Note: This was originally written February 26th, 2015. Pulled from the archives.
In mathematics and science, quantification is the act of counting and measuring that maps human sense observations and experiences into some kind of set of numbers. Quantification, in this sense, is fundamental to the scientific method.
Should we quantify happiness?
A Twelve Talk on privacy rights, gamifying life, the Internet of Things and what they all mean.
Originally, I was going to do this presentation as a Prezi with around a dozen slides purely of text. But then I realized how much I was going to talk about and how much graphics I’m going to use and how Prezi is really hard to use when you have over thirty slides going. It’s not aesthetically pleasing.
An Introduction to Self-quantification
Before I begin, I have to introduce the definition of self-quantification. However before I am able to do even that, I have to define the word quantification itself.
So, with this, we can infer that self-quantification is thereby measuring and numbering things about ourselves. And that’s exactly what it is. But what do we measure, exactly?
Objective vs. Subjective
There are two routes you can take with this. You can measure the completely objective; your heart rate whilst working out, the amount of hours you’re in a deep sleep every night, the temperature outside during your commute to work.
You can watch Ari Meisel explain how he cured his Crohn’s disease by following data. Here’s Larry Smarr doing it as well. Even Tim Ferriss tracks data in his life to hack his way to better health.²
And then there is the subjective. How loved you feel, on a scale from 1–10. The amount of good deeds you feel like you’ve done this week. And of course, how happy you feel.
Now, the first real moral question comes from the latter; how could you measure so much of what makes us, us? And that’s the subject of today’s talk. I’m not going to show you the innumerable amount of devices or apps available to track everything from making sure you get your period monthly to the spending habits of your potential baby’s daddy.
This is not new. Benjamin Franklin famously tracked 13 personal virtues in a daily journal to push himself toward moral perfection. He shared this insight in his autobiography:
“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”²
In fact, you probably take note of all of these sort of things all the time. You just don’t write them down. And even if you do, it probably looks more like this than this. And that’s what encapsulates what self-quantification truly is.
The Ethical Consequence & Maths
Now getting back to the ethical question at hand, here. Should we quantify happiness? Since I’ve properly explained the foundation needed for this, I can begin dissecting it.
I ask should, not can. It is easy to write down a figure nightly of how happy you feel you were throughout the day. But should you? Does attaching a digit on a scale do anything? And if so, are those effects positive? Can it pass a true Null hypothesis?³
Now, if you allow me to go on a tangent here, for a second. I think it’s important to talk about the Null Hypothesis. It’s a very complex-sounding mathematical term that basically just means figuring out if something works better than say, a placebo.
And even if so, should it be so simple? Is a simple daily number truly effective? In my opinion, no. It’s been time tested and failed by decades of youth counsellors and the like. And that’s where we go to our next point.
A consequence of self-quantification is the gamification of life. A great example of this is HabitRPG, which literally turns the boring and mundane of your life’s habits, chores and to-do’s into a Role-playing game. Having level-ups, armor and weapons, party guilds to help one another succeed and pets.
On their Wiki⁴, it even states that you should gamify your tasks. Using Climb the Tower instead of Walked up the Stairs or Used the Messenger Bird instead of Email.
Now, this may seem like I’m digressing. That this is off topic to the question of whether we should quantify happiness–this isn’t even quantification, it’s gamification–but I believe it’s so important.
Because one of my favourite infographics clearly displays that gamification of the educational system has done wonders to improving the grades of countless children. Do you want to know why? Because we like games! We have biologically evolved a wonderful reward system that we should be utilizing! And although it’s still a new concept, it’s being used more and more by school boards around the world.
A case against self-quantification
Now, it might seem a bit weird to think of there being privacy issues involving self-quantification. I mean, one would think the entire point is to keep all of this information private, right? You’re probably doubting the actual social issue, here.
If only it were so easy. But it’s not. Sure, you can keep track and measure all of this data by hand, using only programs you coded yourself and visual graphing scripts only you have access too, but we live in a world where we leave that complicated woo-hah to the other guys.
In fact, it’s far bigger than that. Whether you use a FitBit or not, companies are collecting this data. Companies have been quantifying their customer and consumer data for decades, and they haven’t even had the politeness to share it with you! With the exclusion of ads, of course.
This concept is called Big Data, where businesses essentially take what they think is important about you; say, you’re race and gender, and sell you or advertise for you based on that.
And it feeds itself, too. If you’re in that demographic, and you post a Tweet saying you love Subway(™), or even that you just like the colour blue, these businesses will think that sort of data is applicable to whatever demographic you’re in that they see fit. Of course it’s not that sensitive or finicky. But there is a lot of misinformation that can occur when this sort of data is taken too seriously.
Now, Self-Quantification is a fairly new phenomenon in the mainstream market, so it’s difficult to find any real, authentic court cases for it. So I have a Court Case from Ireland about Facebook instead, demonstrating exactly what I was speaking about before: Big Data.
Of course, Facebook itself has a sleuth of unrelated privacy problems, too easy it is to delve into the deep trenches of public surveillance that is now synonymous with the NSA and Edward Snowden’s leak.
Because I’ve already well exceeded the time limit, I’m going to have to cut this short. I was going to go on with a case for self-quantification, but that is mostly irrelevant to the social issue at hand. I was going to go over the information provided by the social experiments of OKCupid that revealed how people truly act in the realms of online dating. But again, this information is for the most part irrelevant.
What’s important here is my main inquiry question. Should we quantify happiness? There are pros and cons, as I have listed the biggest core concepts I’ve tried to share with you today.
But it ultimately comes down to a personal level, and what kind of thinker and what sort of intelligence you are strongest in. This sort of information is great for somebody like me, I can see deep insights into myself based on what I recollect about a day vs. what I wrote I felt vs. what I wrote about how I acted as well.
I hope that this provided more insight than confusion for you. I hope that somewhere in this mass array of information you have found some sort of idea worth using, or spreading. Thank you.
As an aspiring Information Designer, this is important to me. What I want to do for a living is find the most accessible and beautiful way possible to display large amounts of information. Too often are we bombarded with walls of text with awful typefaces, too often are we given dry and flat power-points we’re forced to read through ourselves. With the 21st Century comes the age of colourful and nonsensical infographics; ways of not just explaining information, but telling stories as well.
Haddadi, H., & Brown, I. (2014, May 19). Quantified Self and the Privacy Challenge. Retrieved October 13, 2014, from http://www.eecs.qmul.ac.uk/~hamed/papers/qselfprivacy2014.pdf
Porter, C. (2014, April 12). The Quantified Self movement and big data. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/the-quantified-self-movement-and-big-data/5384470
Carney, M. (2014, May 20). You are your data: The scary future of the quantified self movement. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://pando.com/2013/05/20/you-are-your-data-the-scary-future-of-the-quantified-self-movement
Talens, D. (2013, September 15). Why “Quantified Self” is bullsh*\t. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://pando.com/2013/09/05/why-quantified-self-is-bullshit/
Gifford, J. (2013, July 31). How worried are you about privacy as you quantify yourself online? Sci-Tech DW.DE 31.07.2013. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.dw.de/how-worried-are-you-about-privacy-as-you-quantify-yourself-online/a-16989198
Symantec Secturity Response. (2014, June 30). How safe is your quantified self? Tracking, monitoring, and wearable tech. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.symantec.com/connect/blogs/how-safe-your-quantified-self-tracking-monitoring-and-wearable-tech
Thomas, C. (2013, December 13). First, the Quantified Self. Now, the Over-Quantified Self. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://ethicalnag.org/2013/12/13/first-the-quantified-self-now-the-over-quantified-self/
Jawbone. (2011, November 3). Jawbone UP: Extended User Guide. Retrieved October 16, 2014, from http://content.jawbone.com/static/www/pdf/manuals/up/up-by-jawbone-extended-manual-en.pdf
Dachis, A. (2013, January 16). HabitRPG Turns Better Behavior into a Game of Survival. Retrieved October 16, 2014, from http://lifehacker.com/5976476/habitrpg-turns-better-behavior-into-a-game-of-survival