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Counting farts: in pursuit of the quantified self


Every time I see someone running down the street with a sexy little Jawbone strapped to their wrist, I can’t help but think of farts.

In Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, the eponymous hero – a former vagrant now living with his mother – recalls the day when, wrapped in copies of The Times Literary Supplement, he decided to count his farts.

“Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours” Molly relates, “or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all.”

Fifty Shades

Now don’t get me wrong. I find the dream of the fully ‘quantified self’ as compelling as it is eerie. I am the kind of kale-eating, therapy-jargon-spouting narcissist for whom wearable tech was made. A keen sponsor of the $11 billion self-help industry, I am fascinated by the life-pimping potential of our new breed of navel-gazing tech.

From SuperBetter, the latest site from crusading game designer Jane McGonigal which aims to gamily our personal health goals, to Dream: ON, the app from British psychologist Richard Wiseman which allows us to track, share and even influence the content of our dreams, I spend far too much time browsing body-hacking porn.

The application of big data to our most mundane bodily functions provides a thrill that larger and more abstract projects, however worthy, cannot match.

Sure, we understand the importance of businesses harnessing big data to transform their sustainability or governments manipulating it to better manage public transport.

But much like our craving to reduce the mystery of the universe to a beardy bloke in Birkenstocks, most of us can only learn to love technology when it is turned into story about us.

Craft that story from the syllables of our heartbeat, the imagery of our dreams and the commas of our breath, and you’ve got an instant bestseller; Fifty Shades of Decay?

Taking the plunge

Yet although I continually dissect and tweak my social media persona like the finest Facebook Frankenstein, I still can’t quite bring myself to fork out a couple of hundred quid for a Fitbit or a Gruve.

At the moment I can still, after an hour spent on Twitter, force myself to disconnect; to walk unmediated into the city streets, get a coffee with a friend and re-establish the boundary – however fuzzy – between my curated and experiencing self.

I’m afraid of what would happen to that boundary if I bought a device that would turn that sweet, dark shot of Colombian and that tearful heart-to-heart into a graphable dataset.

Frankly, I’m afraid of how much I might like it.

Knowing when to stop

Of course, self-tracking might well be a powerful tool in helping people chart, acknowledge and change their behaviour.

But I suspect, like most technology, it is mostly used by those who need it the least, the wealthy worried well; and in this context, it seems to combine the worst sort of female self-objectification with the worst sort of male autistic obsessiveness.

Again, I can understand the urge; when you’ve lost the knack of living inside your body, ‘getting the measure of it’ seems next best. But isn’t self-consciousness the one skill that Gen Y has already nailed? Might we be better off honing our sensitivity to our environment and community rather than our own resting heart rate?

Last year Zeo, one of the early quantified-self pioneers, quietly folded. Last month, Nike announced that it was no longer investing in the development of new FuelBand hardware. Of course, there are a host of startups jostling to take their place, and perhaps the iWatch will redefine the genre; God knows, Apple have game-changed industries before.

But I can’t help but wonder, once we’ve cannibalised every experience and logged every twitch of our skin: will we know ourselves better, or worse?


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