by tools that are designed to force a specific action from us. My phone commands me "Slide to unlock," my shoe company tweets "RT to win" and even my friends manage to get a few "likes" from me. Each of these interactions have been developed by very big and powerful corporations based on years of social data. Quantification to illicit a type of qualification. Buzzfeed. 

And look. I get it. The world is better with quantification... Because we can measure this arbitrary construct of "better." But in between the absolute of numbers, the messy realities of existence persist, not to be quantified and measured but simply to be experienced.