TRACKING THE HABITS OF A LIFETIME
What to make of all the personal data we possess now?
The units of alcohol we drink, the calories we consume, the steps we take, the spending we make, the screen time we use, the sleep we get.
And that’s just for starters. The data revolution is only beginning and there will eventually be little in our lives which is not measured.
It appeals to our need to control what we can of our lives in an era where everything else seems to be spinning out of control. The management consultants, McKinsey, say ‘what can’t be measured, can’t be managed’. And so data tracking may become a new virtue. An indication for all to see that we have got our life together.
Like all technology, it is likely to prove a mixed blessing. We will learn things that help us to get in better shape. The denial we indulge around alcohol, food and fitness will be inconveniently challenged. Early signs of ill-health may be picked up at home, not the GP’s.
But there are personal, social and corporate reasons to reflect carefully.
Data can become personally addictive. In looking for validation, we take solace in measurement. It tells us we are improving. If we are prone to behavioural disorder, data will likely make the trend worse, as we try to set new personal bests for whatever we are measuring, irrespective of whether it is good for us. Cutting down on calories is one sphere wide open to self-abuse.
Data can also drive social competition. For some, social media has already become an unspoken forum for rivalry. A culture like ours, which is prone to competition rather than co-operation between individuals, may encourage an unhealthy spirit. In our insecurity, we are constantly measuring ourselves against the lives of others. Data will give us precise numbers by which to assuage or stoke our self-doubt. And it will make worse the trend to see life in terms of winning and losing.
The data we will provide in the course of living, breathing, eating and walking is being fed back to the makers of each tracker. This is building up a huge store of information of great use to the corporate world. Right now, it provides a massive market advantage to some big companies who can patent new products based on what they know about us. This will make it harder for new companies to find innovative space in the marketplace. Made public, the enormous levels of personal data could be used in highly creative ways to enrich and protect our common life. But it is largely privatised and companies have no financial incentive to make it generally available. If taking back control means anything at all, this is an area we might want to devote more attention to right now.
There are inherent spiritual risks, too. Psalm 139 begins, in praise:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
The same is true of some of our bigger tech companies.
Though some may be sanguine about their possession of such data, experience – nor to mention the theology of Genesis - shows that unforeseen problems are near at hand when we acquire God-like knowledge.
Data also skews the way we think about what is important. Robert Kennedy said of Gross National Product, that it measured everything except that which makes life worthwhile. A highly materialistic society tends to deny or remainder goods which cannot be measured in numbers. But the parables of Jesus show us that the life of the Kingdom of God cannot be quantified so easily or so quickly. If we are distracted by data, we are more likely to miss the cues God is giving us. And we may start to measure the life of the Church in clumsy ways that could obscure rather than reveal the things of God if we come to rely on them on some kind of prophetic way.
We all tend to set goals, but the first target is to get close to Jesus. As a tracker of what really counts in our lives, he is hard to beat
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