optimize me not, but quantify me quietly

No, I’m not having a relationship with my OS (I haven’t seen “Her” other than in clips, but I do rather like my male Siri). Today, though, a robot spoke to me, personally (more below…)


For most of my life I thought that I might have preferred being born a few decades (if not centuries!) earlier. No, I’m not one to dress in period clothing or eschew the trappings, both good and bad, of modern life, but I’ve always yearned for a simpler time. Perhaps that is why some of my happiest moments have been when I had the least, when my house was nest-like and my loved ones close.

But there is another side to me, that loves and craves technology, smart things, complex things made simple.

At the same time I make more and more things on my own rather than buying them I have always been an avid early adopter of technology (within my budget, of course, and interests).

I readily admit to a similar gush of joy when I discover a great app as I do when I pull a homemade baguette from the oven. I wriggle with pride when I’ve figured out a new thing to do in code in the same way I do when I figured out a new stitch in knitting (there are similarities, patterns and all that….). They are not opposites for me but links in a swirling chain which mesmerizes and baffles, brings me great pleasure and fills me with hope. There is such beauty and potential in each.

Somewhere I came across the photography blog nomadruss, which tumbles into my inbox with its lovely images, of people, of nature. Its latest post began with a similar invocation to time-traveling to another birth date:

“Photographically, I feel as though I was born about 30 years early. While being born later would have meant missing out on slide film and awaiting the results from the lab, it would also have meant being born into the world of digital photography and iPhones. When I think back on all the cross country and international trips I made in the early days, to have had a digital SLR or an iPhone to document it all? It would have been amazing.”

I am no photographer, and have a rather well-known aversion to being either in front of or behind a lens, but there are other areas that I can pinpoint as wishing I could erase a decade or two.

One of these is the ability to self-track, this whole barrage of tools which lead to the “quantified self”. If you were to peek at the apps I have on my iphone (or, better yet, my itunes where even the device-deleted ones live) you’d see a slew of apps to track this and that: what I eat, weigh, how much I exercise or write, how many books I read, and when or how often. There are goals and graphs and charts and apps which hold hands and cozy up with one another to compile even more complex goals and graphs and charts and ahhhhhh. I love it. I do.

I totally realize that there are many who are either indifferent to the whole idea of self-tracking or adamantly opposed to it. My husband thinks I’m batty, my son and I compare notes, my daughter’s somewhere in between… There are those who are motivated and energized, jazzed up by mapping out patterns in their own lives, and others who are not.

Does my choice of trackers show that I am in denial of my age? Definitely. Most of the ones I have are clearly targeted at a 20-something consumer, who not only wants to track, but wants to share-share-share, wants to tell the world with exclamation points how far they’ve run or admit with flushed cheeks that they did not. What they enjoy about it and what motivates them is not only the tracking, but the ever-growing crowd, the conversation between your data and theirs. (Surprise, surprise, I keep my data to myself, tyvm.)

One of the more recent apps I downloaded is called, appropriately enough, OptimizeMe. It begins with a robotic character who welcomes you with these words…

“Welcome to Optimize me.
My name is Ari,
I’m here to optimize you.”

Oh, Ari… Suffice it to say he didn’t last too long with me, my life being far too boring to worry about tracking my every move, but I find it (him?) fascinating, and here’s where the time-travel comes in…

I know if I were in my 20’s I probably would track everything, in the same way I so avidly kept a journal for so many years. Very early on I realized that looking back at myself from a slightly disconnected distance I could digest and understand, see the logic behind what may have seemed at the time without, and then let it all go. I would have eaten up this quantification thing with passion, most probably not to optimize myself, but at least to get that frisson of feeling like I had it all in control, written down, graphed, if only for my own late-night perusal or amusement. This is me, my journal said.

But how radically different my life would have been if I’d had to stop and log, or even if it was all logged automatically. I’m not sure I would have benefited from all this “optimization,” for such a large part of finding your path is going down some of the wrong ones. So very much of realizing what is important to you is exploring the things that, ultimately, are not. Life is, and should be, messy and unraveled at times, above all undocumented, if only so that in the process of tidying it up one can come to conclusions alone, without a graph or a robot’s suggestions, without the world knowing your every step.

So yeah, I’ll remain selective in what I quantify and I’ll have fun reading the data produced with a big fat grain of salt, the same one I’ll sprinkle on top of that baguette, the one that can’t be made with numbers but only by feel, with senses, with love. Take that, Ari.

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