Jul 8, 2009

Living By Numbers

Because of working late nights and weekends at Causecast, I've barely been able to touch my only magazine subscription to Wired for the last three months, so writing this is really slow coming.

The recent issue headlines with "Living By Numbers," which is a sentiment I agree with, though the article's very obsolete and missing massive chunks of its own theory.

First, it's really irritating that Mark McClusky capitalizes the phrase "Living By Numbers" throughout the article as though he's patented the phrase. Clearly he wants this to be the next "Long Tail," which was also created by a Wired editor Chris Anderson, but again, this is nothing new. In fact the headlining story, "The Nike+ Story," is based on a 3-year old device. That's like writing an article about the iPhone next summer. Sure, you can only write so much without a large set of data, but the "Living By Numbers" theory runs more hand-in-hand with this single device in the article than about the lifestyle it's trying to describe.

The related stories in the piece mildly talk about tracking diet, sleep cycles but there's a HUGE story they're missing: genomics. 23andMe was founded at the same time the Nike+ was announced, and the entire model of the company is to map out our DNA into a digital file that we can analyze, track and calculate. J. Craig Venter has already been interviewed by Wired a number of times on gene sequencing. Calorie intake and burn are great to track; weight, speed, chemical balance are all important numbers to track, but knowing the foundation on what makes us at all is the single biggest element of Living By Numbers.

Additionally, the article hints at what Living By Numbers is really about: the industrialization of the living. 300 years ago, manufacturing of goods was industrialized for hyper-efficiency and there was a revolution in the Western world. 200 years ago residential development was industrialized and there was a revolution in lifestyle in America. 50 years ago there was a new industrialization of commerce and industry as everything moved to computers and digital tracking. Working for an internet startup, I deal with this every day where we both look at newly-released tools to make our chores hyper-efficient and track our personal wages by the hour to see whether a task in the office is worth the time completing. Working by Numbers. Now we're looking at our own bodies as a machine that can be made more efficient if we just apply the numbers to an algorithm.

The article also doesn't put in any evidence to falsify the theory. Of course McClusky never states that this is a scientific theory and that there's any quantifyable evidence of the matter, but there should have at least been a statement by someone who believes on the contrary, that this movement could be harmful or ineffective. The charts show a gradual increase in effeciency, but at some point there is a levelization where the human body simply cannot achieve more.

The side articles are the most worthwhile portions of the story: "Exercise," "Nutrition," and "Health," because it describes several other components that drive the Living By Numbers theory. I use Runkeeper to track my run and have wanted a FitBit since they were first announced at TechCrunch50 (Runkeeper talked about the Nike+ in their blog after this article came out, but mostly addressing the limitation of Nike+ tracking your foot impact as a measure rather than GPS, thereby severely limiting how many exercise routines to track [biking, skiing, rowing, etc.])

The article isn't wrong by any means, just incomplete and outdated. What would be the theory now? My thoughts on the theory is that we've recognized the limitations of Living By Numbers after the economic crash, where our application of numbers into every component of our lives isn't necessarily the truth of the matter. Wired covered this a few months ago with the Gaussian copula function that blew up in the face of banks loaning money. The Eating Local movement is essentially about disregarding the efficiency of industrialized farming. Live experimental theater being on the rise and digital music on the fall. Many, many things.

Or maybe I'll just admit that Living By Numbers doesn't work for me and I'm still a bad runner.