The Unbearable Madness Of Being: Our Quantified Selves

There is a lot of pressure to perform already. So why do we add to it?

Without question, there are cultural influences behind the unrelenting and increasing pressure to achieve. The two aspects that I have explores so far—technology transformation and the improvement imperative reflect our response to societal changes. Certainly you can argue that we as individuals choose our response to society, but the urgency to compete is a powerful force for motivation.

And yet, there is a madness that we choose all for ourselves: measurement. Our obsession with measurement has been around for a while, of course. Henry Landsberger, in his famous experiments at the Hawthorne Works for Western Electric, discovered that the very act of measurement resulted in improving. That has left us with the now commonly repeated and endlessly trite and facile bromide, “What gets measured gets managed.” Which has left us desperately trying to measure just about everything that moves ever since.

In particular, we have become astonishingly focussed on measuring ourselves. The ‘quantified self’ movement (and yes, there is a movement) piggybacks on the move to ‘big data‘, which itself presumes that remarkable insights can be obtained by collecting massive quantities of quantitative statistics and sorting through them with awesomely expensive analytical tools. And so we buy our own not-overly-cheap tools to help us keep track of every aspect of our lives.

Some aspects of self-quantification have been around for a while, of course. Calorie tracking. Keeping track of expenses. Monitoring your wait. The advent of smartphones, bluetooth and omni-present WiFi has just made this explode. You can now buy scales that monitor not just your weight, but also your body composition, heart rate and air quality, all of which can be sent to your phone. There is an iPhone-enabled blood pressure monitor. Personal activity trackers from Nike, Fitbit and Up let us monitor our movement and sleep. And now, you can even get a personal activity tracker for your dog.

We are also measured by others, and—in large part—encourage it, or at least don’t seem to be too massively put out by it occurring. How we are measured has come along way since credit scores, however. We have Klout scores to assess and measure our influence online. Our online activity is in turn tracked, catalogued and then monetized by Google through the ads they show us. And while you may never have heard about Axciom, I guarantee that they know far more about you than you ever thought possible. Your mobile phone knows where you are at every moment it’s on, and it is reporting that back to your phone company. And we’re just getting started. While we are the most measured generation in the history of the world, more and more data is being collected, tagged, sifted, sorted and attached to us by the day.

Big brother issues aside (that’s a whole other blog post), why do we do this to ourselves? Why are we so obsessed with measurement, and what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a society? A lot of the blame for this goes right back to the Hawthorne effect: what gets measured theoretically gets managed. Measure your steps. Measure your weight. Measure your sleep. Measure your calorie consumption. Measure your blood pressure. Glucose levels. IQ. EQ. Klout. And then what?

The inherent challenge is what to do with our measured selves. And the answer is rooted in our psyches. Once you have a number, you work to exceed it. You compete. You have to win. 9,200 steps yesterday? I’ll beat it today! A very good friend of mine, who has a lead foot and the speeding tickets to prove it, recently bought a Toyota Prius. Now, every drive is a race against the computer to see how much she can lower her fuel consumption, which is duly reported in a highly animated fashion after each and every drive. The way we measure ourselves, and what we measure, does directly drive behaviour.

The consequence is certainly pressure to perform, and more often to outperform. But is that healthy? Does it make sense? Does it make us better people? Does it make us happier people? In some limited sense, it arguably does, or people wouldn’t do it. And there are a lot of people heavily vested in quantifying their every action and behaviour. But the question is what actual behavioural drivers are triggered, and what actual outcomes are created. One developer has been publishing a ‘personal annual report’ for nearly a decade; in an interesting insight, he thinks he is only recently getting to a level of meaning and depth of knowledge.

The missing ingredient here is context. A number is just a number, until we can qualify in some way what that number means to us. That means we need to choose what we track about ourselves based upon what we care about, not just what we can measure. We also need to choose what additional information will help to provide the necessary context of the results of what we are tracking are the results we are actually getting. And particularly, we need to be clear about what value having that information will provide.

Yes, we can measure a lot of things. Some people are, in fact, measuring a ridiculous amount about themselves. Just because we can measure something, however, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should. We might be spending a lot of time, effort and energy creating a lot of data. That data may just be providing more mass than meaning, and more stress than comfort.

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