Tuesday, July 2, 2019By:
Running is an excellent activity by which one can explore their surroundings, hone their physical abilities, and overall, simply enjoy the beautiful outdoors. DC is a runner’s paradise, with its lovely parks, spectacular waterfronts, and epic monuments lining the national mall. The sun rises early enough in the morning to leave plenty of time for a refreshing morning jog, so I have taken to running in the city before work along with one of the other SPS interns. In an incredible juxtaposition to the natural marvels of Mother Earth, I have chosen to augment my appreciation of the outdoors by means of a smartphone app.
The app is quite handy. It records the routes of my morning runs on a map along with a healthy variety of other statistics, including my average speed, elevation change, and distance traveled. Perhaps soon I’ll have some more columns to add to my “BIG_DATA.xlsx” spreadsheet. If I want, I can even use the app to document how I felt during the run using a Likert scale, infallibly ranging from “sad face” to “happy face.” Who knew the secret to the mystery and depth of human emotion was hidden in the equation defining the parabola of an emoji’s smile? The genius of the smartphone!
Truly, the app is great. So far, in these early stages of using it, my favorite feature has been its special, congratulatory messages displayed when I set a new personal record. The other day, I took a particularly relaxed route along the Georgetown waterfront and decided to push myself to run faster than usual. I ran with sweet anticipation of the dopamine rush that would come with the animated streamers and cartoon trophy boasting “Your #1 fastest run!” Out of breath but satisfied at the end of my run, I was confident my speed had crushed my past records. I checked my phone. “Congratulations,” it read. “Your #3 longest run!”
It was my 3rd time using the app. Cheeky.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so immediately dismissive of the funny quirks of free smartphone apps. I have quite the penchant for extended metaphor. In my mind, the contrast between my excitement for #1 pace and the app’s prioritization of #3 distance not only underscores a fundamental difference in values between me and my smartphone; it also parallels the difference in values between me and the universe. Jai Guru Deva, Om. Just because something is important and exciting to me does not mean it will have as powerful of ramifications for the rest of the world. Our experiments are the same, but we might be measuring distinct dependent variables.
This brings me back to a question which has been pressingly relevant to my academic career: How do I align what is important to me with what is important to society? The scales of my mind seem to be forever oscillating between work I deem invigorating and satisfying (physics, political philosophy, theory) and a need to take action which desirable and important (engineering, public policy, the practical). My fundamental need to have a tangible impact tangos with an insatiable craving to understand everything first.
I believe the two are not mutually exclusive. I see glimmers of hope in the little ironies of life here in Washington DC: going to a science trivia night for an evening of friendly whimsy and swapping business cards; filling the stoic rotunda of the Capitol Building with gleeful echoes of laughter from interns on a scavenger hunt; texting the director of the physics honor society with your order request for a bright blue bucket hat. Business in trivialities, joy in the serious. Plus, after all, my running app did display “#1 fastest run” in the fine print below “#3 longest.”
I knew my run had been my fastest before I even checked the app. There is no world in which my phone could have told me any meaningful information to change that knowledge; it could only dazzle my eyes with flashes of photons and a digital pat on the back. If I know my values are sound, and if I know I have succeeded in fulfilling my values, then no external validation should matter. Fulfilling these two axioms should complete my internal need for satisfaction. Now, it’s a matter of setting my own values where my #1 fastest matches up with my iPhone’s #1 longest, instead of #3. Values can overlap. Two vectors don’t necessarily form an orthonormal basis.
Maybe I’m reading into my new app too much. The irony of using technology to fully appreciate the nuances of reality is not lost on me. Or, maybe my iPhone is even smarter than I thought.
This week I decided to focus this blog post on running, not because it has taken up the majority of my time but because its metaphor has extended the farthest. I originally thought I could use these posts to document the everyday happenings of my internship, but my days are too crammed with detail to be appropriately reduced to mere summary—for snapshots of what I actually did this week, check out some of my pictures (I actually uploaded some this week!) I do feel a little scattered thanks to the sheer volume of stuff to do, but I’m not overwhelmed. Weekly themes unify the disparate. All hail the omniscient smartphone app! Here’s to checking our values.