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Robot envy and self-tracking

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Wednesday, Apr 28, 2010

I’m not much for biofeedback. In fact, I regard it with suspicion. Obviously not stuff like blood pressure and blood-sugar monitoring, but mental self-preoccupation. I often think that the more we know about ourselves, the more unhappy we are likely to become, and not merely because it takes out of flow (the liberating freedom from self-consiousness) and not because this sort of awareness must inevitably make us all too conscious of our own death (h/t My Dinner With Andre). Self-monitoring tends to limit our sense of ourselves to the limits of our measuring equipment. So when we use devices to record data about ourselves—the subject of this forthcoming NYT magazine piece by Gary Wolf—it seems like we are adding to our self-knowledge, but actually we are subtracting from it, limiting ourselves to what we have been. Maybe I’m hubristic, but I like to think I am bigger than that.


Wolf’s piece is full of anecdotes about mega-narcissists tenaciously collecting data on their personal lives, with the idea of using the data to discover some truth about themselves that is hidden from their own consciousness but will be revealed in the numbers, as though the numbers are more themselves than their own thoughts.


For many self-trackers, the goal is unknown. Although they may take up tracking with a specific question in mind, they continue because they believe their numbers hold secrets that they can’t afford to ignore, including answers to questions they have not yet thought to ask.


This strikes me as the saddest and most profound form of alienation humankind has ever known. It seems fueled by the data-driven information economy in which we live; people feel obliged to become more like robots in their effort to better assimilate themselves to the highly tracked, digitized environs. They seem to want to be handled logistically by the “network society,” like a set of bolts necessary for a Toyota assembly line or a just-in-time shipment of product destined for a Wal-Mart somewhere. Wolf poses this question, and I think he is in earnest: “We use numbers when we want to tune up a car, analyze a chemical reaction, predict the outcome of an election. We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves?”


There are many answers to that question. The most obvious comes by way of Iron Maiden (by way of The Prisoner): “I am not a number. I am a free man!” Another answer: because the knowledge produced in not self-knowledge but self-circumscription, self-digitization. It’s like ripping yourself to your hard drive. (That probably sounds appealing to some techno-utopians.)


It seems obvious that quantification serves the ends of consumer capitalism; we produce data that finds itself in the hands of statistical analysts and marketers, who happily sell back to us the truth about ourselves we seek in the form of commercial products and services. ‘Personal data are ideally suited to a social life of sharing,” Wolf writes, because who wants to share ideas? What he means is that data is perfect for the pseudosharing enabled by social-networking apps that feeds raw intel into the number-crunching maw of online data rustlers. It is actually the antithesis of sharing. When we want to automate what we are doiung and broadcast it to the indifferent world, we are building a wall of data to keep real intimacy away. (H/t Pink Floyd The Wall). Wolf adds, “You might not always have something to say, but you always have a number to report.” Here’s a thought: if you have nothing to say, keep quiet until you think of something. Only the machine is interested in having you “report” your cyber-cognitive datastream.


Having the habit of self-quantification—seeing ourselves as Facebook sees us—predisposes us to trust what automated suggestion systems will tell us about what we want, what we need, what we should dream, etc. As Wolf notes, “Numbering things allows tests, comparisons, experiments. Numbers make problems less resonant emotionally but more tractable intellectually. In science, in business and in the more reasonable sectors of government, numbers have won fair and square.” When we consent to quantify ourselves, we are packaging ourselves for those institutional machines, and the gains we receive by this process are essentially the gains to be had from cooperation and collaboration with these institutions’ disciplinary functions. In other words, we are rewarded by government and business by making ourselves “tractable.” Our qualitative self is the “problem” the institutions are looking to solve and dispatch.


Numbers can provide only one sort of “truth” about ourselves, and to pursue it we must surrender or compromise other kinds of truth—for example, the intuitive faith we have in our qualitative assessments of our dasein. (There is a methodological problem, too, with recording ourselves recording ourselves recording ourselves…. The self-observance becomes more recursive the more thorough it becomes.) In other words, we give up our soul for a spreadsheet.

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