Franklin and Frankenstein: The Dubious Hope of the Quantified Self Movement


Last March, the Quantified Self Movement was dubbed one of the “Top 5 Tech Trends” at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival, which, as far as attracting “hype” goes, makes for a pretty powerful magnet (…or should I say bug-zapper?). The self-proclaimed “movement” consists of people who use an expanding arsenal of gadgets to log countless details of their everyday lives. Hours slept, mood rating, GPS location, steps walked, heart rate, blood pressure, conversations had—any metric thinkable—are all recorded by various wearable technologies, and sent to a computer so that the data points can be graphed, analyzed, and (of course) shared with friends.

The quantification of individuals, though traceable back to the earliest censuses, has increased rapidly in the wake of industrialization. Societies have become more dependent on collecting and analyzing information for stated purposes like “workplace efficiency” or “homeland security,” and there are plenty of people in distant, powerful places—politicians, marketers, CEOs, healthcare providers, insurance companies—to whom individuals are nothing more than collections of disparate data points. What is different about the Quantified Self Movement is that there are no distant, Big Brother figures in play. Rather, with the motto “Self-Knowledge through Numbers,” the quantification is intimate and internalized. Users are led to self-track, and understand themselves through an external, data-based medium—all in the name of “self-improvement.”

Carlos Kong / Kitsch Artist
Carlos Kong / Kitsch Artist

The Quantified Self Movement, should it become more popular, will be undoubtedly contentious. The criticisms—from practical privacy concerns, to Foucauldian notions of biopower, to the psychological effects of such “self-help”—are numerous. Rather than try to predict the pros and cons of a movement that is just gaining speed, however, I am going to look backwards, and explore how an American historical figure and ancestor to the Quantified Self Movement was advocated and critiqued.

As far as legendary figures in American thought go, there are few who have made a greater impact than the man on the hundred-dollar bill. Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, such as “there are no pains without gains,” “a penny saved is a penny earned,” and “honesty is the best policy,” continue to adorn countless grandmothers’ needlepointed doilies; and his inventions, including the lightning rod and bifocals, are still used today. Despite his modest working-class roots, Benjamin Franklin’s Wikipedia entry is quite robust: he was an author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat—not to mention that he was one of the country’s Founding Fathers.

How did he do it? In his widely read autobiography, he attributed his “constant Felicity of his life, down to his 79th Year” to one of his greatest inventions—his Book of Virtues. When he was just 20 years old, Franklin devised a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection,” in which he would keep track of where he erred in his behavior on a table marked with the day on one axis, and the 13 Virtues on the other.

These virtues were:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places, let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths [sic], or habitation.
  • Be no disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.


So, if Franklin erred by sleeping with one of the “older” mistresses whom, with all their “knowledge of the world” and “plump lower bodies,” he found so “agreeable” (see his “Advice on the Choice of a Mistress” for a good time), he would place a red “X” on that day’s measure of Chastity. Focusing on improving one virtue each week, he reflected, “I should have, (I hoped) the encouraging Pleasure of seeing on my Pages the Progress I made in Virtue, by clearing successively my Lines of their Spots, till in the End by a Number of Courses, I should be happy in viewing a clean Book after a thirteen Weeks, daily Examination.”

Of course, technology has changed since then. Whereas Franklin had a little notebook that he carried around to record his transgressions himself, those involved in the Quantified Self Movement have an increasingly large selection of devices that rely more on objective data collection than subjective reflections of Virtue. Still, the idea is the same—the externalization and scrutiny of personal details allows for self-improvement. Perfection of the soul relies on a tool to rationalize it.

Carlos Kong / Kitsch Artist
Carlos Kong / Kitsch Artist

Since the publication of Franklin’s autobiography in 1791, this idea has been imbued in the American consciousness. In Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, at the funeral of Jay Gatsby, the late millionaire’s father brings his son’s schedule for self-improvement, revealing how Gatsby, like Franklin, tried to perfect himself through the use of an external device. Despite its pervasiveness, one 20th century British writer, by the name of D.H. Lawrence, was not having any of this.

Responsible for meditations on the beauty in aberrant behavior, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence compares this act of self-creation, wherein the human will “automizes that being according to a given precept,” to Frankenstein’s monster. In a critique of the American cult of industriousness, he laments, “The Perfectibility of Man! Ah heaven, what a dreary theme! The perfectibility of the Ford car! The perfectibility of which man? I am many men. Which of them are you going to perfect? I am not a mechanical contrivance.”

Lawrence exalts the spontaneous, impulsive, extravagant element in humanity, which are the very things that Franklin, with his rigid self-logging and self-critique, sought to annihilate. With current gadgets such as the Slow Control Digital Fork, which records how quickly users eat and chides them for gluttony, it seems as though Franklin’s ideas of perfectibility are coming back to the fore. Thus, as we grapple with the hype of the Quantified Self Movement, we must ask ourselves: will we let the technologically-mediated path to perfection lead us to a golden future of celebrated Franklins, or to a bleak dystopia of abject Frankensteins?




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