Humans are first and foremost attracted to the patterns we see in life because of their beauty. Only afterwards do we discover their utility. What supreme irony, then, lies in what inevitably happens next: The more we use the patterns we discover, the more we lose our awareness of the beauty that attracted us to them in the first place.
The Trixie Telemetry company is a case in point. I’d never heard of the thing until this morning, when I was drinking my morning coffee and read about it in an online article in The New York Times. In “Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?” we learn that the Trixie Telemetry company sells a program to help parents raise their babies by quantifying their little lives, and turning what they do into data. Parents use the program to keep track of the distance between productions in the diaper or the length of naps, or the amount and kind of food intake, or whatever. Using this data can “help parents make data-based decisions” on child rearing. (The article mentioned a host of other “self-quantification” programs available to those who have lost all sense of life lived in real time; should anyone find it just too, too much to make decisions about ordinary life based on the outmoded standard derived from human judgment, metrics are there for you.)
For a long time now, I’ve railed against Outcomes Assessment in higher education because it deforms and distorts education by ruthlessly forcing that which is a matter of quality into the apparatus of metrics. The resulting data, used by administrators within universities and functionaries looking at higher education from the outside, leads to a profound scam -- one of the biggest, most fraudulent ideas ever perpetrated -- namely, the idea that knowledge is the same thing as data.
This scam is now spreading deeper and further, it seems. It’s a mere matter of time before we can substitute T.S. Eliot’s tragic modern man, living by “measuring out my life with coffee spoons” with the new postmodern dolt: A man who measures out his life with data spoons.
Out of curiosity, I went to the website for The Trixie Telemetry company. There I read that “Trixie Tracker” was invented by a stay-at-home dad “so he could take better care of his new daughter. He knew that there was a daily schedule and wanted to understand it, but it was too difficult to keep track of all the little baby-care details.”
For the life of me, who needs this thing? Learning the nuances of your baby and detecting your baby’s patterns and rhythms doesn’t take data. It takes being in the world with your baby. Trixie Tracker probably won’t result in monsters -- B.F. Skinner stuck his daughter in his Skinner Box, which alarmed a lot of people at the time, yet she grew up to be just fine. People apply all kinds of strange theories in raising their kids. The only ones that are actually harmful are those that reinforce an underlying inability to love them for who they are.
But the joy of having a baby derives not from the data -- parents, you’ll get plenty of that at the doctor’s office -- but from the sheer, immeasurable, unquantifiable, passionate, exuberant love of being around your new and adorable little being.
I repeat what I’ve often said before, in print: I am no Luddite. I actually love playing around with newfangled technologies. I don’t resist them the least little bit when they make sense, but I reject them when they don’t. I’m one who hates PowerPoint, for example. In my opinion, it’s ugly, and worse, it’s way too reductive for talking about subtle ideas. But I love to use my MacBook to project images. I love my iPod and as soon as I can afford one, I’ll be there for an iPhone. I have my own Web site. I like podcasts. I love to use iChat when I’m away for a long time. I think Facebook is terrific (I don’t belong -- but not because I’m against it; I see how alluring it is and am afraid it would consume too much of my time). For goodness sake, I even Twitter (only occasionally; I joined in case there’s a revolution so I’d be able to find out where my side is gathering).
The problem lies not in metrics, but in how and where we apply them. Pace the tech gurus of the world, the decision about where using data makes sense remains a human judgment. Without drawing the line somewhere, soon we’re going to end up creatures not just running computers, but creatures who are run by them. Only then will we be able to look back and see that in measuring out our little lives with data spoons, we lost our humanity.