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(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
(David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)

In search of a better self – using numbers Add to ...

Self-trackers who are more sociable and less private than I am don’t stop with the accumulation of personal data – they add to its meaning by uploading the numbers to social sites where friends and allies comment on their progress. Or they get together at Meetup groups to share their experiences.

Sacha Chua is a 30-year-old tech consultant who is active in Toronto’s Quantified Life group, – she storyboards their meetings through Sketchnotes – and who presented her personal time-tracking study at the 2012 global Quantified Self conference in Palo Alto, Calif.

“By sharing their data, people come to understand themselves better,” she says. “And they also inspire people to ask similar questions about themselves, play with the same tools and make new connections.”

Group sports like amateur cycling are going through a huge identity shift as riders use personal trackers like the Garmin bike computer to share their routes, their best times on climbs, their energy expenditure, and their overall sense of self.

“Data is a way of proving your self-worth,” says Anna Gustafson, a cycling enthusiast and writer who studied the growing quantification of her sport while researching a book called Your First Big Ride.

“It used to be defined in terms of backbone or intestinal fortitude, but now you have to show someone your data. The guys I ride with, the noises go off on their bike computer when their maximum heart rate is met, and if you don’t have yours hooked up, they think you’re never hitting your target rate. It’s proof that you’re not just messing around, that you’re a serious athlete.”

Or, as Mr. Berry says, “You are what you are by the actual evidence of the universe. Nature is knowable and data is one part of the equation.”

Adding it up

The meaning of life, in the quantified world, is inextricably bound up with our materialistic culture and its dissatisfactions: how much we eat, sleep, work out, stare hypnotically at work-avoidance websites, delegate time to family and friends, spend money on this and that, and wonder how it all adds up.

Traditional thinkers would say that these material matters and the numbers we use to track them are trivial compared to the deeper questions of existence. But they miss the connectedness of all these data points, which can lead to something greater than the sum of quantified parts – a realization of who we really are, complete with limitations that need to be acknowledged.

Ms. Chua is bent on a life of creative semi-retirement, but how can she achieve it? Personal frugality is a necessary part of her long-term plan, so she scans all her grocery receipts to break down spending on, say, vegetables versus ice cream, and maxes out her library card to the point where she can quantify the money she has saved through borrowing rather than buying – $1,000 in November alone.

And because she is trying to use her time more efficiently, with less attention to the things that don’t provide mental stimulation, she’s a dedicated self-quantifier who clocks her activities during the day and measures the duration of her sleep at night – all in search of the perfect ratio.

While other people natter inconclusively about work-life balance, she can head straight to her 2013 data and give you the hours she allocated to work, hobbies, relaxation, writing and sleeping.

“I can see from the numbers that I generally need 81/2 to 9 hours sleep, so it’s not like I can resolve to get by with four hours a night in 2014. The time records let me accept my limitations – I can’t just talk myself into the answer I think I should have.”

Fitbit might not use it as a slogan, but, if nothing else, the data-driven life forces us to face the repeated misunderstandings we have about ourselves. We can no longer pretend lapses in daily life don’t affect our higher virtues or goals when those lapses become the pattern of life itself.

Qualifying quantification

Unless the numbers are wrong.

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