I remember having a conversation a few years ago with one of my business partners. I had told her that I had just come back from my annual visit to the cardiologist. She asked me, “How do you feel?”, to which I replied, “My weight is up, my blood pressure is up, my cholesterol is up!”. “No, no”, she continued, “I asked you how do you feel, not what your tests say”. I paused for a moment, as if discombobulated by the question. I took a few seconds, did a body scan in my mind, and rather chastened, I answered, “You know…I feel pretty damned good!”.
We have largely become a society detached from our bodies, increasingly relying on external measures to validate our experiences. I am perhaps more guilty of this than anyone I know, save for some demented obsessives who haunt the bodybuilding establishments and health-food stores.
Technology has largely enabled this obsessiveness; there are incredible tools available today for measuring everything from calories, to the number of times you chew, as well as every known fitness parameter. There’s an app available for my iPhone that can measure my pulse just by staring into the camera for a few seconds. There are myriad exercise tracking programs and apps such as RunKeeper and Runtastic. There are probably apps for gardeners to measure the number of bulbs they plant per minute, and even some that track the density of hair follicles on your head using the same technology archaeologists use to map ruins via satellite (GIS).
This shift in what I call Locus of Awareness (LOA) from the inside out, has serious consequences. It turns experience and pleasure from something felt, to something measured. It reminds me of when my kids would say, “Are we there yet?” within five minutes of any journey. “Arriving” becomes a function of time and distance rather than enjoying the journey.
Gazette columnist, Josh Freed, has a nice piece in this morning’s paper, which I have excerpted in full below:
“I was biking with my pal Kilometre Man the other day and we paused, as usual, so he could announce our first hour’s results tracked on his “cyclo-computer.”
“We’ve done 19 km in 61 minutes and 20 seconds – minus 3 minutes for a juice break, 97 seconds for a bathroom break and 17 seconds for that time I adjusted my helmet. Our average moving speed was 14.3 km per hour and our median trail incline was .003 degrees at 70 rpms – for a VO2 maximum exertion rate of 37 ml/kg/minute … Wow!”
I had no clue what he was talking about. but that’s a lot like shopping with my friend Ingredient Man. He examines each cereal box in the supermarket like a science experiment as he calculates the “salt, sugar and gluten per gram” index, compared to the “fibre per whole wheat” ratio.
There’s also my buddy Weather Guy who’s constantly checking the satellite weather and the hour-by-hour forecast to plan his day: “I can’t play tennis tonight – I see rain clouds are coming in at 19:13 p.m. and won’t clear till 21:27.”
These guys are part of a growing number of people who are taking the information age seriously – by gathering way too much information. They’re data-junkies who base more and more decisions on information rather than instinct. Are they the future?
In ancient times – 10 years ago – most of us acted mainly on gut feeling. We biked till we felt tired or sweaty and ate what our mothers told us was healthy (“finish your steak, dear – the fat is the best part for you”). If we wanted to know the next hour’s weather, we looked out the window to see if clouds were coming.
But in our new data-addicted society we look for safety in numbers – our new God.
To find out if you’re overweight, don’t look at the mirror, or the bathroom scale – calculate your body mass index (BMI), a math formula that determines whether you’re fat, no matter how you look or feel.
Think you’ve had a nice stroll? Better check the pedometer in your phone to see if you’ve gotten your daily recommended 10,000 footsteps.
“Uh-oh. I’m still 273 steps short. I’d better walk back to that last traffic light.”
There have always been people obsessed with figures. The founder of Kellogg’s was a noted health eccentric who believed in keeping count of everything from how many times he chewed to how frequently he went to the bathroom.
But yesterday’s eccentrics are becoming today’s norm, as technology makes it easy to keep track of your most personal data. There’s a fast-spreading new movement of “life loggers” and “life bloggers” – armies of data freaks who obsessively note everything and anything they do.
They track their caffeine levels, alcohol consumption, glucose levels and blinking rates. They keep records of how many people they talk to a day, how many items of clothing they buy a week and how many toothbrush strokes they do a month.
Many now claim to be measuring their own happiness through “galvanic skin response” and other biologic markers that supposedly register each happy (and unhappy) moment in their day. Then they can figure out how to repeat them – seeking salvation through information.
One typical entry on a life blog site says: “Today my pain level was 2, my weight was 126 lbs., my calorie intake was 2,137, I did 57 minutes of walking, slept 6 hours and my happiness level was 9.”
These people may eventually be the future as pocket machines enable us all to track our tiniest movements and “measure out our lives in (digital) coffee spoons,” like modern-day Alfred J. Prufrocks.
What will we measure next in the too-much-information age: hair follicle loss per hour, calorie counts per forkful, or mouthfuls of air we breathe by the minute – each with verbal updates from our talking machines?
“Attention! You have consumed 2,134 calories in the last 24 hours. Put down the fork, please. Now, stop breathing so fast – you’re wasting 27 mouthfuls of unnecessary air per hour.”
Has science really found a way to measure our health and happiness in computer readouts? Or is this just the latest fad of a society that’s focusing more and more closely on ourselves? After all, we’ve spent decades obsessed over dieting and weight loss, but the more we obsess the fatter we seem to get.
They say that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.“ But why take chances?
Total keystrokes used in this column: 4,137. Calories expended typing: 13. Columnist’s brain efficiency: 147 watts per neuron squared.
Hair follicle loss: 23 – but who’s counting?”