The Illusion of Control

In a recent New York Times Magazine cover story, Gary Wolf reported on the growing trend of "self measurement"--people who are monitoring and measuring an increasing number of items in their daily lives. Once upon a time, the only quantitative monitoring people did was a quick wristwatch check of how long it had taken them to run three miles, or how many hours they'd slept. Those on strict diet plans (or undergoing serious athletic training) might also count their basic caloric intake, but that was about it.

Technology has now changed all that. Living in Silicon Valley, I've seen a visible explosion, over the past few years, of gadgets and methods for not only measuring everything from heartbeats to footsteps, but ways of logging those measurements on websites and sharing all that data with others.

Part of the growing popularity of all this measuring is basic human behavior. We love gadgets and respond to little bells, numbers and electronic feedback like so many lab rats hitting levers for food pellets. Embarrassing, but seemingly true. I have several friends who've reported an increase in the number of times they exercise after signing on to a website that lets them log a GPS track of each session and earn a few pennies a mile for a charity of their choice. As incentive systems go, that's not far off food pellets. But it seems to work--at least in the short run.

The focus of Wolf's article, however, wasn't hobby trackers. It was the growing number of people who, given the technological gadgetry now available, are becoming obsessed with monitoring (and sharing) almost all aspects of their behavior and activity, all the time. Mood swings. Coffee intake and resulting minutes of productivity. Vitamin supplement intake and subsequent changes in concentration (how, exactly, one quantifies that was not explained), sleep and pain levels.

I'm not entirely clear how anyone manages to have a complete, complex thought or achieves any level of real productivity while monitoring and recording 10 parameters every two minutes, but the issue that intrigues me more is the simple question of "why." What is it that makes someone so obsessed with such detailed levels of quantitative measurement?

"Self-trackers," Wolf explained, "believe their numbers hold secrets they can't afford to ignore, including answers to questions they have not yet thought to ask."

Quantitative numbers are seductive, of course, because they seem so irrefutable and controllable. Which is to say, they offer the illusion of control. But what's interesting about the self-tracking trend is that it's occurring even as business experts are beginning to dramatically rethink their love affair with, and faith in, quantitative analysis. It was, after all, very neat, quantitative formulas that made the risks of CDOs seem manageable.

The day before the Times article appeared, in fact, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, a bit ironically, "Beyond the Numbers: Building Your Qualitative Intelligence."

"Given the complexity we face on a regular basis," Martin writes, "we naturally seek ways to understand and control whatever we can." The problem is that quantitative analysis has its limits. And those limits are often narrower than we'd like to believe.

"When used in a suitable context, [the quantitative paradigm] produces reliable data," Martin says. "However, the paradigm breaks down when the phenomenon under study is either complex or ambiguous to any significant degree. The greatest weakness of the quantitative approach is that it decontextualizes human behavior ... ignoring the effects of variables not included in the model."

Interestingly enough, one of the examples Martin uses to illustrate his point is the mapping of the human genome. The scientists who had predicted that the project would solve the world's medical mysteries, he says, "had to admit that the entire project had raised more questions about the complicated interaction among genes than it answered."

So is the tracking movement just out of step? Did its proponents somehow miss the heard-learned recent lessons of the finance industry? Possibly. But more likely, the growing interest in self-tracking is just the next iteration of our endless quest and desire for control in a frighteningly complex world. If knowledge is power, then surely 100 points of data must give us some greater power over mysterious and vexing medical problems ranging from insomnia and illness to concentration and mood swings.

In and of itself, of course, there's a lot to be said for data collection. The entire scientific method is based on it. But as we're able to measure, record, report and quantify more and more of our daily lives, we would do well to heed Martin's words on the importance of increasing our qualitative awareness and "intelligence," as well.

"That means," he says, "not obsessing about measurement so much that you exclude essential but un-measurable qualities from your understanding of a given situation. Consider the possibility that if you can't measure something, it might very well be the most important aspect of the problem on which you are working."

Martin may have been talking about the business world. But the advice is equally valid in every realm of human endeavor. Even if, given the un-measurable quality of qualities, we can't get a cool, seductive iPhone application to help us figure out how to do it.