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Edition 56

Contents
Essay

Measuring imperfection

The limits of the quantified self

IN RETROSPECT, IT was always a stupid idea to buy a Fitbit; I’m still not entirely sure why I did it. Some of my friends – actually, a lot of my friends – were wearing them, and I’d watched the way they locked eyes and nodded, almost imperceptibly, with any strangers they passed who were also wearing what is essentially a pretty ugly rubber bracelet on their wrist. Something in me too, I think, still wanted to be normal, whatever that might mean, to take part in this small, everyday ritual as though it couldn’t harm me, as though I wasn’t still trying to regain the weight I’d lost over a decade of physical illness (a muscular tic in the stomach that causes me to throw up involuntarily) and the disordered eating that this sparked, as though I didn’t already have a tendency to exercise more than my too-small frame should really dictate or allow. But something in me too, perhaps the worst part of me, knew that it was a risk – that I was playing with a most unlikely looking fire, and that something in me liked it, liked it a lot.

I was told once, by one of the many therapists I have seen across the years, that most eating-disorder patients (and not just me) have a very high rate of incidental exercise compared to the general population, and at first I’d thought that that was rubbish. Incidental exercise, by its very definition, happens incidentally, when we’re not looking, not deliberately seeking it out, and my walking was something I could justify by both location and vocation. I live in an old inner-west Sydney suburb of narrow, one-way streets, unexpected dead ends and enough crawling traffic to make it much more efficient, time-wise, to walk to the local supermarket or pharmacy or café or bar than to drive there; I am a writer, and the tradition of writers fascinated or stimulated by walking, especially on city streets, is as long and proud as the muscled calves they earned this way.

But alongside the detailed food diaries that this therapist – one of the psychologists in my first group program – asked me to keep each week, I was required to record every ten minutes of exercise in a table on a worksheet, with the heading ‘Exercise Equals Extra Eating’. I liked to call it ‘Moving Means More Muesli-bars’ – and my table filled up much more rapidly than I had expected. I walked a lot – I walk a lot – but always with a destination and a purpose, and so it’s easy not to notice that it is happening at all, to write it off as accidental, to look away from one more minor self-deception. It’s no wonder you’re not gaining weight, this doctor said, and prescribed another supplement.

But despite the fact my exercise has always, probably, been problematic, last year I bought myself a Fitbit. I bought the simplest, cheapest model (people with eating disorders are also notoriously frugal with their money). It has a thin strip of a display which shows five tiny lights that are illuminated successively for every two thousand steps walked. At ten thousand steps (a number that has somehow become a standard measure for the recommended activity in a day, despite the fact that it was chosen by the Japanese inventors of the first modern pedometer purely because it made for a catchy name) the Fitbit buzzes and vibrates twice. My intention was – although I’m still not sure how fully I believed this – that this would be an indication that I had reached my walking limit for the day and I should step instead onto the nearest bus.

I’ve always loved stories about people using technology in ways that it was never intended to be used, ways that its designers could never have envisioned – be they dissidents using World of Warcraft to communicate with journalists, or inner-city joggers deliberately running routes that their GPS devices map (and share on social media) as squiggly, bright blue penises (these are called ‘jogging wangs’, and whole communities exist online that are dedicated to their production) – I told myself that I too was being subversive, hacking my tech to help me walk less, rather than more. But what I didn’t realise, didn’t think through, is the fact that technology is never neutral – it has been designed to encourage certain behaviours, and with particular usages in mind, and it takes consistent effort and vigilance to act against the program.

With Fitbits, obviously, walking is encouraged because it is rewarded – this much is no surprise. Beyond the successive lighting up of the display band, and the vibration upon reaching the ten-thousand-step goal, the online interface that the device connects to awards ‘achievement badges’ for days that are particularly active – for reaching the goal each day for a week, say, or for walking the length of a marathon, a city, a state, New Zealand. Each day’s activity can be measured against that of the day before (only two thousand steps to beat yesterday!), or against that of another person whom you have challenged to a strange kind of distance-duel. Competition, reward and gameplay are built into the device, and it’s very difficult not to play along. Of course, this is the very point – design works best when it makes the behaviour it supports seem simple, rewarding, fun – but what it meant, for me, is that without even noticing that I was doing it, I walked the length of the Serengeti Desert in seven months. And I was awarded an achievement badge for doing so – despite the fact this was, for me, the very opposite of success.

 

IT STARTLED ME how easily I fell into the predetermined patterns of my fitness tracker, how often I looked at the data it gathered, even though I always say I have no head for numbers, and no real interest in them either. In retrospect, I know exactly what appealed to me, though – my Fitbit offered a system of measurement, of accounting, of making meaning from my everyday activities and ordinary life, and a concrete kind of striving, set parameters against which to gauge achievement, effort, worth. It offered, that is, exactly the same things as I have found in my eating disorder, that I still don’t know exactly how to live without.

I’m fascinated by this impulse – the same impulse of my illness – to measure the quotidian, the everyday, to seek out patterns and quantify those parts of our existence that seem nebulous, perhaps because they’re unspectacular, perhaps because they are usually so habitual that we don’t see them. Because this kind of tracking is not just the domain of Fitbits, not just geared towards what really is a well-meaning and even important impetus to get people to move more (sedentary work and lifestyles are a genuine problem in our world). I think it speaks to an anxiety about meaning, about connection and individuation that feels all the more pressing in this time of social fragmentation and rapid change, of loss of tradition and trust, the safety and security of community – that greater uncertainty in the external world makes the impulse to turn inwards, to find some kind of certainty within, all the more pressing. And it is in this environment that a whole movement of people interested in and actively pursuing this kind of everyday analysis and calculation has developed.

The Quantified Self movement aims, as its slogan puts it, to help people achieve ‘self-knowledge through numbers’ – to gain knowledge of a self that is measured, minutely known and ever improving. (This too is what anorexia offers: a fully contained self, an endlessly perfectible and knowable self, all inessentials, uncertainty and equivocation stripped away.) It began in 2007 with two San Franciscan technology writers, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly; in many ways, Wolf and Kelly are typical of the community they founded – both are male and middle-aged, geeky and well-paid, paragons of privilege, as it were. This makes sense, to an extent – the technology they are interested in experimenting with is not cheap, and making sense of the data in the manner they do takes both a certain amount of leisure time and tech-savviness. But nonetheless, the movement has grown rapidly, with most of its activities focused around a website and forums where people can share their experiences and expertise (and data), as well as annual conferences in the US and Europe, and a short-lived podcast, possibly the most bro of any podcast I have ever listened to.

There’s nothing really new about the idea of self-tracking, of course – and both Wolf and Kelly are always quick to point this out. Almost all of us have systems in place for recording and measuring the unspectacular aspects of our lives – the functioning and changing of our bodies – they’re just less obvious, less minute in the data they collect. The same impulse lies behind keeping a diary or a journal, perhaps even behind writing poetry – paying attention to minutiae, to the quiet kinds of meaning that can illuminate our ordinary worlds. I have a friend who keeps all of his ticket stubs in a jar, as a physical record of the exhibitions and movies he’s seen; another who stores any emails that pay her a compliment in a dedicated folder that she can read through any time she’s feeling fraudulent or overwhelmed (in that way so many women do). As children, each year, my siblings and I would take turns to line up against the door of our kitchen pantry, our parents marking the place where the tops of our heads met the dark wood with black Texta, writing our names and ages beside it (it’s how we know, and still joke about, the fact that my sister overtook my height when I was five and she was three).

In a medical sense, we’re asked to do this too: I can remember my grandmother – a diabetic who had lost a toe to the disease – pricking her finger at the dining table to measure her blood-sugar levels; even now, even still, I keep meticulous food diaries and am weighed every week, as if these two things alone might give an indication of my progress, my relapses.

The only thing different about this impulse to track, to collect data, to account, I think, is the circumstances under which it now happens, and their intensity. Because the kind of tracking that the Quantified Self community relies on is a much less private act than marking heights against a kitchen door, or even stepping on a scale in the back room of a psychologist’s office. Many of the devices – which are increasingly small, increasingly cheap and increasingly smart and ubiquitous (Melanie Swan points out that the number of internet-connected devices overtook the number of internet-connected people in 2008) – are designed to be worn constantly on the body, to make their measurements and log their data continually across the day. They rely on cloud storage of the copious amounts of data they collect, and almost all of them link to social media, either spontaneously or with minimal effort on behalf of the user – so the kind of self-monitoring that they enable is inevitably public, but also intensely social. One of my friends posts graphs of his sleep quality on Facebook whenever he’s had a rough night; another the times and distances of her runs as charted by a phone app in what I can only imagine is some kind of post-exercise endorphin high. In both cases, it is fascinating to see how many people comment and commiserate or congratulate; I also think there’s not much that really separates my pen-and-paper food diaries from a foodie’s Instagram feed. What fascinates me about this is that so often there’s a kind of performed virtue inherent in this – a not-so-subtle subtext that says: look how tired I am but I’m still going; look how fast and far I ran; look at how much avocado I can balance on my toast. The self that is enumerated and tracked here is one that’s monitored in public, given feedback by a public, proven to exist by the responses it evokes in others. I can’t help but think here of the way my underweight body once moved through the world, the repulsed but fascinated gazes it would hold, how certain I felt then of my edges, the limits of my body, and of my self as well.

 

I REALISED RECENTLY, and only a few short weeks ago, that my need for measurement – for quantified achievement, for a way to validate both that my self exists and that it’s any good – still hasn’t left me, even though I thought I had moved past this as I continued to recover from my disorder. It took another writer to reveal this to me (so many of my revelations have unravelled this way); in this case it was Vivian Gornick – who has, incidentally, written two books explicitly about walking. Gornick referred to her writing as an attempt to ‘earn a place in the world’, and when I heard this, I was floored, because I realised, at some level, this was exactly what I have been trying to do – to find purpose, to find goodness, to find worth, within my work, because I still don’t think that I’m a good or useful person, not in and of myself. And I realised that the reason I’ve been struggling so much and so intensely for over these past months is that the metrics against which I’ve been measuring myself – and which I had thought were perfectly and purposefully impossible to reach – were no longer as unobtainable as I’d imagined. In the past year, I had more success with my writing than ever before, more than I ever really imagined for myself – and so the thing that I’ve always been striving towards, without really realising it, no longer seems to be in front of me, just out of reach. And it doesn’t feel any different from the year that I first became ill, the year after I left high school, and was no longer able to prove myself through the external, future data of my ATAR. Back then, I felt lost, ill-equipped and anchorless. This past year, I’ve felt unmoored. In some sense, it is still measurement that tethers me.

 

THE QUANTIFIED SELF community is propelled by the idea that we can be empowered by the data that devices can gather from our everyday lives, and from the moment-to-moment operations of our bodies. Its proponents consider themselves citizen-scientists, gathering information and conducting experiments, and sharing advice on exactly how to make these experiments controlled – often no mean feat, given that the sample group each person is working with is, inevitably, just one person, their own person. ‘The goal,’ Wolf writes, ‘isn’t to figure out something about human beings generally, but to discover something about yourself.’ Across the Quantified Self website, these proponents write about wresting control of their bodies back from chance and accident, and from the medical professions, and about understanding and improving their performance and productivity.

I can’t help but find something sinister in this drive to improve performance and productivity. Part of this, I know, is that I was never more productive than when I was at my sickest, driven relentlessly by that ruthless, anxious fury that acute malnutrition brings on. I worked a lot, I worked quickly, always certain that I’d run out of time; I worked whenever I found myself with free time so that I didn’t have to think or feel or eat. Productivity is a poor measure of a person, and trying to optimise personal productivity does not only value the work that a person does over everything else in their life – relationships, family, daydreaming, play – but also emphasises only that which a person is able to contribute to their society as a basic economic unit. I think of my old housemate, a newly minted lawyer, whose workplace divided up her day into seven-minute blocks, whose unbillable toilet breaks were given a monetary value in lost earnings, who rarely came home on weeknights before 10 pm.

I know too that one of the most important things – if not the most important thing – that I have had to learn, as I’ve moved closer towards recovering, is to accept imperfection in myself, even seek it out. I’ve had to learn how to waste time; to occasionally buy myself things that I don’t absolutely need, but that are beautiful, or that bring me joy; to make mistakes without feeling hot and sick with shame; to occasionally be five minutes late to a coffee date or to a bar (to say nothing of eating a meal that’s slightly overcooked or under-sauced or otherwise flawed). Allowing the haphazard, the immoderate, the messy – the outlying data – into my everyday life is precisely what has made me a better person, even as my productivity and algorithmic predictability have declined at the same time.

 

THIS FOCUS ON perfectible productivity, furthermore, is underpinned by an idea of a human being as a machine, whose performance can be improved with a correct and timely tune-up, the occasional squirt of WD-40. Deborah Lupton in The Quantified Self (Polity Press, 2016) points out that this is a metaphor with a long history in Western thought – and it is a metaphor that constantly changes to reflect the technologies of its time. When hydraulic engineering dominated, the body was thought to operate according to the flow of different fluids – the humours – and illness was caused by blockages, or imbalances between them. During the industrial revolution, the body became a steam-powered, piston-pumping engine, prone to overheating and over-pressurisation – which manifested in the newly named diseases of neurasthenia and nervous exhaustion, often treated, in turn, with the application of electric currents to the body and the brain. And with digital technology now in ascendance, the body and brain are most commonly described as computers, programmed to work rationally and algorithmically, with glitches and transmission errors responsible for disease.

In psychology, too, such ideas persist – I’m constantly asked to think of my body as some kind of car, the vehicle that I have to drive around in, even though, for me and so many others who struggle with chronic ill-health, I’ve actually been sold a lemon. (I prefer buses, anyway.)

But people are not machines. Our bodies are no more rational or algorithmic than they are controlled by black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. They are messy and uncontrollable and subject to all kinds of aberrations and disruptions that we still don’t understand and certainly cannot control. And if we cannot actually know, and cannot actually have any real mastery over our bodies, how can we even begin to account for our even more elusive selves?

 

OF COURSE, THOSE of us who write, who read, who work with language, still do this kind of accounting, still attempt to balance our books. It’s just that we do this with words, rather than with numbers – with qualitative data, rather than that which is quantified. The ‘talking cure’ has been the most broadly accepted means of understanding and improving the self for over a hundred years now, and almost all forms of psychology (pop or otherwise) rely on writing down details, thoughts and incidents, in order to uncover patterns and connections. (In my first hospital admission, I was given a fat stack of papers for homework every week – a ‘post-meal thoughts’ log, a ‘positive-outlook’ journal, ‘thought-challenging’ worksheet, ‘interpersonal-effectiveness’ worksheet, ‘behavioural-experiment’ and ‘cause-and-effect’ worksheets, as well as a food diary and exercise log; I know too that personal writing makes these kinds of patterns and connections, that this is why I find the form so powerful.) But the kinds of people, I think, who are drawn to the intense, digital self-tracking that the Quantified Self community centres around are not those who feel at home with words – not the sort of people who find words malleable and compelling or poetic. Instead, they are drawn to numbers as a means of making sense of the world – and I can’t help but think, here, of the mathematical patterning of the scales on a pineapple’s skin, the spiral of a nautilus shell, the numerical logic that underpins so much of the natural world.

 

THE PROBLEM, THOUGH, is that the kind of patterning these people find in numbers and digital data is assumed to be objective, to be factual and real, in a way that we no longer consider words and language capable of being. The technology writer Tarleton Gillespie calls this ‘the promise of algorithmic integrity’, and argues that many of us assume this kind of neutrality from computers and devices because we do not understand, or just don’t think about, the all-too-human decisions that underpin their design. Gillespie argues that algorithmic objectivity is just as mythical, just as impossible, as journalistic objectivity, and also that it serves a similar purpose – to feign legitimacy and dispel doubt, because the precariousness of the knowledge that algorithms inscribe is terrifying to contemplate, especially as they are so deeply embedded in our world.

The assumption here is that data collected by a machine is neutral, because it is mechanical, and bound by unbendable rules. Gary Wolf even writes, when explaining the advantages of quantifying bodies and lives: ‘Computers don’t lie. People lie.’

Wolf’s suggestion is not that people maliciously or even consciously lie when they are constructing stories about their selves and lives, but rather that they make mistakes. They have ‘blind spots’ and ‘gaps in…attention’, they ‘make errors of fact…and judgment’ and the narratives we tell ourselves are always slippery things. I understand this, haunted as I am still by the many years I spent desperately ill, but unable to recognise or acknowledge the true nature of my disease, the depth and complexity of a denial that didn’t admit even a sliver of doubt. It was an error of judgment so complete that it still sometimes leaves me reeling, but it was also what I needed to do at the time to survive. Wolf describes these mistakes and blind spots as ‘weaknesses’ that ‘put us at a disadvantage’ when we seek self-knowledge – and he sees digital data as unbiased, unflinching, unerring, something that can be trusted more so than the body and the mind. A sleep tracker that indicates a restless night is a better indicator that you’re tired than a sense of flagging energy and itchy eyes; a heart-rate monitor that shows a spike is a better gauge of physical exertion than puffing breath and sweaty skin.

I can’t help but wonder if this is an estrangement, or another kind of attempt to transcend, or move away from, the body and its irrational, irregular desires and needs – or at the very least, an attempt to bring the body under the mind’s control. Relying on the feedback from devices, rather than the feedback of the body, means relying on feedback that is rational and measured, but more importantly, that is seen – graphed and enumerated – rather than felt. The body’s own signals are dismissed as unreliable because the body is itself unreliable, and definitively separate from the rational, quantifying mind. And yet the more we discover about the brain and the mind, and especially about the kinds of things that help keep the mind healthy, the more we know that it’s embedded in – not carried by – the body. We know, for example, that mental stress increases blood pressure, affects digestion and immunity alike; and there’s an ever-growing body of research linking meditation with improved circulation, stamina and sleep.

But I know too that the largest part of my discomfort with this kind of attempt to understand and control the body through tracking and data-analysis is that it cannot always work. That it assumes every bodily effect – every discomfort, every symptom, every illness – has a logical and definitive cause, a reason and, by extension, a cure (or at the very least, a reliable means by which to ameliorate it). Like anyone who lives with chronic illness, however, I know this isn’t true. There is no pattern to the physical illness that was the catalyst for my disordered eating – the food that made me throw up at dinner last night might be perfectly palatable as leftovers for lunch today; what I’ve been safely eating for breakfast for the last three months might suddenly make me sick the next week. There are commonalities, at times, between the kinds of foods that I find difficult to keep down (they’re often creamy, oily or gooey, for example), or between the kinds of situations that make the vomiting more likely – long meals, large meals, big gatherings – but there’s no certain predicting factor. There’s also no reason why this illness, rumination syndrome, develops in otherwise-healthy people, no reason why it sometimes resolves itself or sometimes never goes away. And this is precisely what makes it so hard – it is always unpredictable and so I never can feel comfortable or safe when I am eating. But the kind of logic that underpins self-tracking insists that there must be a pattern behind every bodily insult, that it’s only inattention, poor measurement or mistakes that might prevent us from discovering it.

More insidious, too, is the implication that good health must – only and inevitably – come as a result of living ‘healthily’, the implication that optimising the body and its operations will help prevent disease (and possibly even death), because the flip side of this equation is that poor health, disease or illness result from failures of control or ‘bad’ behaviour. That anyone who is unwell is culpable, and that individual behaviour is more to blame for illness than any other social or structural factor – such as poverty, pollution, poor access to healthcare, genetic predisposition – or just sheer and simple awful luck. But our bodies are not machines, and they do not operate by simple logic and we cannot control them with our rational minds. Our bodies are affected by our environment, by our emotions, by politics, by our relationships and by the relationships between the tiny organisms – bacteria, fungi, viruses and germs – that live in them and on them. And the more we understand about them, even now, the more we understand that we still don’t know.

What is truly frightening, though, is that the potency, the perfectibility that personal trackers promise to tech nerds and to those of us who struggle to find a sense of our own selves, is also being taken up in the wider world. Some health insurers, including the new Qantas Assure fund – which advertises in beautifully shot and deliciously punny cinema ads starring Christopher Walken (‘he’s walkin’’) – offer discounts and other escalating rewards to members who wear a fitness tracker and meet daily ‘step goals’ and challenges. (Of course, I love the irony of this: that someone underweight and over-exercised like me could be granted a health-insurance discount for the very activity that is damaging my health and pushing me towards another very expensive hospitalisation.) I have several office-jobbing friends whose workplaces have given pedometers to all of their employees and run month-long interdepartmental step-count competitions as ‘corporate morale’ and ‘team-building’ exercises. One of these friends, with no history of compulsive exercise or disordered eating, found herself walking for four hours one Saturday during this time. It’s all very well meaning, but for some of us it’s dangerous, because we never can predict at which point habit might slip into addiction.

The thing about habit, though, is that it is supposed to be unconscious. We’re supposed to meet habit with inattention, rather that enumeration, because it is precisely habit that allows us to live our lives – there are so many tiny decisions that we have to make each day (which socks to wear, which shirt, how much foundation, which direction to brush our teeth, which route to take to the station, where to order which kind of coffee) that we’d be paralysed, or at the very least exhausted (in a way that no sleep-tracker could help amend), if each time we had to make them afresh. Inattention is important, because it allows us to direct our attention beyond the quotidian – to work, to play, to art, to love, to all of the bigger things that we find meaningful beyond their measure. We are all creatures of habit, but that’s okay.

 

THERE HAVE BEEN dissidents within the Quantified Self community, people who have turned away from its methods and experiments, because their experiences aren’t that dissimilar to the one that I had with my Fitbit – where the act of quantifying and measuring an activity, rapidly but almost imperceptibly, became more important to them than that activity itself. One of these people, the writer and tech developer Paul Ford, started tracking his food intake in an effort to lose weight. (This much is unsurprising, given how many self-tracking apps and devices revolve around diet, exercise and weight.) He soon found himself choosing only to eat foods whose energy value he knew or could easily calculate, avoiding restaurants, where he wasn’t able to ascertain precisely how much sauce had been added to his sandwich. Another, who blogs anonymously at The Unquantified Self, writes about realising that each time she felt out of control of her own life she’d add another tracking app to her phone, find something else to measure and contain. (‘I’m clearly already too much of a perfectionist,’ she writes. ‘It [was] just another source of self-recrimination and guilt.’) Yet another caught herself walking laps of her lounge room, shortly before midnight on a Sunday, in a desperate effort to beat the weekend step-count of the stranger with whom her device had paired her. This, I think, is the problem with bodily control – because it is only ever an illusion, the lengths to which we have to go to approach it must grow ever more extreme. No matter what we do, what we achieve, it is always out of our reach.

One of the emotional effects of anorexia is described by psychiatrists as ‘anhedonia’, an absence of, or inability to find, pleasure in the kinds of activities that should bring joy. Most of these activities, when examples are listed, are bodily – dancing, sport, sex – but it strikes me too that quantifying the body and its activities is a deliberate curtailing, or at least controlling, of its hedonistic forces. Pleasure should not be weakness, should not be rational, or measured out, and I’m left wondering instead if there might be, if I might find, a way to know our bodies and our selves by the joys that they bring us – minute or otherwise, where time spent sitting in the sun, or standing under a hot shower, or eating cake, or smelling jasmine, or giggling uncontrollably, says more about virtue and value than any number of steps taken each day.


From Griffith Review Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review