The Unquantified Self
self deception through numbers
Dear reader, if you are a friend or even an acquaintance of mine, you must have heard the book title Four Thousand Weeks uttered from my mouth. Obsessing over this book is no hobby of mine, simply a compulsion. If you haven’t already read the book, well you probably you should…reading this book is a prerequisite to be my friend/acquaintance. Ever since starting university, I’ve been fixated with squeezing every second of productivity and “experience” out of my time. That makes me exactly the target audience of this book.
One phenomenon that came out of this “experiencemaxxing” and constant drive towards more productivity is the prevalence of apps giving us a yearly report card on just how well we did throughout the year.
It’s the last day of the year, and naturally many of us are reflecting back on the year that we had. Think about all the year-in-review “wrappeds” that you got between November and now. How many minutes did you spend listening to Spotify? How many minutes did you spend learning German this year? How many minutes did you spend reading books? How many steps did you take this year? How many kilometers did you run? How many flights have you taken? How many countries have you visited? Are all of that tracked some where, intentionally or unintentionally?
I’m convinced that with all of this detailed tracking, what we are trying to get to isn’t a better understanding of ourselves and our habits, but maximizing our leisure productivity so that it adds up to more than the total number of minutes in a year.
(if the above reel resonates with you, you might want to keep reading..)
Consider the above reel. With all this granular tracking of every mood and every passing fancy, are we really getting to know ourselves better or is it merely smoke and mirrors? I once dated someone who would rate his mood out of 10 every day, then aggregate it into a score for the week and month. Finally it outputs to a visual heat map of his year. As the joke goes, men will literally do anything other than go to therapy!!
However, this did make me wonder. What are we actually learning about ourselves after we’ve been quantified? Did the heat map unlock something previously unknown to him about his inner self? Or did it simply tell him that he had seasonal depression like the rest of us?
Is trying to quantify our lives really a method to understand ourselves better, or is it actually obfuscating our endeavours to know ourselves through distraction?
In the age of big data, the companies that own vast quantities of data reign supreme. In the last decade or so, the quantified self movement has grown beyond tech enthusiasts and has permeated our lives. I would argue that it’s even been force fed to us by tech companies through gamification, all in an effort to grow their user base and the average time spent on app. These days, you can’t listen to music or learn a language without some tech company trying to tell you about your hidden inner self with the data they collected about you.
This year, I’ve only read 30 books. It pales in comparison to the 61 I read in 2020 (thank you global panini). People always say it’s about quality over quantity, but in our modern age, don’t we actually measure quality through quantity? Having a reading goal set at number of books per year unconsciously led me to choosing books that are shorter. This is because I equated reading more books with being a “better” person. If you look at the data on Goodreads, I read 9,760 pages across 30 books this year, but only 14,497 across 61 books in 2020. While page length has no correlation to book quality, there is something to be said here about how this quantification could be leading us astray.
When we think about how modern humans live our modern lives, our phone’s Screen Time tells us how focused we’ve been all week, Apple’s Health app tells us how much we’ve slept, how much we walked, how many flights of stairs we climbed, what’s our average heart rate. Every November we wait for our Spotify Wrapped™1 to tell us just how many hours we spent being a good music fan (yes, I have spent over 1 month listening to boygenius).
Duolingo tells us how many new words we learnt and how much time we spent practising German. Alipay sends you an end of year breakdown of how much you spent on taxis and takeaway. Even Nintendo and my fucking MUBI account is sending me a yearly end-of-year review. I remember feeling stressed out about listening to music on my record player because it won’t be counted in my Spotify listening time (I did find a counter measure for this by listening to the same album on Spotify on zero volume.)
How did we get here? I went from thinking that the quantified life was an interesting way to learn about our subconscious selves, to waking up one day and finding it all shoved down my throat. Did I ask for my data to be analyzed and forced to me in this way? Forced to participate a sick twisted version of gamification where I’m pitted against the self of yesteryear? Capitalism and corporate culture has really come so far as to have permeated every aspect of our lives, to the point of our sleep life being measured and quantified and optimized (sleeping tracking is opted-in by default on iPhones).
The sad thing is that it works. I spent the entire year trying to break the 100k minutes yearly play time on Spotify (it averages about 5 hours a day if you do the math — Spotify really only counts play time from Jan to end of Nov, so it’s only 11 months). there are only 24 hours a day, and yet I find myself worrying about how to maximize my Spotify listening time, extending my Duolingo streak, making my daily step goal, reading enough to make my yearly reading goal.
The tech world is hell bent bet on gamificiation to drive revenue, and our brains and and productive minds are paying for it.
Who do you think you’d be with no app limits? No screen time, no step goal, no yearly reading goals, no Duolingo streaks? What kind of animal do you think you’d be without your phone “training” you to be a better human? Who do you think you could be without the unachievable strive to be the most productive person alive?
For 2024, I want to live an unquantified life. I want to think about who I am without tech gamification driving me to becoming “better”. I’ve turned off my screen time, opted-out of sleep tracking, removed my daily goal. I bought a iPod Classic to listen to music and I’m going to try to best to not care about my end of year Spotify Wrapped.
I want to cultivate a more conscious practice of self-reflection. I want understand my habits and time investments actively and deliberately. I no longer want to behave passively and be told by tech companies crunching my data how to spend my life.
This week's links
I started writing this weeks ago when all the Wrappeds started coming out. It took some time to get to this point, and in the mean time Christmas has come and past. However, some of the links were collected around then. I still want to share them since it’s still technically the holidays.
The best Christmas movie: Tokyo Godfathers. I always watch this movie around this time of year. While not my favourite Satoshi Kon movie, this is the one I recommend to anyone who is not familiar with his work.
Christmas album: Not a full album, but I really enjoyed listening to Laufey’s holiday single this year. With the gloomy weather and being indoors most of the time, I found myself listening to Laufey a lot this winter.
What to cook: My friend Alvin Tham’s Hainan chicken recipe. It’s an easy recipe that makes the perfect Hainan chicken and Hainan chicken rice. It tastes exactly like what I grew up with in hawker centres in Singapore. The slightly crispy rice is always my favourite part. Cooked this for Christmas dinner.
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