An -onomy of Everything: It’s Nothing Personal


It won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve taken up high-intensity interval training. Precisely the kind of thing I imagine you imagine me getting up to.

The basic principle of high-intensity interval training (according to some webpage) is that you (in this case, I) knacker yourself to the point where you either see stars, see your breakfast, or see a combination of the two before ultimately settling into a dark matter of oblivion.

It’s great.

The point of the enterprise is that the training is so intense that the benefits continue well beyond the session. According to that webpage I mentioned earlier, one can increase one’s calorie-burn by as much as 15% over a period of 48 hours. Impressive sounding percentages and durations, I think you’ll agree.

I’ve been attending these particular sessions three times a week over the last month. Long enough to be feeling worthily terrible: backache, a suspected broken toe and knee abrasions that I jokingly attribute to having been night-fishing.

Depending on the time of day, I am cajoled and marshalled by one of three instructors. The first (let’s call him Starbream) is mild and supportive: he patiently explains each part of the rotation and comes over to correct my posture if it looks like I’m exerting myself into a prolapse. The second (let’s call him Cobb) likes to quickly explain the routine and then go and talk to the receptionist, intermittently returning to the class in order to grunt ‘OK’ or ‘Good’ or ‘Right’. The final instructor (let’s call him Bastard) explains each part of the rotation, demonstrates it and then shouts at you while you do it.

Bastard is a cruel genius. While Cobb might (I say might) not notice that my press-ups have stopped and that I’ve silently placed my face into the abrasive warmth of the astroturf; Bastard has an uncanny knack of instantly calling me out for innocently lapsing into blissful increments of relative inactivity. He sees into my soul and knows that I’m slacking off. That said, you don’t need soul-sight to notice that my resistance band is not exactly stretched taut from its bracket on the wall. “You’re standing too close to the wall,” he’ll say to me. By which he means “You’re being a lazy bastard.” The bastard.

Do you know? I’m so tempted to rate and rank these instructors (as if I haven’t done so already). Like my Uber drivers. Like my Amazon purchases. Like my Netflix viewing. Like my randomized and personalized playlists. Me. Me. Me. I’m squat in the centre of the play pen of my life, farting quantitative judgement left, right and centre.

I wonder whether we’ll always live in a world of league tables, star ratings and reviews. I know why such things exist: to drive up (or at least guarantee some) standards; to keep people right; perhaps even to reward the best. I’m fine with competition. I like football, sometimes. I like trying to swim faster or run more quickly than the day before. The gym has taught me the meaning of Nike’s rallying cry to non-reflection: ‘Just Do It’. I see value in striving – a source of pride in trying and doing your best.

Some people say that life is a game. And, if so, all these league tables, pop charts and Uber rankings make perfect sense, don’t they? They are the framework within which we are able to play. Bastard the Gym Instructor is manifestly a better player at being a gym instructor than Cobb the Gym Instructor. Starbream sits somewhere in the middle – a well-intentioned mediocrity.

Oh, the naked glory of merit! Imagine a world with no shadows, where everything is known, labelled and sorted in some grand hierarchy: an -onomy of everything. Imagine a world where your deeds and misdeeds are continually hung around your neck. Imagine every life ending with the dead weight of a Jacob Marley-esque chain of merit hung about every neck.

Nothing between us; only a network of judges combining into one great, fiery and appraising Sauron’s eye. Nothing to separate us; only the slow spreading of averages through countless ratings and weighted opinions.

It would be nothing personal – because nothing would be.

And then it’s game over. A high score, but no one to tap in your initials.

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