Anxiety and Grief over the Quantified Self

Craig Mod, in an essay reflecting on how we come to know ourselves through our networked collected data, discovers a new kind of tragedy as he uses a Fitbit to track his steps and stair-climbs through Paris:

Staring out, I traced my walk from so far above. I thought of the staccato data at the beginning of my adventure as I flitted between cafes, stopping for coffee and hot chocolate. The soft lull in the data as I lingered in front of Stein’s apartment. The explosive push to the base of the [Eiffel] tower—a leg of my activity graph punctuated by only a small dip as I stopped to buy water. And finally those stairs—all the stairs climbing up the tower …

I thought of the aggregate—a small corner of my projected hologram. How I would look back on my total data and today would explode out as an outlier and I would remember and replay the walk in granular detail.

Curious as to what the actual numbers were, I reached into my right pocket to check.

Emptiness.

Emptiness followed by dread.

Dread followed by denial.

I looked in the other pocket. I looked in my bag. And then I remembered, with dull thud to the gut—I changed trousers before leaving my room. The Fitbit was back at the hotel, clipped to my jeans, motionless, recording nothing.

That afternoon, looking up from below, you’d have seen a man’s heart sink off the tower. All of the lost data: It tore at the preservationist within. My hologram rendered somehow less complete. A broken stream in the data mind.

All of this new effort, this delight in walking, was a result of tracking his steps with a device. Knowing himself, and then bettering himself, because of his awareness of the data.

This rang true for me in a kind of oblong way; in the way I have always handled my music listening habits since the arrival of iTunes. I had listened to mp3s and digital music before I entered the Apple ecosystem, but iTunes’ desktop app circa 2003 had been the first time it had been so easy to see at a glance how many times I had listened to a given song, and, if I had rated it (with 1 to 5 stars), how I felt about it.

What was at first a nifty curiosity became something of an obsession as I discovered the smallest trace of utility from that data. Every time I listened to a track, either on my computer or my iPod, iTunes would add it all up. I could then build playlists based on the tracks I played the most, or hadn’t yet gotten to. By rating them, I could build playlists of my favorites, so I’d always have a set of songs that fell within the parameters of my pre-approval. One list for 5-star songs, near-guaranteed enjoyment, and another for 4 and 5-star songs, for a broader range of feelings and styles.

I cultivated this data meticulously. If I wasn’t entirely sure what rating a song warranted, I’d leave it unlabeled. 5-star songs were agonized over — do I really like Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” that much, or was it just its connection to a play I was in as a kid that makes it mean something more than it ought? That kind of thing. (It still has 5 stars to this day.)

But there were problems. As time for music listening grew shorter, I found myself gravitating to the 4 and 5-star songs almost exclusively, leaving a huge chunk of my library un-listened-to, and therefore, never to be rated, doomed to sit on a hard drive platter, spinning kind of like a record, but never heard.

Also, a quirk of iTunes and iPods is that a listen is not tallied unless a track is played all the way through to its very end, so if I listen to 90% of a track, and skip its fade-out, the listen is never marked by the software. As soon as I realized this, I made a habit of scrolling to the end of songs I did not intend to let finish, so that they would pass to the next track, giving the software the chance to tally one more play.

It became bizarrely important to me, critical, that these play counts be accurate, and this is where I really feel sympathy with Mod. I began to feel a new anxiety that is admittedly extremely strange: I would become uneasy if I heard a song over the radio when out and about, or if my wife played a CD in the car, because I knew that the playing of those songs was not being tracked. The data was lost, as it was with Mod’s forgotten Fitbit. I’d hear the songs, but there would be no record of the hearing. As I say, it really is odd, but the anxiety over that loss was, and remains, real, and it’s almost an entirely invented anxiety.

It’s only now, now that I have two children and a demanding job and essentially no time to listen to music, save for the rare late night or perhaps a reading session in which ambient music is in the background, that this discomfort has begun to wane. It’s a remarkable reform for me that I can even listen to a station on Pandora and mostly shrug off the lost data.

Mostly.

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