The numbers we track: How they help (and don’t)

OCTOBER 25 — Human beings are nothing if not trackers. We love monitoring information on anything and everything. 

I’m reminded of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer where Denzel Washington’s character is portrayed as obsessively timing practically everything he does: how long he takes to wash a plate, leave the house, eat, take a bus and, uh, kill bad guys. 

I recall thinking to myself this fella is over-the-top with his “measurements” but, in light of the things people today track with their Apple digital watches and all that, Robert McCall’s behaviour now seems pretty normal.

Nowadays we track everything from our heart-beats, our foot-steps, our sugar levels, our skin temperature, our deep sleep duration, our periods, our sperm levels, our alertness, the number of times we sneeze, even the bacterial composition of our faeces (yes, some people track even that stuff). 

You get the feeling that if something can be quantified, it’ll be monitored and hoisted onto a graph or chart somewhere. And whatever cannot be quantified will be assigned a number because, well, why not.

But why do we do this? What’s with this human need to track everything in life?

I reckon the answer isn’t as straight-forward as, oh, what gets measured gets done. According to this view, for life to improve we need to see how said variables are progressing (or regressing) over time. 

Tracking also allows us to make the required modifications without delay. For example, some folks are able to self-diagnose certain diseases based on variables they were tracking or, at the very least, quickly see the doctor because a month of sleep pattern readings suggest something not quite right.

And it’s not just the coordinates of our physical and mental selves. Now more and more people are starting to track things like their room-to-room motion in office, their GPS locations, their moods in relation to selected situations(!), their outgoing and incoming emails and phone calls, the number of edits they made when writing that novel or PhD thesis, etc.

Behold, the “Quantified Self”, where each and every iota of our bodies and minds can be displayed on an Excel sheet.

Sure, when we track all these numbers no doubt some improvements can be made. But could there be another more awry reason? Could it be that people get into the tracking habit simply because they can? Could it be that millions of people have begun to believe that measuring the number of footsteps they take a day is important because Fitbit enabled them to and said it should be done? Honestly, how many people can report dramatic changes in their life as a result of tracking a variable their ancestors couldn’t?

This is an era where we believe information can only help and never make things worse. — Picture courtesy of Fitbit
This is an era where we believe information can only help and never make things worse. — Picture courtesy of Fitbit

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Don’t get me wrong. By all means if wearing that Garmin or Withings device and getting your daily and weekly heart-rate variability (HRV) readings rock your boat, don’t let me tell you not to wear it. Knock yourself out. But have you considered tracking the difference between wearing and not wearing it? (smile)

Because information isn’t neutral and it’s rarely without a downside. 

This is an era where we believe information can only help and never make things worse, but I suggest this is worth rethinking. There are times when knowing something may change a situation in an unnecessarily unhelpful way. A few simple examples should suffice. 

Take a kid who’s enjoying his favourite toy car... until he sees another kid playing with a flashier Ferrari. That “new” information changes his enjoyment of his existing toy, envy sets in, and we know what happens next.

Or take a childcare centre which introduces in-class webcams, so parents can now view their kids from the comfort of their office. This sounds like great marketing and a huge value-added product until parents begin getting unnecessarily anxious seeing their child somewhat quiet at 2pm. This “extra” information causes the dad or mum to be bothered to no end when, in fact, there’s hardly anything to worry about; the kid was just tired.

Another example I can think of was the time my bosses requested daily information confirming that all emails sent have been delivered to the intended recipient. When I provided that information everyone was elated... for about four days. After that, the sheer overload of data coming in killed whatever initial value there was.

Now you may object that this isn’t the kind of information presently tracked with our digital devices. You’d be right but the key point is this: How much harm can such constantly tracked information do to us? Do we know?

I think about this each time someone tells me that she’s not sure she can achieve the requisite 10,000 steps before the day’s end. I mean, does it really help us modern folks to add yet one more item to be concerned about? 

I try and always fail to tell friends not to keep checking the KLSE every three hours. This is the worst kind of info-tracking possible because chances are one’s moods will be placed in a continuous pressure-cooker i.e. it’s simply emotionally healthier NOT to know.

And I can only imagine anyone suddenly seeing awkward readings on their HRV or deep-sleep readouts. Sure some of this may be important and serious but how many of it is just panic-inducing noise?

Information can be like sugar: Helpful to a certain extent but damaging (and even dangerous?) after a certain point.

Take the frenzy over the number of positive Covid-19 cases over the past few months. Was it absolutely necessary for millions of Malaysians to go into social media hysteria around 5pm every day when the Ministry of Health released the results? 

Seriously, what harm would there have been to NOT see the daily Covid-19 cases? In fact, it’s reached a point where even today, when over 94 per cent of Malaysian adults are vaccinated, people remain concerned about daily cases. 

This is, frankly, unhelpful for a near-fully vaccinated population; in an endemic situation the number of infected should no longer matter.

The 24/7 onslaught of social media feeds is, of course, another example of extreme information input. There is almost no doubt that our nation’s mental health crisis is in part due to the sheer volume of (interesting but ultimately useless and cumulatively unhelpful) posts and graphics and tweets ingested by the average Malaysian every day.

Ergo, not every piece of information is helpful even if it’s supposedly “relevant.”

Now apply all this to our tracking phenomenon. At what point will our daily readings and what-not transform from helpful decision-making to the digital equivalent of surplus carbohydrates?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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