The offline life is well worth living

If Socrates had had Facebook, he might have decided that the overexamined life was as problematic as the underexamined

Even if you only dip into Facebook once in a while, or occasionally rely on Google Maps for navigation, you still leave a data trail glistening in your wake. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Even if you only dip into Facebook once in a while, or occasionally rely on Google Maps for navigation, you still leave a data trail glistening in your wake. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Wed, May 7, 2014, 01:00

A few days ago, I got a tweet informing me I have been on Twitter for exactly five years. I was a slow starter: in the first five months, I tweeted once. But in each of the following months, according to one of the many online tools that turn our lives into data streams, I tweeted at least 30 times; some months I wracked up 500 tweets. Over five years, I somehow accumulated 19,567 followers and spewed out 24,500 tweets.

If the sight of a graph plotting each one of those 140-character inanities fills me with what the Germans call sehnsucht over all the other, more worthwhile things I could have done in that half-decade (finished a novel, say, or learned how to upholster a chair), there is some solace in the knowledge that I’m not the only one squandering my life online.

In the same period, the public appetite for recording and sharing our private selves has exploded. There is no longer any aspect of our lives that cannot be recorded on a smartphone, adapted into a pretty graph or spreadsheet, and shared. There are apps to record our sleep patterns; our heart rates; the number of bites of food we take each day. There are personal-fitness devices designed to count our daily steps, and websites to track our social media “reach” or the number of good deeds we do.

A whole movement has grown out of this. Calling themselves “quantified selfers”, a group of them will get together at their annual conference in Amsterdam next weekend, where they will share Fitbit data and notes on the microbes that live in their guts, in pursuit of “self-awareness through data”. You may snigger, but in a sense we’ve all become quantified selfers.

The solution to every modern ill (insomnia, diet, lack of motivation) – and a way to realise every mundane moment – seems to be to track it, upload it, and seek feedback on it in the form of likes or comments. Even if you only dip into Facebook once in a while, or occasionally rely on Google Maps for navigation, you still leave a data trail glistening in your wake. This slow erosion of our private selves is a compromise most of us are willing to make for the convenience offered by our online lives.

But I wonder if we’re losing something other than just our privacy – something more difficult to measure. Socrates declared that the unexamined life was not worth living. If he had had Facebook, I bet he would have decided that the overexamined life was just as problematic.

We’ve become so focused on self-improvement and self-validation through documenting, snapping, measuring and sharing, we are in danger of overlooking the value in the spontaneous, the experiences that cannot be recorded, or that we might prefer not to get feedback on. The stuff, in other words, that makes life rich, colourful and unpredictable.

It’s not the recording that’s the issue – Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf had no issue documenting their private lives and simultaneously living them, but they did their recording unselfconsciously: their diaries were not written to be read.

The solution, I suspect, is to try to find some private space beyond the quantified self. For me, that has meant taking up a suggestion I came across in Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, and keeping a happiness journal where I jot down all the good stuff. If it was a Facebook feed, no one would want to be my friend: it’s all too nauseatingly upbeat. But that’s the point: it’s not for anyone else. Writing it has made me more aware of the little moments, the ones that won’t translate to an eye-catching Instagram or a pity tweet, but are no less meaningful. Finding that private space might mean taking a complete break from your digital life, or just leaving your smartphone at home once in a while. Because when you have one eye on Facebook, you’re not really in the moment.


PEACHES GELDOF: THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE CHASM

Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all provide valuable antidotes to the isolation experienced by parents of small children. But they can impose pressures to live up to an imaginary ideal of motherhood. The death following heroin use of Peaches Geldof – an enthusiastic documenter of her private life – is a reminder of how far the parade of beautifully filtered images are from most people’s real lives.

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