Is the unquantified life even worth living? The evidence of each passing day suggests that it is not, in which case I’m for the high jump. Don’t ask how high; I’m not a measurer. High enough.
I thought I had enough measurements to go on, since I remember the most valuable information about my life: the number of marriages (one, I think); the number of high-school teachers who told me I was “going to hell in a hand cart” (one); the number of thank-you notes left unwritten (>1,000); the number of horrific spelling mistakes committed to print (insert infinity symbol here).
But I’m a failed miner of my own data. I have never weighed a breakfast or recorded a run – all right, I’ve never actually run, except away from a fight. But it is a counter’s world, my friends, and if you don’t measure, you can’t measure up. RunKeeper and Strava record your fitness regimes, and Stress Tracker (now with Rage Control) will let you know when you’re about to pull a Carrie.
Even online, which I always thought was a place of fun and frolic, is in fact worse than a middle-school playground, where “likes” and retweets are the equivalent of a desk full of Valentine’s Day cards. Last week, the website Klout was chastised for suggesting, on Twitter, that Martin Luther King would have an “awesome” Klout score, should he be alive today.
If you don’t know what Klout is, you are probably, like me, an analog sap in a digital world. Klout measures online influence, using your activity on certain platforms – Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, for example. The more you’re liked, followed or retweeted, the greater your rating. Barack Obama has a score of 99, and Justin Bieber 95 – make of that what you will. I’m not sure what my Klout score is, but it kan’t be very high.
It’s easy to laugh at Klout, but the underlying mania for metrics has changed the way we judge status and success. In an article for The New York Times about the terrible misinformation that spread so quickly in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Jay Caspian Kang wrote: “If you’re part of the Internet media, everything you put out into the world comes with its own scoring system. Tweets are counted by retweets and favorites, stories are scored by page views and Facebook likes.”
It used to be that you’d wander through life uncertain about your place in it, with reassurance provided only by glancing at your mood ring. Now, you can quantify happiness, either personal (through apps like Mappiness) or national (last year, Canada ranked fifth in the UN’s World Happiness Report, which you’d best remember next time Parliament is sitting). You can read neighbourhood rankings and revel in the fact that yours is marginally less crappy than the one down the street.
You can even, thanks to the new app Spreadsheets, quantify your sexual prowess. Place your smartphone on the bed and the app will record and rank the encounter, which should ideally involve someone other than yourself. Duration, volume and, um, thrusts are all measured. It occurs to me that this is not how James Bond did business. Also, if the sole pleasure you get from sex is graphing your decibel levels, you might need more help than a phone can provide.
The followers of the Quantified Self movement have tracking skills that would put Henry Morton Stanley to shame, though they don’t explore jungles so much as their own arteries and neuroses. Using apps and recorders, the self-trackers monitor every step, every mouthful, every negative thought and stressful moment in hope of achieving better mental and physical health. I’m sure they’ll live longer than the rest of us, although they might not have as much fun.
I do understand what’s going on. It’s a messy world, and numbers provide structure and comfort. Ambiguity is not particularly in favour. Measurements are a safe place to store uncertainty, which is why I thought Amy Webb was quite brave, in a much-mocked piece for Slate, to talk about how she quantified every aspect of her infant daughter’s life, from the soiling of her diapers (5 was “pâté”) to counting the gurgles of pleasure when Mom read her Popular Mechanics. “While our baby daughter couldn’t communicate directly beyond crying, we could have a deeply intimate, beneficial conversation with her through data,” Webb wrote. “We realized that we could quantify and study her in an attempt to optimize all of her development.”
Of course, all the poo-measuring and torque-testing in the world isn’t going to guarantee that your kid grows up to fulfill your unrealistic expectations. But it’s a way of managing your anxiety until she inevitably does something that embarrasses you in front of the neighbours. And she will embarrass you one day, and your plans will sometimes fall apart. You can count on that. Everything else is guesswork.