The Quantified Self

Which is worse: not knowing where you stand, or knowing exactly where you stand? If you could choose, would you opt to, as Ingersoll muses back on page 112, “know just where [you] stand at all times,” or go forward in ignorance, never knowing exactly how you compare to others? Does knowing or not knowing make you care more, or less?

In last week’s reading, we came across the “dark legend of one Eric Clipperton,” an independent player who advanced to the top of the tennis rankings by playing with a loaded Glock 17 at his left temple and threatening to “blow his own brains out publicly, right there on court, if he should lose, ever, even once.”

When O.N.A.N.T.A.’s newly minted computer and ranking center manager ranks Clipperton as #1 in Boys’ Continental 18-and-Unders, he trudges up to Enfield Tennis Academy, gets an audience with James and Mario Incandenza, and eliminates his own map in front of them. The problem, we find out, with knowing exactly where you stand, is that if you finally get to the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.

I’ve been thinking about the Enfield Tennis Academy students (and their competitors) a lot this past week. As someone who invested the entirety of the first 25 years of her life in school and academia, I crave environments where abilities are ranked and quantified. I know what a 97 percent means. I know what a 4.0 GPA means. And I know what those numbers mean in comparison to those who are there, going through life beside me.

Those kind of numbers are an easy answer to the “Am I any good?” question that rattles around in the quiet spaces of our skulls. After all, we all want to feel like we’re doing at least an adequate – if not excellent – job handling our day-to-day endeavors, whether it’s our job, our off-hours pursuits, our relationship skills or our parenting abilities.

But how can we really know? Unless you play competitive sports or work for one of those companies that implements a ranking-based annual review process, your abilities go mostly unquantified. You might get a promotion, earn a salary increase, win a prize or celebrate an anniversary, but you aren’t literally ranked #3 out of your company’s 100 employees, or #5 out of the 20 moms in your daughter’s kindergarten class. Life doesn’t work that way; you can’t rate work and life experiences the same way you can tally wins and losses in competitive tennis.

Hal gets this in a way Eric Clipperton didn’t. We see him, in the tennis practice following the previous day’s Eschaton match, looking back at the shards of computer glass glittering in the sun and reflecting on the fact that he didn’t do more to prevent his Little Buddies from being hurt. He’s good – he’s predicted to be seeded in the top four at the Whataburger Invitational – but what he’s really grappling over is what it means to be a good person.

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8 thoughts on “The Quantified Self”

  1. Sometimes, when I’m nearing the end of a reading session, I find myself itching to check my page number vs the page number the group is meant to be at, the idea being that this somehow matters.

    But it’s not like it makes sense to keep reading just because I’m behind the group, or to stop reading if I’m ahead, I should just read when I want to read. That said it makes sense to abide to a structure, and I can’t figure out if my habit is good or bad. I really feel like I connected with this post for that reason. This happens in a lot of stuff, I find myself reassuring myself when I’m halfway through a run, or a problem set. I find myself keeping track of my progress in various things, even when I’m not going to change my method regardless of my progress, it’s just compulsive to track. I didn’t come to the conclusion that I have to come to terms with not being able to deal with all of life in this way, because I’m still trying to figure out if it’s good to do at all. It feels appropriate to say Keep Coming!

  2. What does it mean to be a good person? This is the type of question that Wallace wanted us to think deeply about. Not the plot puzzles, wordplay, literary allusions, etc. Those things are just there for fun and to keep us mesmerized – to give us the razzles.

    After reading this piece I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael Joyce would have thought of Eric Clipperton.

    Great post!

    1. Stephan Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ All-Star point guard, just turned 28. When asked whether he partied hard, he said that, no, he didn’t, but that he did reflect on his life and progress and how to be a better person and a better basketball player.

      Sure, maybe it was just for the cameras. But the fact is that the guy is in the zone, breathing rarified air, and no one gets to that level by accident. In terms of raw ability and physical gifts, its a slim margin separating most professional athletes. The real determining factor is headspace. And a difficult question I find myself struggling with is the relation between personal and professional greatness, whether it’s possible to achieve greatness in a field without––basically––feeling like a “good person”. Because of course, if it’s true that one is not possible without the other, then by implication achieving professional greatness would be an affirmation of one’s personal goodness.

      When we come right down to it, I think the lesson David imparts is something like this: personal goodness––like professional greatness––is an illusion. It’s not something you “are” or “achieve”, it’s something you do. It’s a verb. Addiction and Recovery aren’t abstract principles, they’re physical rituals, infinitives: *to* addict; *to* recover. The world is composed of objects, not subjects. It’s the world itself that is subjective, it is held together by Subjectivity. Subjectivity is *nothing but* the very form of “the world”, the way in which it holds together. All content is objective; all form is subjective. To the degree that we are objects, we are not free but are beholden to the law of causality. To the degree that we are subjects––that is, to the degree that there is a coherent world to begin with, one that *includes* us––we are free. Freedom is transcendental. Our childish wish for some objective greatness that we can have and possess and use to ground an eternal and unchanging identity is a defense mechanism, a reaction against the ramifications of our transcendental freedom. It is the psychoanalytic death drive. We are free, and that is a scary thing. But the answer is not to assume a fetal position, to regress into Denial and Comfort and Distraction. The answer is to fully assume the consequences of our own personal freedom, to accept that what *is* is what *does*, and to build––with our own two hands––the very metric by which we will come measure ourselves.

      1. Jenni , John T., – It’s observations like these that make me want to stand on a street corner, grabbing strangers and waving the book in their faces until they agree to READ IT, JUST READ IT. Of course, this is generally frowned upon.

      2. Wow, I like your subject/object analysis WAY better than the OOO rapping. It’s odd to catch up from a week of being away from this site and all of you great commenters, I missed it and am now bingeing on my IJ Jones to catch up!!!
        Thank you, All!

      3. Great comment, John T. I am a week behind in my commenting, slowly catching up after being away (but keeping up with the reading, of course) — so you probably will never see it. Q: If an email falls into the forest of lost data, did it make a point? A: If it did so for the writer, it did… Thank you.

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