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Yearly Archives: 2010

Quantifying the Self

OK, that’s it, Christmas is over, time to cut down on the amount of alcohol I drink. I’ve kicked smoking this year, but drinking is trickier. I’d rather not give it up entirely, but how can I go about reducing my alcohol intake by, say, 50%?

First off, I need to find a way of tracking my intake, so I can see if I really am drinking less. I can’t rely on my intuitions about how much I’m drinking, because they might be wrong. We’re not that great at knowing ourselves or keeping track of ourselves. That’s why we need help from technology.

In the old days, trainee-philosophers would have tracked their habits in a journal. Seneca, for example, wrote: “Every day, we must call upon our soul to give an account of itself. This is what Sextius did. When the day was over and he had withdrawn to his room for his nightly rest, he questioned his soul: ‘What evils have you cured yourself of today? What vices have you fought? In what sense are you better?’ Is there anything better than to examine a whole day’s conduct?’”

Likewise, Epictetus advised his students to ‘keep account’ of their good and bad habits: “If then you wish to free yourself of an angry temper…count the days on which you have not been angry. ‘I used to be seized by an irrational emotion every day, now every second day, then every third; then every fourth.'”So the journal was a way of keeping account of the self, tracking it, like a microchip in the ear of a marauding elephant.

The journal was a great example of what Michel Foucault called a ‘technology of the self‘. In this brave new digital age, these kinds of technologies of the self have really blossomed, via self-monitoring apps for iPhones. So, this morning, I downloaded the NHS’ free alcohol unit tracker, which lets you input how many units you consumed yesterday (15) and see how close you are to the recommended daily amount (4…oops), and see your progress in your aim of reducing your intake.

There are hundreds of such tools on iphones and similar devices. Apps for quantifying your diet, your sleep patterns, your menstruation cycles, your sex life, your mood levels, your heart-rate, the distance you’ve jogged, your progress towards career goals, even the number of times you have prayed. If you think about it, a rosary is just another way of keeping count – well, now there’s a rosary app.

This self-quantification craze might seem the height of narcissism. But it’s also the best way of turning your self-help aspirations from vague dreams and passing fads into genuine, observable progress. You have to take an empirical approach to it, a self-experimental approach. You can get hold of data from your life, and crunch it in various ways to see, for example, how your mood is affected by different diets, how your drinking affects your productivity, and so on. And being able to see the real progress you’re making is a huge incentive to keep going, and increase your efforts.

Of course, some self-quantifiers take self-measurement to bizarre lengths, tracking, say, 40 different things about themselves: calories, moods, hours working, exercise, and so on. Too much. How about ‘hours spent quantifying the self’? And they also post all this data online. I don’t think other people care that much, and I don’t want them knowing all my personal data. But if you’ve set yourself a self-improvement goal, the best way to see if you’re really making progress, is to record the data.

Here’s a good essay by Seth Roberts, professor of psychology at University of California, on the value of self-experimentation and self-quantification for self-improvement.

And here’s a short TED talk by Gary Wolf, one of the founders of the Quantified Self movement:

Google’s Ngram machine

This is fun: check out Google’s new Ngram machine, which lets you graph the incidence of words in Google’s books archive going back centuries, and also to plot the incidence of different words against each other.

I don’t know how accurate it is as a barometer of public interest, but you can see, for example, the rise in the use of the word ‘economy’ over the last 200 years:

And the decline in the use of the words ‘heaven’ and ‘death’ over the last 200 years (death is the red line):
Surprisingly, the use of the word ‘happiness’ has dropped since 1900:

While the use of the word ‘wellbeing’ has risen over the same period:

And, while mention of God has been sinking since 1800, mentions of ‘sex’ have been rising – so I guess we’ve found some consolation in the Twilight of the Gods: