09/17/2008 06:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Quantification of Everything

When I was a girl, I counted everything. I knew how old I was, I was proud of my grades and later my SAT scores, and I tried to keep careful track of my meager amount of money.

As I got older, I grew out of those habits and lived free.

But now I see it all coming back, from people who measure their blood sugar several times a day (often for good reason) or count their steps, to people who count their money and count their friends. How much is enough? While money is fungible, friends are not. Is your dearest alone worth more than Juan and Alice together?

Like it or not, information technology is posing those questions. I may not know how much I value Juan or Alice, but I can now easily plot on a chart the minutes I spend calling either of them.

In fact, as we drown in information, we try to make sense of it. Just as economists measure us en masse, we can now measure ourselves one by one ... and it is insidiously fascinating. All those contacts, all those interactions, all the people we "meet" online - if we can't absorb them all, at least we can quantify them. The question is whether this enables us to find meaning, or whether it reduces meaningfulness by turning everything into numbers.

And this isn't entirely new. When we get too much of anything, we can't handle it and turn it into something easier to digest. The poor (or middle-class) man knows what money means: $5 buys a hamburger, $30,000 buys a year at college, and $25 buys a "priceless" evening at a bar with a friend. By contrast, the rich man has so much money all he can do is count it, since he has no time to spend it on meaningful things.

So what is this fascination with numbers? Is it some latent human information-explosion handling technique that is now being challenged by the proliferation of information online and extended by all the quantification tools that are emerging?

Like so many of our human traits, is this a good trait that can be turned into a bad one if it turns from a constructive urge into a pointless obsession? We'll leave that question as an exercise for the reader and turn to the business implications of the phenomenon.

From a business point of view, this is a valuable new source of unique content: It's a continuing challenge to keep readers from shifting from one source of content to another, but if you provide them tools to manage content about themselves, it's much easier to keep their attention and even their loyalty.

Some examples of what I mean: For some time, people have been checking their own Google ranks and those of their friends. Facebook has gone back and forth on publishing each user's number of friends, both to the individual and to the public, but fanatics can always count for themselves. Bloggers count their comments, their inward links, the number of other bloggers who cite them on their blogrolls, using stats from their own servers or services such as Technorati.

Flickr started as a photo-sharing service, but pretty soon the founders discovered that people were intensely interested in their own stats: How many people had viewed their photos? How many found them interesting? (People cannot "favorite" - yes, that's a verb - their own photos.) To avoid gaming, Flickr doesn't explain the precise algorithm it uses to measure "interestingness," just as Google doesn't disclose how it ranks pages.

Web sites are getting ever more inventive, pursuing an accelerating feedback between the sites and their users. Dopplr started out letting users share their trips (much as they share photos). Now users can count the number of days they and their friends spend in any city, the total number of miles they fly in any period (and the carbon impact thereof). Skydeck lets you manage your phone calls - and to count your interactions with others: Does Juan call Alice more? Or is it the other way round? Now you can show your mother how untrue (or true) it is that "You never call!"

Xobni lets you do the same for your e-mail: Whom do you write to most, and who writes to you? Which of your friends have you not pinged since the last online holiday card? Who answers quicker in the morning vs. the afternoon?

And you can also get more meaning out of your money: Mint and Wesabe will let you analyze your own spending patterns; Wesabe will also let you compare them (anonymously) with the rest of its user base. Can Mint be far behind?

But the one that intrigues me the most right now is 23andMe, which lets people analyze their own genomes. It offers perhaps the most striking example of the disconnect between numbers and meaning. 23andMe's information is precise and accurate, and it is intensely interesting. Yet in many ways it has little meaning right now; there's not enough data to draw the connections between most genes and the related physical manifestations (whether traits or diseases).

So we can make some risk assessments, but they may be misleadingly precise. You may have a risk of 3 percent of something, but after the fact the risk is either 100 percent or 0 - even though it's 100 percent only 3 out of 100 times.

Even more interesting is the ability to measure your genetic closeness to others. For starters, you can see the evolutionary arithmetic behind nepotism. These numbers again are precise and meaningful in relative ranking - but what does it mean to be 80 percent like someone else?

All these questions are endlessly fascinating. I remember when personal computers first came on the scene, and many pundits asked what they would be good for. It was obvious they could help dramatically with office work (though it may be that the increased productivity has been almost entirely countervailed by the increased amount of virtual paperwork they generate). But what else? Housewives could manage their recipes; homeowners could manage their wine cellars, was the response.

And so, in a way, it has come to pass. Back in the '80s, when PCS arrived on the scene, consumers had very little data to manage. Now they have a lot. Therein lies the business opportunity.

But it's not simply to capture people's attention and show them ads. I suspect this information is so interesting to them that they can't be pulled away from the numbers. But as a marketer, you can participate and show them ways to change their stats. For example, they can add miles on Dopplr by using your airline to take that trip they are planning - especially if you offer them a deal on the precise day they have planned the trip. Or you can help them lower their credit card fees by switching to your affiliate-brand credit card. The exact way to do this, of course, will vary from site to site and from vendor to vendor, but that too is an exercise for the reader. The only party left out is the traditional supplier of generic content. A mirror, in the end, is more interesting than most paintings.

There's a certain psychological power to expressing things with precision, to making nuance explicit, even as it renders the powerful prosaic. One girlfriend is a miracle; 20 is a number. Managers measure things in order to incentivize them, yet the very act of measurement cheapens things. It's why we don't announce the price of the gifts we give (unless we are a philanthropist funding a building in our name). And "the best sex I ever had" is tacky no matter who says it. In the other direction, doctors routinely counsel people to measure and to analyze their pain, both mental and physical, so as not to experience it as intensely.

As Stalin once said: "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic."

Disclosure: Esther Dyson is on the board of 23andMe and an investor in Dopplr, wesabe,