Lumo, Nike+, Fitocracy, Fitbit, Period Tracker: we live in an age where nothing is too trivial to be chronicled or crunched for data points. The “quantified self” has taken over our lives. A couple of years ago I was part of a panel about it — I thought at the time that the quantification could only fill us with intent, and fully supported it. While I still think many aspects of it are helping people lead better lives, I do worry about going too far.
I used to keep spreadsheets on all my lovers, obsessively inputting data into them: text messages sent, texts received, IMs sent, IMs received, calls made, calls received, sex initiated, sex received, orgasms, time elapsed between sexual activity and contact, e-mails, tweets referencing something we did, comments on other media relating to our interaction. I made graphs. I made graphs out of my relationships. Spreadsheets full of lovers — that’s me. It might sound awesome to data nerds, but mostly it was neurotic and laughably juvenile, an attempt to feel I had control over the one thing that scared me: emotion.
The quantified self lifestyle can infuse life with intent and give us momentum, gamifying our efforts and making even the least interesting tasks feel fun. But in the extreme, it can also become an obsession that takes over our lives. I’m weary, but not for the same reasons that most people are. I remember when the Spreadsheets app came out a year ago, Fast Company published a hand-wringing piece about how the quantified self had gone too far. Spreadsheets is a $0.99 iPhone app that monitors people’s performance in bed and keeps a log. By placing the phone on the bed, the accelerometer gets an idea of the number of thrusts involved in a sex act as well as the length of time. The microphone keeps tabs on the decibel levels reached, too.
“As beneficial as a trove of personal data can be, though, there are some things better left uncharted. Comparing our friend counts and vacations with others on Facebook is already making us sad,” wrote Sarah Kessler, citing a University of Michigan survey. “And it’s unlikely that comparing our lovers’ average duration and decibel volume to others’ is going to make us happy. Analytics are creeping into the most intimate and unquantifiable parts of our lives. […] There are some aspects of our lives that may be better left without a track record of our performance, some moments we shouldn’t share with anyone — not even our future selves.”
“Spreadsheets shared the stats of its 10,000 early adopters so we could investigate who has cross-country endurance and who’s a one-minute wonder,” writes Kata Hakala. “While finishing times of under three minutes may surprise you, remember that these are just the averages among two-pump chumps and Lotharios alike. Besides, previous research has shown that, despite the hubbub about hours-long tantric sessions, intercourse itself usually only lasts for about 3 to 13 minutes.”
That comment refers to a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, which reported on the findings of a survey of a random sample of members of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research in the United States and Canada. The consensus reached was that the desirable length of time for intercourse was between seven and 13 minutes. They considered three to seven minutes “adequate.” (This is pretty much what keeps me from agreeing with people who think sex is a great workout. At 3.6 calories a minute, it could be. But there’s a reason you don’t see people jumping off their treadmills at seven minutes.)
Which brings us back to Spreadsheets — according to their figures, the highest state average is seven minutes — an honor achieved by New Mexico. California clocked in at 2:38 and New York at 3:01.
How many people reading are going to see this as a challenge to improve upon (as the creators of the Spreadsheets app hope) and how many are going to see this as a new opportunity to become neurotically fixated on a personal failing? It’s not that some things are “sacred” or “unquantifiable.” It’s that quantification is like magic — it can be used to change our habits for the better or enslave us in a quest for more data and control.
Here’s some advice my father gave me, slightly modified to address this particular issue: use any apps if that’s what you want. But don’t let the apps use you. (He was talking about drugs, but it works.)