Quantified Culture

March 7, 2024 Books Quantification Double Standard

Books aren’t just another thing to get done”.

Just two years ago I wrote about Spotify’s end-of-year Wrapped”, and how paradoxically appealing I found the summary. Here was a company openly tracking our collective listening habits, but hell, if it didn’t add some neat edges to the year?

A year later, the collective consciousness caught up with the quantification frenzy: As 2023 turned into 2024, I saw uncounted social media posts from people talking about the number of books they had read, and what struck me was how indiscriminate they tended to be: As long as it had pages and was pressed between two covers, it counted towards the goal of reading as many books as possible. I also detected a real sense of pride in the numbers, as if to say: Look what I’ve done—I’ve engaged with so much thinking.

There’s nothing wrong with counting books (though it strikes me as weird to brag about it), and as a defender of Spotify’s summary it might seem strange that I’m a fan of one but not the other. Sure, this might be another case where I’m applying a double standard, but I believe there’s a difference in reviewing what you’ve listened to and how much you’ve read.

Spotify’s Wrapped is all about the content: The constructed-yet-quirky statistics and (likely made-up) genres tell a story. Quantifying how many books you’ve read—or how many art exhibits you have attended, how many podcasts binged—becomes is a pure numbers game: It’s about having completed something, not what it meant.

I think this describes my general unease with quantification: It’s enjoyable as a measure of success or a yardstick of progress, but ultimately meaningless if we don’t draw any conclusions beyond the raw numbers.

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