Less = Less

In my job I have a lot to do. Notice I didn’t say too much to do, but rather a lot to do. And despite recognising the difference, every so often (like today) I still manage to feel so overwhelmed that I don’t know how I’m going to get it all done. When those days happen, I procrastinate by blogging find myself sitting back and taking stock of what I need to do and what I want to do–and the anxiety is almost always attached to the realisation that once I get everything done that needs to get done (and it will all get done eventually) I will likely be too tired to do what I want to do. And that’s depressing.

Last night, at the end of a long weekend, I read an interesting blog post about doing less, and sent the link to myself so that I would read it again today when I got to work. The basic rules seem simple and sensible, but the more I think about them, the more difficult they become. Of course, I’m sure that’s because I’m thinking about them more instead of less (duh!) but I live in a culture, and work in an environment, where few of these things are actively encouraged, supported or rewarded. That being the case, I want to post the suggestions for how to do less, so that I don’t forget:

Go with the flow. Imagine the effort required to swim upstream compared to moving with the flow of a river. If you go with the flow of things, rather than against them, you will naturally do less, and with less effort.

Don’t force things. A common mistake — trying to hard, forcing something that doesn’t want to be forced, forcing people to do things they don’t want to do. A lot of effort, action, and time is wasted. Instead, find a smoother way — think of water, which flows around things rather than trying to force its way through them.

Find the pressure points. In martial arts, instead of using maximum force, you are wise to find the points in the body where less force can be used to greater effect, whether that’s to cause pain or imbalance or some other effect. Well, I don’t advocate finding pain, but the idea of pressure points is a good one: if you can find the little spots where a little action can change everything, can go a long way, you have mastered the Do Less philosophy.

Let others do. Give others the room and freedom to move, to create, to invent, to learn, to work, to do, on their own. Less time, effort and action spent trying to control others means that you do less, but let others make things happen. It means letting go of control, but that’s a good thing. Other people have creativity, imagination, dedication, good ideas too.

Let things happen. Often our actions interfere with events that would happen without our actions. In other words, if we took no action, things would happen without us. Sometimes it’s better to let things happen. Step back, don’t act, things will happen without us.

Now I should admit that most of that advice goes against some seriously ingrained habits of mine, but I’m willing to change. And if I manage to learn to do less, I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to do what I want. And in terms of work, that really means doing more research, more writing, and running a workshop sooner rather than later. Yes. That would be good.

[cc image by Steven Reynolds]

On measuring ourselves

“I demand, I insist, that everything around me shall henceforth be measured, tested, certified, mathematical, and rational. One of my tasks must be to make a full survey of the island, its distances and its contours, and incorporate all these details in an accurate surveyor’s map. I should like every plant to be labeled, every bird to be ringed, every animal to be branded. I shall not be content until this opaque and impenetrable place, filled with secret ferments and malignant stirrings, has been transformed into a calculated design, visible and intelligible to its very depths!”

–Michel Tournier, Friday; or, The Other Island (Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique), 1967

The quote above captures an attempt to stave off madness, and it’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever someone brings up data-driven science or the quantified self movement. Now I don’t mean to suggest that either of these activities is mad, but the quest to measure everything makes me nervous, even while it fascinates me.

Robert P. Crease, author of World in the Balance: The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement, wrote an interesting piece for the NYTimes this weekend on measurement and its discontents. In it he describes two different ways of measuring things:

“In one kind of measuring, we find how big or small a thing is using a scale, beginning point and unit. Something is x feet long, weighs y pounds or takes z seconds. We can call this ‘ontic’ measuring, after the word philosophers apply to existing objects or properties. But there’s another way of measuring that does not involve placing something alongside a stick or on a scale. This is the kind of measurement that Plato described as ‘fitting.’ This involves less an act than an experience: we sense that things don’t ‘measure up’ to what they could be. This is the kind of measuring that good examples invite. Aristotle, for instance, called the truly moral person a ‘measure,’ because our encounters with such a person show us our shortcomings. We might call this ‘ontological’ measuring, after the word philosophers use to describe how something exists.

It’s obvious which kind of measurement is preferred or privileged in the examples I provided above, and Crease explains:

“As the modern world has perfected its ontic measures, our ability to measure ourselves ontologically seems to have diminished. We look away from what we are measuring, and why we are measuring, and fixate on the measuring itself … [But] in our increasingly quantified world, we have to determine precisely where and how our measurements fail to deliver. Now that we have succeeded in defining the kilogram by an absolute universal standard, we still have to remind ourselves of the human purposes that led us to create the kilogram in the first place, and always to make sure that the kilogram is serving us, and not the other way around.”

So why do we measure ourselves? The Quantified Self website tagline is “self knowledge through numbers” but the purpose or benefit of this knowledge is less clear. Ethan Zuckerman, who attended the recent Quantified Self Conference, notes that people self-track in order to “test the effectiveness of an intervention” or “monitor and understand the dynamics of a particular indicator,” and that one of the benefits might be that a “personal science could help a much broader range of people.” However, he also points out that “most self-trackers aren’t sharing their data very widely, both due to privacy concerns (will my health insurance provider cut me off if they discover I’m a restless sleeper? That I only walk 3000 steps a day?) and in part because sharing and aggregating data may not have easily apparent benefits.” This seems to suggest that if the data collected are mostly useful to the person collecting them, then the primary benefit is self-improvement or self-management. Zuckerman distinguishes this from surveillance data that are useful to others, but in my mind, self-surveillance is still surveillance. And, honestly, I’m really not a fan of self-improvement if it seeks to make people as efficient and productive as industrial machinery, or if it is considered to be a direct path to moral righteousness.

The quantified self, especially as a form of citizen science, is most often presented in terms of increased or improved agency. But I wonder what this agency actually allows people to do or be? How does it differ from what Foucault described as disciplinary power, and a relation of docility and utility with our bodies? (In the scenarios he described, internalised discipline removes the need for externalised force and violence because monitoring and regulation are self-imposed.) Put more bluntly, if our bodies are still just cogs in a machine then being the machine operator is surely only a limited improvement, or lateral shift in power, rather than a revolutionary change in the order of things.

For that kind of wholesale change to occur, I think we need to recapture our “ontological” measuring capacities and capabilities. Of course it’s ludicrous to claim that ontic measurements and quantifiable data are useless, but as I’ve argued before, “by implicitly supporting the notion that scientific data are the [most] appropriate types of evidence a citizen can collect, political action relies on conformity to existing structures of knowledge and power.” And the potential for action is also further complicated by “the capacity (or incapacity) of people to make sense of the data collected, not to mention their willingness (or unwillingness) to act as data collectors in the first place.” What I want to suggest is that we also need other ways of measuring that are equally valued. Ways that are more experiential, more qualitative and more ambiguous–and therefore more inviting of critical interpretation and debate.

What do others think?

Update: Ken Anderson left a comment that points to an interesting paper that includes a quote that nicely sums up some of my concerns:

“Where are the visualization tools that allow the contradictory and controversial nature of matters of concern to be represented? … What is needed … are tools that capture what have always been the hidden practices of modernist innovations: objects have always been projects; matters of fact have always been matters of concern. … What I am pressing for is a means for drawing things together – gods, non-humans, and mortals included.”

- Bruno Latour – keynote lecture for the Network of Design meeting of the Design History Society, Falmouth, Cornwall, 3 September 2008.

Rosemary the Sheep, on Facebook!

I can’t believe I didn’t know about Rosemary the Sheep before today! Here’s a brief introduction from the Rural Women NZ website:

“We will follow Rosemary through lambing, weaning, docking, shearing, drenching, dipping and more. The aim is to get urban children and adults excited about what rural New Zealand has to offer and to teach everyone something new about the life of a sheep in New Zealand.”

On 28 July, 2011, Rosemary the composite ewe–”My mum is a coopworth breed and my dad is a growplus [sic] breed”–gave birth to three lambs, named Sage, Thyme and Mint. Rosemary’s Facebook page allows you to follow the family on their farm in the hill country of the Tararua District, and learn a little something about sheep:

“Did you know there are over 900 different breeds of sheep in the world!?”

“Did you know sheep have poor eyesight but an excellent sense of hearing? To keep Sage, Thyme and Mint in tow I make a bleating sound. My lambs can identify me by my bleat rather than my luscious locks of wool.”

“Did you know sheep grow two teeth a year until they have eight?”

But it’s the longer, everyday life stories and photos that make it special:

15 August, 2011

“We have been out enjoying the snow! We are lucky that our paddock is not a higher altitude one, only a light dusting of snow for us.

I know Farmer Anne has been very busy moving her other ewes down to lower levels to keep the ones who are lambing away from the deep snow and cold winds. I am lucky I am a composite eve of two breeds that grow a lot of wool and grow it slowly. I only need shearing once a year, so I still have a thick warm fleece on to protect me from this cold weather.”

27 September, 2011

“Today Minty, Thyme and Sage got EID (electronic identification) ear tags put in their right ear. Our farm has joined the FarmIQ program where every lamb will be individually monitored for growth.

It is a quick one action pierce of the ear and the two pieces of the tag are squeezed together and will hopefully stay in the ear for life. The electronic part of the tag is yellow and the back parts are green for ewe lambs and white for male lambs.”

Now I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

Antennae 9: Mechanical Animals (pdf)

“The main theme gathers together the work of a number of artists, scientists, and academics who over the past decade have relentlessly contributed to the creating, researching, and theorising of the cross-fields between nature and robotics. The issue resembles a journey of discovery into a fascinating alternative reality where the boundaries nature and technology are deceptively and at times disturbingly blurred.”

Antennae 13: Interspecies (pdf)

“Through the propelling enthusiasm and deep anxieties characteristic of recent post-humanism approaches, interspecies communication has become something of a chimerical entity. We all, in one way or another, communicate to animals, especially with our closest pets. The cat and the dog have co-habited with us long enough to allow the development of a shared syntax made of body language, sounds, habits and rituals which enable a bi-lateral communication. Anthropomorphism plays, of course, a part in our communicational exchanges with animals. When do we really see the real animal, or when do we just see ourselves reflected in it?”


Antennae 6: Rogue Taxidermy (pdf)
Antennae 7: Botched Taxidermy (pdf)
Antennae 12: Pig (pdf)

Lecture Series: My Best Fiend. On the Productivity of Intellectual Enmities.

My Best Fiend. On the Productivity of Intellectual Enmities.
Lecture series, Autumn 2011

The Center for the Study of Invention and Social Process (CSISP) / the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London
Organised by Michael Guggenheim

“My best fiend” is a lecture series, which invites scholars to reflect on their academic enemies (from movements: Marxism, to persons: Talcott Parsons, to disciplines: anthropology, to concepts: “the other”). The goal of the series is to investigate the productivity of intellectual enmities.

Science and Technology Studies has highlighted the productive role of controversies to produce epistemic objects and sort the world. Controversies align scholars with methods, theories and schools of thought, they produce orientation in otherwise confusing seas of research. But controversies also pigeonhole people into camps. They undeservedly identify complex research identities with schools and theories and create guilt-by-association. The lecture series is calling for an analysis of such constellations by the protagonists themselves.

Enemies are productive. They spark interest, they draw energy, people care about them and they care about us. Why else would people spend time denouncing this badly formulated concept of an esteemed colleague, decrying the neighbouring discipline that keeps misunderstanding the world, or keep on writing bad tempered footnotes about this mistaken theory – and thereby become complicit in this very unproductivity? Why do scholars choose this enemy and not another?

Enemies also often involuntarily direct ones thinking, researching and theorising. If an enemy posits a, people feel compelled to posit b. If she writes approvingly of c, we need to denounce it. An enemy can have more power over people’s thinking than they would probably like to have it. It is as if people are guided in their thinking not only from their research object, but by an unknown field of do’s and don’t’s, accumulated since the time of their studies, of where to go and look and where not to look.

The lecture series calls for analyzing the productivity of intellectual enemies. The speakers choose an enemy of their choice, and analyse his, her or its productivity for their own thinking, their research and their career. Doing so, they contribute to a new sociology of sociology. They revisit controversies and analyze them from within and beyond to engage in a sociological celebration of what they usually denounce.

All Lectures Tuesdays, 4.30-6pm, RHB 137

1st Nov.: Liz Moor (Goldsmiths)
Reflections on the Genesis of Intellectual Fiends

8th Nov.: Harry Collins (Cardiff)
Good and Bad Arguments With Friends, Idiots and People Without Integrity

6th Dec.: David Oswell (Goldsmiths)
Dances with Wolves: Latour, Machiavelli and Us

13th Dec.: Steve Fuller (Warwick)
Bruno Latour and Some Notes on Some Also Rans.

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