Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, writing, talking, and…er…quantifying about the Quantified Self (QS). Last October I gave a talk at the QS global conference in San Francisco. In May I will be attending my third QS conference in Amsterdam.
While delving into QS is related to my work, this kind of personal science has been fascinating to me for years. I have a “optimized human” fantasy that I never quite live up to (and honestly, I never hope to — to be fallible is to be alive). I’ve used QS techniques of various kinds to boost productivity, change habits, improve mood, lose weight, and increase creativity. All before I’d ever heard of the Quantified Self.
For those who aren’t yet familiar, QS leaders define it as “Self-knowledge through numbers.” Basically, it means keeping track of something about yourself in order to learn about, change, or improve it. The classic example is weighing yourself when trying to lose weight, but QS goes one step further by doing some calculations to make those numbers more meaningful (oh look, I gain weight when I take in more calories! = bad example). Despite the fancy name and ever-advancing technologies, QS is nothing new.
When first introduced to the concept of QS, most people are puzzled. Why would someone want to spend time obsessively tracking some aspect of their life? Why turn a living, breathing human into a math problem? Isn’t this all a bit OCD and self-obsessed? It certainly can be. But then so can Facebook.
My grandma was a lifelong archivist of minutiae. She kept diaries, and wrote down details like trips the post office, who rode in the back seat of the car, and what she had for lunch. She started taking photographs when she was a kid, and created volumes of photo albums by the time she died. It was like she wanted to freeze moments and keep them forever.
I believe what she was trying to capture and preserve was love. Grandma started life with a crazy, abusive father. Her mother left him and became a single mom in the 1920s. Grandma’s yearning for love and attention is palpable in her teen diary. Her obsessions, her jealousy, scratching her first love’s name into her flesh — all speak to a deep need.
For my talk last year, I did an experiment using Grandma’s diary from 1942 — the year she turned sixteen. I wanted to see what could be quantified in all of the stuff she wrote down. There are three things that her diary centers around: food, movies, and boys. So it’s all about love. Being fed means being loved. Movies (especially in 1942) are fantasies of love. Boys…well, she’s hoping to be loved in the right way by the right boy.
Now, quantifying someone’s teenage experience long after they’ve died is not exactly standard QS practice. It is all about self, after all. But as I combed through the diary counting mentions of boys and pie, I began to see the roots of patterns in my own life. In my talk, I touch on a couple of superficial things: a compulsion to eat in restaurants rather than at home, and a minor lipstick addiction. These are striking tendencies that I can see in each generation of my female antecedents, starting with my great-grandmother and ending with me, but they are inconsequential. What I am still reaching for is love (to be fed, to be attractive).
Is love quantifiable? I’ve been interested in the work of John Gottman for years, ever since my ex-father-inlaw gave a copy of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail to my future-ex-husband and me in the 1990s. Gottman has spent decades quantifying the interactions of couples. It seems that relationships can succeed if there are 5 positive interactions to every negative one. He has tracked words used in arguments, body language, and facial expressions. He has turned coupledom into a science. And he can now predict with spooky accuracy which couples will stay together after watching a few minutes of interaction.
But coupledom — with all of its emotional complexity — is not love. Coupledom is an evolving agreement between two (or more, you polyamorists) people to invest time and energy into building a life together. They might be happy, or not. They might be in love, or not… or not all of the time… or not both. Becoming part of a couple does not equal “finding love.”
Okay, I guess if I’m going to say what love isn’t, I’m obliged to put forth what I think love is. The most accurate definition I can come up with is: You know it when you got it. It is a feeling-state, and it is highly personal. It may be triggered by or felt toward another person, but it can’t be given by one person to another. A common fallacy is that love comes from somewhere other than ourselves.
But what we can do for one another is act with love. You don’t have to “love” someone to act lovingly toward them, though it helps. And this is so important for children. The actions, the body language, the feedback that young children receive affects their ability to feel and express love — and just about everything else. When we act lovingly toward one another we nurture that lovey feeling-state and strengthen our bonds.
This has officially become a ramble. What was I talking about? Oh yeah, Quantified Self. What I’m getting at, is that it’s very difficult to quantify feelings. Feelings aren’t on a single axis from good to bad, and love is not a binary. We are complex emotional creatures, and what we experience as love is utterly mutable.
But I think this is what the seekers and quantified selfers are seeking: a formula for love. We strive for love and a kind of immortality by taking inventory of our lives and deciding what to keep, and what to change. We want to be better humans in order to love ourselves and feel deserving of being loved by others. Think about it. Are you going to count your steps because steps are really important to you? No, you count steps in order to work toward becoming the human you want to be.
Maybe I’m reaching, here. Maybe QSers really just want to lose 10 pounds or discover how many times they use the word ‘gladiator’ in their writing. But isn’t there something underneath those calculations? Isn’t the desire for self knowledge also the desire to be known by others? To be seen, accepted, loved?
I’ve watched dozens of QS Show and Tell talks, and the thing that is often missing is the understanding of this next layer. It’s not just what you learned, it’s why you wanted to learn it. While QS can come across as solipsistic, I think there’s an underlying desire to connect the “self” to others. Why else are these (mostly) introverted people standing up on stage and revealing intimate details of their lives?