Know thyself!

According to the Quantified Self movement, data aggregation is the answer to one of mankind’s oldest and most fundamental problems. Its catchphrase, “self knowledge through numbers,” implicitly suggests that objective self analysis by various means of data collection will allow users to reach their goals, whatever those may be.

Lo! Self knowledge, delivered in an easy-to-read graph and often helpfully accompanied by concrete, attainable steps to self-improvement.

The American public has proven incredibly receptive to the idea. Indeed, the Quantified Self movement is nestled within a much larger industry of self-quantification and description. Josh Bersin for Forbes Magazine points out that we have turned nearly everything into a means to this end:

Not only are we instrumenting our bodies, we are instrumenting everything else. … Facebook itself is an “instrumentation” system – it encourages us to post more and more data about where we are, what we’re doing, and who we are with. And Twitter, which now has around 260 million users, has become a self-description engine.

One man has taken to coding himself a daily itinerary. HTML prompts appear at various intervals, reminding him to get up and stretch, tell his wife he loves her, evaluate his energy level, take 10 minutes to think, etc.  Another man used the massive amounts of data he self-collected to lose 100 pounds and launch himself into a successful business career. And then there’s the man who just got drunk.

A look into the ways consumers use the data collection industry gives insight into why they are self-aggregating in the first place: they are telling a story. (Take, for example, the tendency of Facebook and Twitter users to thoroughly chronicle and distribute their existential minutiae.) The “narrative” of the Age of Information is a torrential data stream.

While this transformation seems radical, American society has experienced rapid shifts in the quantity and speed of shared data before. A City Journal article points out that the printing press, telegraph, and telephone each vaulted data distribution to what were then-unprecedented levels. The authors, Mark P. Mills and M. Anthony Mills, make the distinction between two prior stages of the information revolution and the peculiar nature of this latest development:

The first information revolution spawned mass printing and telecommunications; the second saw the ascendance of mass computing and the Internet. … We are now witnessing the emergence of a new type of data derived from every aspect of human interaction and behavior, from commercial exchanges to biological processes.

The distribution of this information seems to require no interpretation; only mediation, passive transmission of fact. It is tempting to lament that the qualitative self—man as storyteller, as interpreter—has been largely supplanted by the quantitative self: a man of data and metadata, of fact and sleek efficiency.

Though our imagination may very well have shifted, our nature has not. We are intrinsically subjective, incapable of complete objectivity. The image of mankind rendered by quantification, though ever more extensive, is by no means comprehensive. Scientific description cannot now and never will alter fundamental facts of human nature. Relentless reduction to objective fact cannot somehow circumscribe mankind.

“Know thyself” is an exhortation as profound and relevant in the Age of Information as it was in the age of Classical Greece: there is more to know, more to be known by, than numbers.