📈 On the Quantified Self

By shutting out the immeasurable, we can lose sight of what is truly meaningful.

Welcome to the 1st issue of Cathexis, a creative’s take on humanity’s relationship with technology. If you enjoy thought-provoking ramblings, unique collage art, and personally curated links from a curious teenage girl, why not subscribe?


Reflection

Losing weight is an uphill struggle.

In theory, it's simple. You just need to consume fewer calories than you burn. If only it were that easy to do. With factors like existing habits, your environment, and stress, it's difficult to control your eating every day. This is spoken from experience. I'm usually a healthy person, one who keeps active and eats cleanly. But during the first few weeks of August, I was exhausted from working days and nights on end, trying to balance both internship and org work. Left with no more willpower, I went "screw it" and starting binge-eating to my heart's content. Of course, this ended up making me feel like trash. So when I had a 1-week break, I decided to get my life together again.

To start eating and sleeping right again, I started enlisting the help of technology. Every meal I ate would first be weighed with a kitchen weighing scale, then recorded in the MyFitnessPal app. Every day, I made sure I reached 10,000 steps, which were shown by my Fitbit watch. Every night, I would set-up my Sleep Cycle app, which would analyze the quality of my sleep.

This routine gave me peace of mind. As someone who is easily distressed by last-minute changes, tracking everything helped me believe that I had control over my life. Did it? Despite fussing over every bit of my health, I left myself in the dark about what was happening to my body; I'd avoid the bathroom scale and measuring tape like the plague. Still guilty of my many mistakes, I was afraid to face the truth. A higher weight would only confirm my worries: that I was getting fatter.

Why did numbers affect me so much?

This is the effect of the Quantified Self: the acquisition of self-knowledge through self-tracking. This is done through products and apps designed for enhancing productivity, health, and fitness. For people who always struggle with these topics, collecting data helps them deal with the uncertainties of their lives. For example, maintaining records helped Kay Stoner (a self-tracker who suffered from headaches) develop coping mechanisms and communicate with others. “Data adds structure, meaning, and purpose to my life," she said in a Quantified Self Show & Tell.

Does this make datafication our set path toward self-actualization? I disagree. The light it sheds into our lives can become a sort of tunnel vision; by shutting out the immeasurable, we can lose sight of what is truly meaningful. Author/entrepreneur Tim Leberecht takes this concern further, believing that acquiring such near-omniscience strips us of our humanity. In his book "The Business Romantic", he writes:

We are under surveillance by ourselves. We are constantly watching and recording our lives, offering up massive amounts of personal data—our Quantified Selves—to an omniscient technocratic deity, pursuing total visibility in the name of utilitarianism's greatest happiness principle...We are becoming prisoners of the technologies that are tracking us, filtering information for us, and, ultimately, deciding for us.

We are more than our quantified selves. Metrics like our fitness activity and social connections are not enough to describe what it means to be human. Instead, Tim Leberecht offers another answer:

We are human because we are unpredictable. We are human because we can't be trusted. Our inconsistency—our ability and desire to constantly change—is at the very heart of who we are.

Knowing that I am capable of change keeps me pursuing weight loss, despite constantly relapsing. I'm grateful for struggling; going through these trials instigate my growth. Without them, I'd stall. And if I'm not growing, then am I living at all?

Overall: tracking progress is like trekking a mountain. Experiencing the ups and downs is a roller coaster; my feelings fluctuate with my weight. With such emotional turmoil, it's easy to forget that these are all occurring at the micro-level. Only when we take a long-term view (a.k.a. reaching the summit) can we see progress for how it truly is. However, it's not about reaching your goal; instead, it's the journey we go through that counts. To wrap up, here's this wonderful quote from author Andy Andrews:

Everybody wants to reach the top of the mountain, but there is no growth at the peak. It is in the valley that we slog through the lush grass and rich soil, learning and becoming what enables us to summit life's next peak.

So after weeks of avoidance, I finally got on the scale. Just as I thought, I was heavier than ever. I was sad yet relieved because I was no longer in the dark. I may have been far from my goal, but at least I could see; this allowed me to go back on track. Now, I see the number not as an end, but as another point in my journey. Whether high or low, it won't stop me from persisting.


Curation

🍬 Eye Candy

Intricate Insights

I recently discovered Laurie Frick, a data artist. Based on personal data, her handcrafted works explore our self-awareness in a new light. Her entire gallery was a joy to look through; my favorite piece of hers is “Stress Inventory”, which was based on research that small daily stress adds up to long-term chronic health issues. As someone who’s used to overworking (i.e. consecutive all-nighters), this was an eye-opener.

Perky Possibilities

While doing research on the Quantified Self, I discovered the art of Yulong Lili. His main question: “If we make all the selections based on the data and personal preference so that it might stop us from experiencing new things, will this so called ‘quantified self’ lead us to a better future?”. In contrast to this pessimistic inquiry, his lively style shines. Check out more of his works in this series (animated!) here.

Portfolio Perspectives

Recently, I stumbled upon these works by designer Gladys Orteza in my feed. These reimagine stock market charts as beautiful landscapes (funny how this issue’s art piece tried to do the same thing). Like Laurie Frick’s art, I love how these reimagined data in a way that wasn’t boring. Data visualization is so interesting!

🤯 Interesting Innovations

The Headband that Trains You

Recently, I just discovered Muse, a brain fitness tool that tracks your brain signals. Made for meditation, it helps you see changes in your focus. Aside from this feedback, it also motivates you to keep improving through gamification: making use of points, goals, challenges, and bonuses. Definitely looks like something way ahead of its time, don’t you think? What makes me believe in the product even more is its co-founder Ariel Garten, psychotherapist and woman in tech. I got inspired listening to her podcast interview, where she talks about ethical tech and mindfulness during quarantine. Here’s with one quote that resonated with me: “Healing is about choosing very, very small things that you want to move forward step by step”.

The Website that Reads You

I’m always been fascinated by how much the Internet can tell us more about ourselves, from short Buzzfeed quizzes to lengthy MBTI tests. Platforms for analyzing the media we consume do this as well, with examples like Spotify Wrapped, Last.fm, and Letterboxd. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to apply to books; Goodreads is a terrible product (i.e. clunky user experience, outdated interface, owned by Amazon). Thankfully, there’s a new alternative: The StoryGraph, a website that helps you find the best books for your current mood. Not only does it give spot-on book recommendations; it also gets revealing statistics based on the books you’ve read. It’s still in beta, which explains a lot of lacking features, but I’m hopeful for its potential.

🤡 Quarantine Mood

I think this speaks for itself. Who else relates?


Thank You!

Thank you for reading Cathexis today. With school starting soon and work piling up, free time has been slipping away from my grasp; making this newsletter was difficult to get done, but it’s a labor of love I hope to continue committing to.

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