Stop Measuring Everything

It’ll end really badly

There’s a compelling story that the internet likes to tell itself about the world at the moment; namely, that there is a discernible logic to it — unlocked by “Science”, usually — that is easily quantifiable, unalterably true, underpins everything, and if we only act in harmony with it we will lead better, less painful, more efficient lives.

It’s why every digital wearable has a heart sensor now, to power self-measurement apps that tell us if we’re taking enough steps or how much REM sleep we got. It underpins the proliferation of lifehacks, including the bizarre assertion that there’s a “correct” way to use the bit of bamboo at the end of disposable chopsticks. You’ve been using them wrong all your life, here’s how you’re supposed to do it. It’s as evident in the obsession with paleo as the diet we’re meant to eat as it is in the Silicon Valley logic of the food replacement Soylent, which contains everything your body needs. It’s the idea that we’re all predictable, reducible to computationally accessible data that can enrich our lives if only we let it.

It has a dark side, too. It lurks in the background of your Facebook feed in the guise of ‘big data’, predicting your browsing habits so well you assume your phone is listening to you. It’s the obsession with caloric input that would look like anorexia if obsessive gym attendance and the ‘fat burn zone’ (powered by the same heart monitors that tell you if you’re sleeping properly) didn’t mask it. It’s behind the notion of risk-based policing that means brown-skinned people, and bearded men travelling alone are more likely to be “randomly” tested for explosive residue at airports.

It’s also the idea that trying to push back — against the way your body is meant to digest food, or how you’re supposed to sleep, or what stories you really want to read — is foolish. It will make everything just a little bit harder. It’s also insidiously and paradoxically neoliberal, so if you do try to push back against the notion that data is destiny, any consequences — weight, fatigue, anxiety or depression — are all your own fault for trying to assert some free will. Relax, science and the Algorithm have your back. Let the flow take you, it’ll be bliss. Admit you love Big Brother.

The tech industry’s contribution to this phenomenon are perhaps most obvious in the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, started by two tech journos. Our ability to collate data about ourselves is unprecedented. There are apps to track your spending, your caloric intake and exercise, your productivity, your sleep, your daily movements, your menstrual cycle, arthritis, or diabetes. These apps build on ubiquitous smartphone hardware that contain GPS trackers, magnetometers, cameras, and increasingly biometric sensors. Perhaps the pinnacle of these neoliberal self-management apps are the ones that monitor (and pathologise) your screen time — because even the device on which you track yourself is reflexively subject to tracking.

I’m not arguing that these apps are intrinsically useless. I’ve spoken to enough women about their menstrual cycle to know that tracking it digitally is helpful, but also that it’s a streamlined version of practices already widespread before the advent of smartphones. I have enough compassion to see that anything at all that helps to relieve the chronic pain of conditions like arthritis or makes diabetes manageable could be a massive boon to the sufferer.

What I’m arguing is that there are strings attached to our comfort with self-tracking. When we track our caloric intake, we’re not celebrating the days we stay hungry and succeed in keeping the numbers down, we’re becoming anxious at the days we fail and eat too much. The precarity of sustained success makes us far more anxious than exultant. There is an available Foucauldian critique of the Quantified Self movement that talks about the internalised logic of the prison and the way in which our self-management is in part an attempt to measure ourselves against an idealised and unrealistic standard produced by the culture at large. The ‘perfect body’ we all try so hard to attain is nothing like the bodies we have, but we can see it on our screens. We are left with two options — painfully re-sculpt ourselves through the endless application of valorised self-control (or carefully crafted Instagram photos), or wallow in the shame of failure. The vast abyss of neoliberal anxiety about such failures always centres on the withholding of pleasures. It’s no coincidence that coffee and avocado are at the centre of anxieties about both being thin and home ownership. Self-control is nothing but self-denial, and the quantified self can read as an attempt to publically demonstrate how many pleasures we’ve denied ourselves.

When we use contemporary technologies to capture data from our everyday lives, a few things are happening. First and foremost, we identify a ‘healthy’ standard to measure ourselves against. It’s always externally produced, and it always has a morality attached to it; it’s why we describe fat people as ‘unclean’ and ‘unprofessional,’ and the poor as bludgers. Second, we imbue that standard with the authority of science or expertise. Third, we buy into the claim that data is objective and thus has no politics, despite the fact that not every body can be thin, and not every person can be rich, no matter how much self-control and self-denial is exerted.

This third stage is the most insidious; it allows us to ignore the fact that the standards enshrined in the apps are themselves based on aggregate data about bodies across populations, not specific bodies with specific contingencies (height, weight, hormones, histories). Data skews white, male, able, and cissexual. The perfect healthy body doesn’t exist, because it’s an assumption made from data, not an example found ‘in the wild’.

Yet here we are, measuring ourselves against this impossible ideal, and why? Because a good neoliberal subject is a product in the market, whose designer and manufacturer (you) should always strive for self-discipline in service of self-improvement. A better education to get a better job. A better body for more Instagram likes. A more successful life to ensnare a better mate. Better children than your friends. A bigger house.

It took me about ten minutes of watching Channel 7’s coverage of the Rio Games in 2016 to remember why I hate the Olympics. It’s utterly irreconcilable with my politics. It’s militaristic, with many of the core sports (track and field, shooting, fencing, wrestling, modern pentathlon) having their origins in military training. It’s weirdly fascist, privileging physical prowess as a marker of national virility over all other forms of human endeavour. Its ruthless sex segregation lays bare the impossibility of separating gender from bodies and prevents any real cultural shifts in the way we view men and women. But watching that coverage I realised there was something even more pernicious happening.

Every pole vaulter was tall and thin and had broad shoulders. Every long-distance runner was basically anorexic. Every sprinter was bulging with muscle. Every sport had its own body shape, and nobody at the top level of any sport differed from these norms, not even a little.

I was selected for the Australian Olympic Rowing talent program when I was 17. Some men came to our school with a variety of devices, and measured us — our height, weight, armspan, vertical leap. A computer somewhere crunched the numbers and found the bodies most likely to be good at rowing, and mine was among them. A letter arrived in the mail, and off I went to the Spit Rowing Club in Sydney Harbour.

The computer had missed a few things, however. At that time I was really obsessed with fencing, a sport I gave fifteen years of my life to and still coach. I was never particularly good at it, although training for it was what gave me the vertical leap height that made the rowing computer so happy. The computer couldn’t pick up my love for the sport. Nor did it recognise the visceral thrill of terror I got watching the depthless black water rush past inches from my nose, that made it hard to get back in the shell after each outing. I quit after poor balance tipped me from a single scull onto the oyster shells encrusting the retaining wall on the Spit. I was mechanically very good at rowing, as the computer predicted, but my destiny was contained in more than just a list of biomechanical measurements.

Masculine vs. feminine body types, for use in recruiting, dated 1943 (image: Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, 2000)

I know a little about what happened last time measuring bodies was the cultural norm in the West. A few years ago I helped teach a course on war and peace in world history. In the first week the students read Joanna Bourke’s Intimate History of Killing, which included a plate of male body types from the mid-20th century that were intended to help recruiters identify men suited to military service, and reject more “feminine” male bodies whose owners might lack the manly killer instinct. I also read Joshua Goldstein’s War and Gender, part of which engaged with the politics of gendered measurement. Goldstein’s simulated charts pointed out that what you chose to measure mattered. For some characteristics, aggregate differences only become perceptible at the top end of capability.

Bar graphs demonstrating that what you choose to measure matters (image: War and Gender, Joshua Goldstein, 2001)

I also came across the argument that the tasks that made up the basic entry exams to the US Military were all designed with ideal male bodies in mind. Far from military necessity being the bar to entry, it was male bodily characteristics that were measured by default. The point is that in the 20th century, soldier masculinity was not found ‘in the wild’ and then measured to produce a picture of the pefect soldier; instead, assumptions about gender were made, measurements of gendered bodies were made according to those assumptions, and nobody questioned the resulting picture of the soldier that emerged for a century.

An anthropological device for measuring the heads of people (image frm Wikimedia Commons:

Most of the projects in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries dedicated to categorising people based on measurable physical characteristics were deployed in the service of creating or securing a gendered or racial hierarchy. Very few of them increased the quality of life for the people being measured. Insidiously, it’s now impossible to easily find stories of white men in the pacific in the 19th Century measuring black bodies with calipers because googling ‘measurement of indigenous people’ reveals that we’re still doing it, it’s just that the tools have become entirely conceptual.

Occasionally on the History Channel, sandwiched somewhere between bottom-shelf documentaries on Hitler’s occult ties and Nazi superweapons, you might find a documentary on IBM’s provision of early computers to the Nazi state, and the ways they were mobilised to make the task of sorting Jews from Germans easier.

The clinical collection of easily-measured data from which to generate rational insights is a key aspect of modernity. So is failing to ask important questions about the politics of collecting the data in the first place. So too is the assertion that data does not have a politics, or a morality. And the heart sensor in your smartwatch is no more able to resist its operator’s worst impulses than an IBM computer.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argued that the Holocaust, with all of its rational dependence on measurement and categorisation, was ultimately an expression of modernity and enlightenment reason, the idea that everything could be solved if viewed dispassionately enough. Reason produced much that was good in the 20th century, but also much that was bad. Most importantly, there was no way to get the good without also getting the bad, because despite what Kant argued, reason is not inherently moral.

Bauman argues in the introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust that:

The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust … is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything … it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body. What we perhaps fear most, is that each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin.

Or, to misuse Adorno, “poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” because even the most divine outpourings of Western culture always contained the seed of genocide.

To a great extent, many of the most infamous (and now apparently, in another great twist, unreplicable) post-war psychology experiments, such as Millgram’s electric shock test and Zimbardo’s prison experiment, were attempts to explain how ordinary people could perpetrate extraordinary evil. One of the hallmarks of this post-Holocaust intellectual consensus is that such evil is sadly not extraordinary. Hannah Arendt, another scholar of mid-century totalitarianism, pointed out in Eichmann in Jerusalem that it was so often insipid middle-men that managed the death camps. Like the two-faced Janus of the modern nation-state that Bauman outlined, our trust that scientific rationalism and measurement will deliver us better slumber, a better body, a better employee, better search engine suggestions, is matched only by the ease with which we forget data’s other consequences: racial profiling, immigration quotas, evidence-backed exclusions, death camps.

Bauman, Arendt, Horkheimer, Adorno, Milgram and Zimbardo were all united in a single project — an attempt to come to terms with the horrors of the death camps. The problem is that, unless one is forced to behold works such as those of the Nazi state, one will turn one’s head away. Like a person at a picnic who discoveres they are sitting on an anthill, the thinkers of the West were forced to move from an untenable position.

For just a moment, it looked like the whole world was anthills, and we’d need to acknowledge that the dirt could always be riddled with subteranean tunnels full of biting insects, and that those insects were summoned by crumbs we dropped. But little by little, piece by piece, we cordoned off the infested territory, and convinced ourselves that the ground we were now on could never play host to an ant colony. So we popped the champagne and started the picnic again.

Obsessive self-measurement in the service of aggressive self-control and self-denial is inseparable from the judgment of those who fail to meet the overly rigorous standards of thinness, productivity and fiscal responsibility we’ve internalised. It’s a short step from calling the fat unclean and blaming the poor for their own poverty, despite the well-evidenced exigencies of systemic inequality, to excising them from the category of human in much the same way Australians already do to asylum seekers.

This is hardly a new idea. Black Mirror has explored the slide from the apparently amoral use of medical science to identify hereditary disease in a population to the deliberate and computerised murder of the carriers of such diseases.

So what can you do to refuse this insidious slippage towards the worst excesses of the 20th century? For a start, you can resist the urge to buy a heart rate monitor. But it’s more than that. One of the most memorable pieces of feminist scholarship I’ve ever read was a chapter of Susan Bordo’s Twilight Zones that developed a fascinating interpretation of the movie Babe. For Bordo, the beauty of Babe is that he is pursuing a dream for the dream’s sake. Babe was not selected to be trained as a sheepdog by a computer. His body is not the body of a sheepdog. Unlike the bodies of athletes at the Olympics, he had to fight his body at every step of the way. But the point isn’t that Babe the pig managed to overcome his natural shortfalls through iron self-discipline. After the competition is over, the farmer says “That’ll do pig”. That’s enough. You’ve done enough.

“Enough” is how you resist. The internalised logic of the prison that we all apply to ourselves through self-measurement and mutual surveillance is an attempt to force the body of a pig to resemble the body of a sheepdog. Instead, glory in the capability of the body of a pig, even if you’re trying to herd sheep.

Neoliberalism wants us to compete endlessly, for everything. We have to be more disciplined about money and food and everything so we can retain that competitive edge over our peers. And despite the promise of the free market to produce endlessly varied Darwinian forms, it just doesn’t. A free market tends towards monopoly, in this case, the monopoly of one body type, one model of financial success, one model of good personhood. Apart from anything else, that’s boring. It speaks to a staggering lack of imagination.

I am immediately put in mind of a Dylan Moran sketch about ‘potential’ in which he discusses the idea of the perfect body. For Moran, it’s not just something slightly more trim and taut than you had before.

My ideal body, you know, would be just probably something like … One eye, you probably only need one. A kind of sucker thing instead of teeth, because they just give you grief in the end, you know. And a long, long tube with my arse way over there so I don’t have to deal with it. That would be ideal.

Resist the quantified self, not because you’ll feel better — you probably won’t. Resist it because anything else is buying into the idea that competition is good, and there’s only one model of success. But competition is inherently anti-cooperation, anti-solidarity. Self-measurement, and the judgment of others that goes along with it, cuts you off from others in ways that can only end badly. The only questions competition can ever lead you to ask are ‘why did that person get more than me?’ or ‘why didn’t I get more?’ It’s anti-democratic, because it doesn’t treat people as equal, and it argues that some people are worthy of exclusion while providing a deeply unjust rubric to justify that exclusion.

To stop measuring yourself is to stop holding other people to your standards. It’s to recognise that they are not implicated in your priorities. Your diet means nothing to them, as theirs means nothing to you. The way you govern your financial affairs are not applicable to them. Their life choices are not yours. It’s OK for them to decide to pursue a career as a sheepdog when they have the body of a pig.

Refusing to be measured or to measure yourself against others — and measuring is always against — opens space to build new connections, linkages, and solidarities — all things that neoliberalism has taken from us. Because the beauty of democracy isn’t that we’re all the same. It’s that we’re all different. Democratic equality isn’t about sameness — it’s about being in the same relation to the state, which allows for a tremendous richness of experience. As Bonnie Honig argues:

When Ptolemy I asked if there was an easier way to study geometry than The Elements, Euclid is reported to have replied, ‘Sire, there is no royal road to geometry’. (That is, there is no opting out. There is no private workaround). In geometry: it is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. Might it be the case that in politics, by extension, when two people occupy a relationship of equality to a third (thing), then the two (or more) people are put by the common thing into a relation of equality, as such?

If nothing else will convince you, consider this. The ‘Marshamallow test’ — the psychological experiment that equates the ability to delay gratification with success — was as unreplicable as Millgram’s electric shock experiment. Maybe it got the causality backwards. It’s not that more successful people can resist the temptation of a marshmallow. It’s that the judgements we all make every day just reinforce a model of success that has self-denial at its core. In a post-scarcity future, we should be able to find a way to satiate ourselves and still be successful. To do otherwise is to consign ourselves to an unequivocally drab future.

All that being said, twenty years after falling out of that single scull, I set a time on my fencing gym’s rowing erg that nobody has been able to beat. I guess I should have been a sheepdog.