Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Who's Counting?

I subscribe to a couple of fashion magazines. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not like I’m all that fashionable. I like and wear Birkenstocks, and if I thought I could get away with it without public ridicule, I’d still wear socks with them. I don’t even own a pair of heels, and the only thing that would fit me at a sample sale is a scarf. Maybe it’s the fact that print is very nearly dead, and it’s like six bucks to subscribe to an entire year of a fashion mag. I usually skip through the fashion pretty fast, but I do enjoy the articles.

Health articles I sometimes skip. I’m not too keen on finding out more about how I got too much sun in my twenties, or the evils of sugar—or, God forbid, coffee. But the other day I accidentally read one in Elle, lured in by the opening description of the writer’s new gadget. Technology, I like. To use and enjoy technology, you don’t have to have zero percent body fat, possess athletic skill, be twenty-three, or have, say, the self-control to never eat carbs. To figure out gadgets, you just need your brain, and of course you have to be able to afford them (they’re still cheaper than high fashion, and spending five hundred dollars on something that can talk seems a lot smarter than spending it on shoes).  

So imagine my chagrin when the article turned out to be about using technology for evil instead of good. The author’s gadget was a UP—a bracelet used to track calories, sleep, activity, and more. (No clue what the acronym stands for. Unending Panic? Unbearably Particular? Unbelievably Pathetic?)
Jawbone's slogan is: "Know yourself. Live better." Not sure this is necessarily a causal relationship.
The device, the writer went on to explain, was one of many new tools for those who are part of the Quantified Self Movement, or Quantified Selfers. The helpful UP is worn all the time, and sends the users “insights”—sound bytes on fitness and health, as well as nudges toward whatever goal the user entered.

This bracelet sounds like a terrible idea to me for a number of reasons. First, there’s the whole “quantified” element: anything that adds more math to my life is automatically suspect. Second, it could just be my overactive imagination, but after reading the article I immediately pictured a dystopian future government jamming one of those things on my wrist, administering nudges in the form of electric shocks every time I tried to eat butter. The “insights” feature would make a fine medium for delivering Orwellian propaganda tidbits from The State. (Maybe the “P” stands for propaganda!)

But I digress. Of course all modern technology could easily be perverted into a dreadful weapon, like the ridiculously named “Thorngate” device on Scandal last season, in which our computers and cell phones can be used to spy on citizens. Could be they already are, but, one would hope, the program at least has a less cheesy name. The real reason I hope to never get peer-pressured into quantifying my self is that it sounds kind of dreadful. A device on my wrist monitoring how fast I walk, how many calories I burn, how much sun my skin absorbed, how much REM sleep I achieved? What’s the outcome here? Presumably, the idea would be to examine the data and try to do better. But the thing is, you’d never be finished trying. The new numbers could always be bested. There are forums where Q.S.-ers can go online and trade data—so there would always be someone else’s numbers to beat too.

The bottom line is, if you like fitness data, or even math, go on with your bad self. Count away. I feel about this idea the same way I felt about video cameras. Rather than having my face stuck behind a camera, I’ll just have the authentic experience, and do my best to remember it, imperfections of memory and all. I’ll take my life the same way—I’ll let my iPod count my steps while I’m out seriously walking—but then I want to shut the step counter off. However many steps it takes to walk the dog, I’m happy to let them go uncounted, along with most of the rest of my life. It’s just Willow and me out for a little stroll. And I’m not counting.  

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