Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Quantified Self: Some Thoughts from the 17th Century

We geeks love to track stuff, and put numbers on the stuff we track. We humans love to think about ourselves. So, it should be no surprise that human geeks have invented the "quantified self" movement, which promises to improve our health, our self-control, and our very lives, by making us aware of every aspect of what we are doing every moment of the day and night.

First, let me be clear: tracking information about the self certainly has its benefits and its place. Self-monitoring makes us aware of habits we would love to ignore, which is invaluable if we have a habit we need to overcome. And it can reward us for overcoming: there is something bizarrely satisfying about writing down a success, however small. Some of us are not above writing things on a to-do list that we've already done, just for the pleasure of checking it off.

But notice the funny mixture of reason and absurdity here: we may reasonably track our exercise habits, for instance, to serve an important and attainable health goal. But we are not above playing silly tricks on ourselves to encourage this reasonable enterprise.

When I started running, I put gold stars on a calendar every time I made it out the door for a run.

I was an adult.

Thus we come to Pascal, expert on dualities of reason and absurdity. Lest we think that we have finally invented something new under the Sun, it is worth noting that a contrary Frenchman diagnosed all of the central problems with self-quantification in the 17th century. To wit:

Its Conceit: "Because they failed to contemplate these infinities, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her. Strangely enough they wanted to know the principles of things and go on from there to know everything, inspired by a presumption as infinite as their object. For there can be no doubt that such a plan could not be conceived without infinite presumption or a capacity as infinite as that of nature" (Fragment 199).

Again, we can learn much about ourselves through tracking our vital statistics, but we may become far more ignorant in a Socratic sense, as we proceed to convince ourselves that we know things that we cannot possibly know. There are apps, I understand, that actually presume to tell their users when they will die. Putting aside the misleading implication that medical science has evolved to a state at which it is able to predict life expectancy with such precision, fortune has a nasty way of giving the lie to these kinds of predictions. The healthiest of habits are tragically no match for drunk drivers, new diseases, or acts of violence.

Its Obvious Danger of Producing Anxiety: "Thinking too little about things or thinking too much both make us obstinate and fanatical" (Fg 21).

Those who ignore reasoned medical advice, who never think about how their behavior affects their well-being, indeed play a silly roulette with their lives. But those who have experienced serious illness--or who have feared that they or a loved one might be experiencing such an illness--know all too well the danger of believing that information can cure. The relentless search for information, without experience or wisdom to help one process it, is a very bad healer. It is excellent, however, at exponentially increasing one's misery, as the pleasures life still has to offer fall victim to its imaginary, specter-like predictions, fears, and insistent drive to feed on itself; which brings us to . . .

Its Excellence at Diverting One from Life: "We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching. . . . Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so" (Fg 47).

Once again, I am sure there are people involved with the quantified self movement who manage to track all their information, put it in a little box, and move on with their productive, well-adjusted, and optimized lives. But the details of what one can track are a little disturbing. Evidently, it is now possible to analyze your own excrement, electronically inform your computer when you are having sex, and moreover publicize this information online for the world to see. This is all, of course, evidence of our own brilliance--not only in inventing the devices that make such things possible, but in doubling and trebling our experiences into the moment, the record of the moment, and its faint, eternal, electronic trace. Unfortunately, we have not yet invented a device that allows us to do this without sloughing off the intensity of the original. This is a marvelous anesthetic if one does not wish to feel life very intensely, but the fulfillment of such a wish can only be a sadly mixed blessing.

One might well reply that Pascal himself was no happy character--that he was tortured, obsessive, and no model for the flourishing life. With this retort, I cannot disagree. But what does this mean? That he knew suffering profoundly, from the inside, and knew very well what did not cure it. To read Pascal in a time of despair is to lift the veil of isolation and destroy the infinity between one and none that Nietzsche found between having one friend and utter solitude. It is to know, in other words, that no human being must suffer alone, because at least one other has suffered from the very depths. This sort of consolation, so much worth seeking, cannot be quantified. We need not share all of Pascal's commitments to find in him this kind of friend, and to suspect that, particularly in his gentler moments, he had some insight to share.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Little Story About Humility

Not long ago, while visiting a friend in Denver, I came across this charming anecdote in Goethe's Italian Journey. It's stuck with me, so I thought I would post it. "Neri" is St. Filippo Neri (1515-1595), founder of the Oratorians.

[Neri] happened to be nearby when the pope was informed that a nun in the vicinity of Rome was attracting attention because of her many remarkable spiritual gifts. Neri was commissioned to investigate the validity of these tales. He immediately mounted his mule and, in spite of very bad weather and roads, soon arrived at the convent. On being admitted, he conversed with the abbess, who was thoroughly convinced of these tokens of grace, and gave him all the details about them. The nun was summoned and entered, but his only greeting was to extend his muddy boot to her, indicating that she should pull it off. The pure, holy virgin started back in horror, and with angry words expressed her resentment of this impudence. Neri rose quite calmly, climbed back on his mule, and returned to the pope much sooner than expected; for Catholic confessors have very precise, significant precautionary measures prescribed to them for the testing of such spiritual gifts. While the church concedes that such spiritual favors are possible, it does not admit their authenticity without the most punctilious examination. Neri briefly communicated the result to the astonished pope: “She is no saint,” he cried, “she performs no miracles! For she lacks the main attribute, humility.”

Naples, Saturday, May 26, 1787

(From Goethe’s Italian Journey, tr. Robert R. Heitner, ed. Thomas P. Saine and Jeffrey L. Sammons [Princeton University Press, 1989], pp. 259-260.)