Trigger 1: I write movie reviews on my blog. Like many other movie reviewers, I end every review with number of stars that I am willing to give the movie. My nephew and his friends look at my blog regularly. Sometimes they skip the article to find the number of stars I have given for the movie just to determine whether they can see the movie or not. They have their own scale based on my ratings.
Trigger 2: I am pursuing my Digital marketing masters at the University of Southampton. Web analytics is part of the subjects that we are learning. I was contemplating how numbers of have taken over how we should design our webpages. I still remember how I had to give way to an ugly orange button on the home page of our product page (when I was working in an IT product company) because it was giving more clicks. It did increase our clicks and downloads, but the aesthetics of the page were long gone.
I think the obsession towards quantification started when we were babies – the number of baby steps, height, weight, eating frequency, marks in school, college, life expectancy and what not. Take a step back and give it a thought, we always play the number game. Goals, awards, film’s revenue, GDP, calories earned and lost, size of physical parts, time spent in sex, marks earned in a subject, number of countries traveled, amount of money earned, steps walked, time spent on social networks, number of likes earned, number of followers, number of inventions, sleeping time, exercise time, alcohol levels and even how much we pee. Even marriages and relationships are measured based on the number of years a couple stay together. We have become so obsessed with quantification that even quality is measured in numbers (parts per million defects)
Quantification has crept in to our lives slowly that we don’t realize the impact. Is there anything that we do that’s not attached to numbers. We measure everything in our life and through this quantification we have lost focus on aesthetics, quality and deeper meanings in life. How can you quantify the beauty of reading Shakespeare? How can you quantify the experience of making love to your girlfriend? And slowly, that’s where we are heading. There are researches that have looked at how the obsession with numbers has affected the system itself.
This obsession has gone to a level that quantified self is a movement by itself. Started by Gary Wolf in 2007, the idea has stemmed in to conferences and communities across the world. To quote Wikipedia,
“Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)”.
People have started quantifying every aspect of life. Mobile phones, smart fitness tracker bands and smart watches are programmed to keep track of every bit of movement we make. For some people, it helps a lot. People lose weight, track their health problems and keep fit. But is it true for the majority is a bigger question?
So what’s the problem in quantifying things? It has become the norm in this world, then why not quantify your life. The problem occurs when you start obsessing about it and start ignoring things that are supposed to be. For example, pumping yourself with extra workouts in the gym just because you enjoyed one more piece of bacon. The problem happens when a child is denied an extra ice cream just because he /she has achieved the calorie intake for the day. The problem happens when we start hurting ourselves to satisfy an app. The anxiety that stems out of not achieving your daily targets – number of steps that you need to walk in a day to achieve 100% on your Fitibit tracker.
Doctors report that the consistent tracking might lead to psychological issues. Only few lifestyle diseases like diabetes need consistent monitoring but more and more patients are provided with data when they meet their physicians. The self-diagnosis has become more rampant that they try to control the treatment process (Keller, 2014)
Dr.Kimberly Dennis (CEO of Timberline Knolls – a rehabilitation center for anorexia patients) says that 75% of her patients are obsessed with tracking their daily food routines through their smart phones (Gregory,2013). Although, during the pre-digital era, we had the same kind of obsession on quantification, smart phones and apps have made it quite easier to self-track and grow this obsession.
Slowly and steadily, we are involuntarily allowing ourselves to be digitized and systemized. In few years, we will allow companies to decide what to eat, when to eat, when to walk, when to play, when to have sex and when to poop. John Bogle, Former CEO of the Vanguard Group rightly puts it
“Numbers are not reality. At best, they are a pale reflection of reality. By worshipping at the altar of numbers and by discounting the immeasurable, we have in effect created a numeric economy that can easily undermine the real one” (Linster, 2011)
Can we live without quantification of our life? But what life would we live with just numbers?
“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts” – Einstein
1. I have explored only the self-quantification aspect of this obsession. And there are obsessions of numbers and data in every walk of life. I am intending to write more about them.
2. I have not yet explored the psychological and sociological aspects of this issue.
1. Charis Tevis – Sourced from Flickr.com through Creative Commons
1. Invivomagazine.com, (2014). Self-tracking, to the point of obsession – Tendances – Corpore Sano – InVivo. [online] Available at: http://www.invivomagazine.com/en/corpore_sano/tendances/article/66/self-tracking-to-the-point-of-obsession [Accessed 25 Feb. 2015].
2. Linster, G. (2011). » Is the Quantified Life Worth Living? Coffee Theory. [online] Coffeetheory.com. Available at: http://coffeetheory.com/2011/07/11/is-the-quantified-life-worth-living/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2015].