“Quantified Self”

A Technomorphic Delusion

What was the much-hyped Computer Revolution but another big step in the history of automation? De-skilling millions of people, and forcing each remaining, computer-“literate” worker to then generate the work output which, say, six employees formerly did. Drastically reducing labor costs, even with stagnant revenues, remains a major source of corporate profit. So now, the unemployed college graduate, having sunk into huge debt to pay for tuition, computer-system, etc., finds himself busily “at work” (unpaid, of course) churning out resumes, taking additional (online) courses, etc., ad nauseam.

But lately, I’ve noticed an especially odd cultural phenomenon: many articles and talks promoting a supposedly burgeoning “Quantified Self Movement.”

Thanks to such diabolically clever techno-entrepreneurs, one may now purchase “wearable sensors,” or even “wearable computers” (for “life-logging,” “body-hacking,” ad nauseam). With hip-irony, one of these enterprising marketeers has introduced “Soylent”—a formulated fluid which may be periodically ingested as a substitute for the archaic (and inconvenient) process called “eating food.”

Let’s just ignore, for the moment, that we are—mammals, primates, hominoids, humans. That our physiological functions are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (“homeostasis”). That our sense-organs evolved, in their specific acuities, in adapting to a woodland-grassland habitat involving detection of dozens of edible plants as well as possible dangerous predators. Let us, in short, forget that each of us is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Let us forget that, as anthropologist Ashley Montagu explained, our skin is also a sense-organ: delicately attuned to the qualities of touch as nonverbal affection and communication.

My tone may be ironically satirical, but I’m not exaggerating. This self-styled “movement”—which is really a marketing campaign for yet more ridiculous gadgets—is taken quite seriously. Fifty years ago, radical sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of the possible “Cheerful Robot” of the future—of the human being with atrophied emotions but optimal “efficiency.” What we now see, tragically, is the conflation of daily life with “optimal work-performance”—which is purported to consist of data-manipulations while chained to a computer.

As sociological critics of modernity like G. Simmel warned a century ago, qualities of human experience which could not be measured would fade into unreality. In a market-dominated world, “calculability”—of value (price), data-analysis, Taylorist “performance” measurement—would reign supreme. Subjective-experiential dimensions—intuitive, aesthetic, revelatory, intimate—would begin to seem insignificant because they cannot be “objectified.” People would “perform sex”—after consulting a manual—but would no longer expressively feel spontaneously loving.

“The body as a performance machine”: certainly a useful concept in training soldiers to harden themselves, increase physical endurance, crush their feelings, and become “weaponeers” and “killing-machines.” A few decades ago, the obsession with athletic “performance”—measuring and “enhancing” it (with steroids, whatever)—was a noticeably disturbing trend. Nowadays, with the Taylorized workplace—in which every iota of measurable-work is squeezed out of the trapped employee—surveillance and relentless pressure have turned the workplace into a work-output machine. Of course, when it becomes feasible (cost/benefit-wise), such recalcitrant humans—with their moments of fatigue or occasional (nervous) “breakdowns”–are simply replaced by the real machines they’d been all along forced to emulate.

I blame futurist-hucksters like Ray Kurzweil, pied pipers who offered grandiose fantasies of techno-empowerment to credulous young people. After all, Eros—no matter how delightful—is just as often burdensome, as are all those “unmanageable” emotions and passions which sometimes flood our minds “for no reason” at all. In a techno-rationalized world—as Zamyatin predicted almost a century ago in his novel “We”—such “irrational” feelings atrophy before they need be repressed.

Two hundred years ago, Romantic poets and Luddites feared what was to come. “To murder is to dissect,” warned Wordsworth. But, even now, even at this moment: what of the sprightly bird, delicately sipping water as I write this, and now soaring aloft with insouciant abandon? What of that melancholy snatch of Mahler I just heard—evoking an understated pathos of forgotten joys and poignant transience? But most of all, what of that gurgling laughter and first utterances of a little baby, genus Homo, delighted to gaze with wonder upon a new world about her? These, and infinitely more, are the joyful moments of a truly human life, a life of unverbalized intimations and unrepeatable revelations.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.