Inventing the Self

Math is something you do, not who you are…

November 12th, 2013 by Kristina Bodetti · 6 Comments

The idea of quantified-self has to be the least thorough theory we’ve explored. Saying that I am 5.5 feet tall, have an average bp of 110/70 and sleep approx. 6hrs a night is no more useful in defining my ‘self’ as it is to say that I’m of Italian heritage, born in Queens and like Vanilla ice-cream.

Sure all of these things are details that have some value but none of them are, nor do the sum of them equal, who I am. None of them give any clarity to the sort of thing we generally mean when we speak about self and self-hood. They don’t show what distinguishes my ‘self’ from another Italian-american self with 110/70 bp.

I can understand what the videos from this week are getting at, and can even agree that this kind of knowledge can be immeasurably valuable for things like managing ones health, coping with stress etc. But combining the quantifiables of life into a theory of self just seems absurd. At least in the case of neuroscience, which I also feel falls short as a theory of self, can explain, or attempt to explain, thoughts, emotions, individual frame of reference and many other things that simply can’t be quantified but, I think, are obviously important to a study and theory of self.

Its easy to see, esp. in today’s society, how many people can be caught up in this, for lack of a better word, fad of quantifing self. Numbers are easy to share and understand relationally. They make us feel better about managing our health in a hypochondriac society. They make goals easy to set and follow (whether its getting 100 on a test, losing 30lbs or making $50,000 a year). Maybe on a more subconscious level, it even gives us the sense that all problems can be solved (like a math problem) or that everything will balance out (like an equation). But just because its an easy answer doesn’t make it a good answer. Quantified self is as silly an idea, to me at least, as numerology (in fact I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference since both assign meaning to numbers that just isn’t real).

Is quantifying life a useful tool? Absolutely, in many ways and areas it can be helpful.
Is it anything more than a tool? Is it a theory of self? Absolutely Not!

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6 responses so far ↓

  • John Giunta // Nov 13th 2013 at 7:38 am

    I think this notion of a Quantifiable Self is appropriately weird – chopping up self-ness into lots of little numbers and statistics – and you are voicing a similar feeling I experienced when reading/watching these various sources, a feeling of disidentification, maybe? It seems we don’t want to be quantified for fears we make ourselves into machines, ruled by numbers and cycles like clockwork, but I’m thinking maybe this “fad” is indicative of a move towards exactly that.

  • Samantha Gamble // Nov 13th 2013 at 11:10 am

    I completely agree with you, Kristina. I do feel that data collection can be beneficial in regards to stress levels, health, and fitness but I do not believe it is a measure of who someone actually is. It in no way defines self hood. it only defines the physical process of out bodies. I feel like numbers can not really be a predictor of our emotions, who we love, and what we love.

  • Adam Wagner // Nov 13th 2013 at 11:42 am

    I’d like to agree and disagree in a way. I feel that “self” is a bit more than these recordable numbers, however, if you really boil down to mental and physical states of self, these quantifiable aspects of your body can greatly affect and influence your “self.” Your stress level can affect your heart rate, which can affect your mood, which can in turn affect personal and social relations which can lead to effects in your personal life, blah, blah, blah, butterfly effect, etc. Therefore, I’d hesitate to say that these effects are silly or do not really deal with “self” as we define it.

  • Adam Wagner // Nov 13th 2013 at 3:55 pm

    Here’s a quote I just found while finishing up my annotated bibliography that fits well with my critique of this post.

    “The bodily feelings proposal has some intuitive plausibility. First, the body is part of the person, so an experience of the body, unlike an experience of some object out there in the environment, is an experience of the self, in some sense. Second, changes in the body reflect a person’s subjective responses to the world, including emotional responses, and the numerous unnamed responses we have to everything we encounter. Everything makes us feel some way, and tracking those feelings is, to that extent, tracking subjectivity. Third, there may be repeatable or predictable bodily responses that correspond to enduring aspects of the self such as values and personality traits, which are part of personal identity. The way my body reacts reflects something about who I am as a person, and I can recognize those reactions as such. I can also notice that on some days, I do not “feel myself” because my reactions are different from what they normally are. Here again, we find something very selflike in the experience of the body.”
    -Jesse Prinz
    Whose Consciousness? The Illusory Self (p. 236)

  • Adam Wagner // Nov 13th 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Just kidding, it was on page 225.

  • Yana Walton // Nov 13th 2013 at 5:04 pm

    I think Noë’s work also has implications for arguing that the QS data would have to do with ideas of what the self is, in some way. Noë said that consciousness cannot simply “live in our brains, or in our bodies, but is the ongoing experience of relating to and being changed by our environments and other organisms.” Because we are essentially the ways in which the world affects our brains, measuring some of these processes would then seem to shed light on how we’re made up of these interactions. The fellow who measured his heartrate when he was stressed by work shows that our environment directly, physically constitutes our selves. Most QS data that seems to be popularly tracked are instances of selves acting with environments, such as eating, exercise, stress, etc. I know the QS data is much less formalized and sort of “OCD”, but would you argue that neuroscience’s measurements and images of the brain don’t make up a theory of self?

    Certainly I agree that measurements don’t make up a self, unless we have a consciousness to process the data – but I do think there’s something theoretical to this, as annoying as it is to me personally 🙂

    Selfishly, I was into the “QS for the greater good” argument in the MIT Tech Review piece we read, where folks who actually enjoy self-measuring can log data that will ultimately benefit those of us for whom this type of “self discovery” feels like TOOMUCH.

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