the Quantified Self

A recent article in the Times opened my eyes to a growing movement- the "data-driven life." There are many dedicated "self-trackers" out there now, who are taking advantage of increasingly small, light, and affordable technology (or simply just know-how sometimes) to diligently track various aspects of their lives. Think of this as keeping a journal on steroids. Keep track of your workouts? Why not write an app that lets you chart every aspect of your progress, where a heartrate/CO2 monitor as well, and correlate the data over months at time, while comparing it to the calorie counting data you have kept- all in order to gaze in what many are considering the most accurate mirror possible.
These sorts of specialized projects--tracking one's sleep, diet, concentration, coffee intake, flaxseed-influenced cognitive performance, etc.--point to an exciting, but possibly terrifying, trend in how to approach the famous Delphic dictum- "Know thyself." For so long, self-knowledge has been conceived as a sort of primitive access one has to one's own mental life. 'Insight', 'intuition', 'reflection', 'introspection', and 'meditation' have variously described this sort of privileged access. But why not approach self-knowledge scientifically? Something about these projects strike me as very true. They show how 'technology' is not a concept whose extension is limited to human artifacts. Technological artifacts embody a way of thinking- the technological mode of thought. This way of thinking is arguably the distinctively human mode of thought, insofar as humans are unique in their technological mastery over nature. A tool based approach to ourselves may be what allows evolution to continue beyond 'human'- to what we can now only label as 'post-human'. The inadequacy of this label resides in the fact that its meaning is purely dependent on what 'human' means in the first place. But what "post-humanists" have been postulating, roughly, is that technology will enable us to overcome our material bodies, and exist in a "nous[mind]-sphere" of pure consciousness. The Cartesian dream may have in fact been the offspring of the more primal human desire to overcome the so obviously imperfect, transitory sphere of nature and dwell in the eternal, perfect realm of pure spirit. Heck, maybe it all goes back to Plato afterall. Regardless, much of phenomenology and post-WWII european thought has been focused on Descartes' error to separate mind and body, and the pathologies it has bequeathed to Western culture. The later Husserl, Heidegger, and especially Merleau-Ponty have taught us that consciousness is fundamentally embodied, and that to separate our lived-bodily awareness from a higher sphere of consciousness is a mistake. We are insofar as we are in the world, you might say. Again, to be rough, this tradition has developed a suspicion of technology, aware of its artifacts as indicating a mode of thought- a mode of thought that leads to dehumanization, most evident in the wars of the 20th century, Auschwitz as their mechanized culmination. One of the purported reasons Heidegger grew dissatisfied with the Nazi party is that he recognized their overly technological form of domination as inauthentic.
I, for one, see both of these outlooks on technology--as the promise of overcoming our feeble condition, and as the promise of coldly slaughtering our fellow man--as excess and deficiency. We must avoid the excessive optimism of the 'post-humanists' who blindly praise every advance in technology as "progress". Yet the utter skepticism and cynicism regarding technology from the opposite pole is also guilty of blind generalization. Technology is not monolithic. An honest evaluation of technology is one that recognizes various technologies. Don Ihde is a notable exception to the vicious trend in the history of the philosophy of technology. Ihde recognizes that the various sense modalities create vastly different kinds of technology--all allowing for humans to extend their knowledge of nature in vastly divergent directions. A mature view of technology recognizes self-tracking and the data driven life as valiant efforts at self-knowledge. Ones that must be tempered with constant reminders that the data is merely one aspect--one of many that makes us human.

the Virtuous Workout

Recently, many friends and acquaintances have been devoting themselves to workouts carrying names that are probably in fact designed to inspire cult like worship. There's the "P90X" devotees- of course putting "X" in the title of anything is cool- bonus points for putting it at the end, after a number, thereby demanding that one simply pronounce it "Ex." Then there's this "Spartacus Workout" that apparently is responsible for the ripped abs of Hollywood's elite Persian-stompers. "Crossfit" is your more run of the mill generic workout title- it would be much snappier as "Crossfit-X." But this post isn't about these other workouts. Its about a new workout- one superior to all the "vicious" workouts out there.
That's right, vicious, as in the adjectival form of 'vice'.
What does working out have to do with vice?
Let me explain. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, characterizes virtues as "states" of the soul, as opposed to feelings and capacities. Any virtue exists as a state of the soul along a certain axis, whose poles are the vices corresponding to the virtue- which is the mean. For instance, bravery is the virtue concerned with rationally dealing with fear (more specifically, facing death in battle- badass, I know). The vice of excess is rashness (one extreme), and the vice of deficiency is cowardice (the other extreme). The virtuous person's soul is stable at some point between the two extremes. In the case of bravery, its slightly closer to rashness since rash behavior resembles brave behavior more than cowardice does. Furthermore, the vicious (as in vice-ful) person need not exhibit only one of the vices. Since virtues are characterized as stabilities, vices are characterized as instabilities. Thus, a vicious person tends to oscillate between vices. A rash person rushes in to battle, imitating the truly brave, only to retreat in cowardice once he realizes the true extent of the danger.
Now, what has all this got to do with workouts?
Glad you asked. Most workouts, diet plans, and general intentions by people to "get fit" result in the sort of vicious oscillation described above. People rush in, guns blazing, on a landmark "Monday morning," only to injure themselves, burn out early, or go on periodic food binges. Even the very structure and movements of many standard dude gym sessions exhibits this sort of unhealthy back-and-forth. Jerky repetitions. Overly long breaks between short intense sets. A whole day devoted to only one muscle group, not to be worked again for a week. You can see why so many of these programs fail.
Here, I wish to propose the "virtuous workout" as the stability corresponding to these other vicious plans. Of what does the virtuous workout consist, you ask? Namely, a series of isometric and balance oriented exercises. Every movement is stabilized by one's core, every exercise and repetition integrate several muscle groups, and emphasis is placed on quickly moving through a sequence of movements with as little rest as possible. Essential to the virtuous workout are an exercise ball, a bosu ball, and a medicine ball. With practice, one can learn to jump onto a workout ball without assistance, and pass a medicine ball back and forth between partners. This sort of sequence is fun, challenging, and above all- virtuous.