Astronauts with their life support systems and athletes with their stats have always lived quantified lives. For the rest of us the trend is somewhat new. While it may appear that I am under house arrest, tagged by law enforcement with a bracelet alarm, that fact is, I’ve tagged myself. Next to my trusty watch (which could use a good servicing if the cockeyed date/date wheels are anything to judge by) is something called a Fitbit Flex, a neoprene clad activity tracker that minds my every step. The illuminated dot in the photograph is the first of five that light up as I progress toward a daily goal of ten thousand steps.
Clearly I haven’t made much progress.
The trend is not new, to be honest. We have always hunted for ways of quantifying our identities, especially our worth. Samuel Pepys in his seventeenth century diary ended each year by totting up his credits and debits. His was a quantified self of sorts. All that’s changed is our ability to track everything, including the stats once beneath our notice.
Something else has changed, perhaps. We’ve managed to suppress the instinct telling us quantification is a fool’s game, that pursuing quality by measuring quantity is simply never going to add up. Maybe we know better now than to confuse the two, or we’ve figured out that (as much as we resist the thought) quantity does equal quality in certain avenues, whether it’s the number of dollars in your bank account or the number of steps you’ve walked today.
Writers already lead uncomfortably quantified lives, measuring our worth in the number of words written today, in the number of books in print and how well they’ve sold. All of these metrics speak to one kind of quality –– my quality of life –– without addressing another, the quality of my work. The best written books aren’t always the bestselling; in fact, some days I see no correlation at all. But this is true in the world of work generally, where most of us are paid for our time rather than the use we make of it.
I appreciate the words of a prayer Wendell Berry quoted recently, as reported by my friend Alan Cornett at Pinstripe Pulpit. This comes from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and reads like a repudiation of quantity over quality:
Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men [...]“
You want to get paid for your work, but you need to work for higher motives than pay. You have to sell books, but you need to write them for higher motives than selling.
The fact is, I don’t want to be measured, but when the task is intimidating I submit. A whole novel to write from scratch? Word count, please. A diet-and-exercise regimen? I’ll take the activity tracker, silly as it looks wrapped around my wrist. Quantification for all its faults keeps hopelessness at bay with the promise that, however daunting the task, all you have to worry about for the moment is one simple metric. Perish the mystery. And it’s so very easy to track.