Remember What It Was To Be Me: Everyday Life & The Quantified Self

This research was presented at the Communication & Culture Colloquium, during the Fall of 2014 at Indiana University on a panel entitled “The Quantified Self: Technology and Everyday Life.” The other panelists included James Gilmore and Blake Hallinan. The following is a condensed version of the original paper. 

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Tracking Everyday Life

Never before, have we been able to capture so much data about ourselves. The desire to intentionally keep track of our daily lives has become especially evident with the increasing number of apps related to personal data tracking. From eating, to running, to shopping, to web browsing habits, we can track just about anything now, but what does it mean to take our everyday experiences and represent them with a quantitative set of data? To put that another way, can we quantify subjective, sensory experiences? And perhaps more to the point, why would we want to? In order to investigate this, I tracked my own life for thirty days with the Reporter App. At the same time, I also recorded my life in a handwritten journal. What really emerged at the end of the month were, not only the implications of utilizing quantitative data as a means of introspection, but also the importance of storytelling in shaping the identities we create for ourselves.

The Tools: Reporter & Journal

Reporter is a personal data tracker designed to “illuminate aspects of your life that might be otherwise unmeasurable.” The mechanics of Reporter are relatively simple. It pings you with surveys as frequently you like. I chose to get pinged every two hours, for a total of eight surveys during the day. Otherwise, I left the app set to its pre-programmed settings, because I was curious to see how Reporter functioned on its own without any adjustments. The questions Reporter asks throughout the day are: 1) Are you working? 2) What are you doing? 3) Where are you? 4) Who are you with?

Why Do We Want to Keep Track?

Throughout this research I found myself returning to Joan Didion’s essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which captures many ideas about personal data tracking before data tracking was really even a thing. She relays a story about writing down an observation while sitting in a hotel bar. Thinking back on that journal entry she writes, “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. ... Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Didion beautifully captures the nature of writing in a journal. Yes, we want to remember. This seems fundamental. And yet, there is something deeper within the heart of a diary-keeper.

There is a need to “rearrange” things, to gain control of our lives in some way, and to deeply consider, and perhaps challenge, the world around us. I believe this is at the heart of personal data tracking as well; collecting this data gives us the ability to not only determine how we spend our days, but to potentially change and manipulate our future habits. This is particularly true of trackers related to health, which are often employed for this exact purpose, but what I’m interested in is the desire to track mundane aspects of everyday life. If you ask someone to define everyday life, they may very well be at a loss for words because even though we are constantly in it, everyday life remains strangely ambiguous. In her essay "The Invention of Everyday Life," Rita Felski offers a definition that I like: “Everyday life simply is, indisputably: the essential, taken-for-granted continuum of mundane activities that frames our forays into more esoteric or exotic worlds. It is the ultimate, non-negotiable reality, the unavoidable basis for all other forms of human endeavor.” On some level, we are all trying, all the time, to make sense of the everyday and we do this in many different ways. Perhaps personal data tracking is simply a new way to make sense of ourselves.

Moving Through Time

In tracking my life for thirty days, I was struck by how repetitive my life was. Many of my entries were about similar things: conversations that I’d had during the day, books I read, meals I had eaten, walks I had taken. At one point, I found myself sitting at Victrola, a coffee shop in Seattle. I have spent many hours in this particular coffee shop. I happened to meet up with a friend of mine who I have known for almost fifteen years. I wrote about this in my journal--the smell of coffee, the fog on the windows, the conversation with Adam, the conference I had been attending that week. I consulted Reporter to see what I had done on that same day, and found that I had reported being with Adam several times throughout the day. I had reported my location within Seattle and at Victrola. At first the journal and Reporter seemed to capture a similar observations... But, then I noticed this particular line that I had written: “Adam made fun of David Guterson.” How could a computing system make sense of this? This is something that taken out of context would mean almost nothing. The only reason it means something to me is that Adam and I were assigned one of Guterson’s books as part of our freshman orientation in college. Neither of us liked the book, and over the years this has become sort of a running joke in our lives. The entry still reminds not only of that day, and freshman year of college, but of my entire friendship with Adam.

In her essay, Rita Felski talks about time and repetition as two defining factors of everyday life. If anything had become clear to me from reflecting on that entry it was that my life is entirely repetitive, as if time is simply on a loop. But we weren’t repeating life exactly, were we? More than a decade had passed since we’d spent time in that coffee shop. Both Adam and I had lived in other cities, had an assortment of jobs and relationships and homes. We had, somehow, moved forward; we had grown up. We weren’t the same people, and yet there we were, having, more or less, the same conversation we always have, in the same location. As time moves forward, we may make the same mistakes, and choose the same coffee shops, but in the process we are defining ourselves. We are making ourselves known, to ourselves. Annie Dillard puts this another way, in her book The Writing Life: “How we spend our days, is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

All of my Reporter entries are time-stamped, so in the most literal sense, I know exactly when they happened and I can trace my trajectory through time. The data gathered by Reporter is quite literal, and computing technology naturally has difficulty dealing with metaphorical information. I was at the coffee shop for two hours. I was in Seattle for four days. These are straightforward, quantifiable facts, easily handled by Reporter. But what did those two hours feel like? How did those four days move? The way that I perceive my life, as unfolding over time, cannot be replicated in a data set because memories can’t be reduced to time-stamps. They don’t exist as single moments in time, as Reporter captures them. The digital data set that I gathered over those thirty days is essentially a chronological list of things that happened, but there are no connections being made between, across, and among these events, which is how my natural memory works.

Numbers and Language

It’s no accident that my “most frequent activity” in Reporter was reading. Literature has not only given me a way to navigate the world, but I believe has presented the most compelling exploration of everyday life. Midway through my experiment, I happened to receive a book called Mirror Gazing, by Warren Motte. Motte has been collecting literary mirror scenes for twenty-five years. These are scenes in which a character, literally, looks into a mirror. The book traces mirror scene after mirror scene—thousands of them—cataloging, comparing, and analyzing them. I was so inspired by this book that as I continued tracking my life, I began to think of data tracking as analogous to looking in a mirror. Why do we look into mirrors? Motte says, “The first and most inevitable answer is that when we gaze into the mirror, we’re looking for ourselves.” And this too, is why I believe we are so drawn to personal data tracking.

All of the tracking I did was with text. As a writer, capturing my world via text makes sense to me, perhaps more so than any other mode of experience. But, as Warren Motte describes literature, he says, “One is apt to forget that basic truth (and indeed the pleasure of the text often demands that one should forget it), but it is tonic and useful to recall it from time to time. In literature, everything is reflected in language, and nothing is not.” So, like in literature, my tracked world has been reflected in language. Current technology limits what we can reasonably track. Imagine for a moment how we might catalog a week’s worth of smells or a month’s worth of tastes. Even a journal can’t really capture these kinds of experiences, although I certainly wrote quite a bit about what I was thinking, feeling, and sensing throughout the day. One of the things that many data trackers try to do is take language, or activity, and convert it into numbers. Instead of saying “I took a walk” the tracker might translate that into: “6,500 steps.” To me, these two claims are fundamentally different, or at least they register differently in my mind. When I hear these two phrases, I see in my mind “took a walk” as a vivid image of walking through my neighborhood or on a trail. When I hear “6,500 steps,” the world has been flattened. All I can see is a number in my mind.

When Reporter asked me daily “Where are you?” it soon became clear that I spend much of my time at home. I checked in at home 72 times over the course of thirty days. But the problem with reducing these physical spaces to numbers is that the number doesn’t tell me anything about the space and its affect on me. What do I feel like at home? One of the more common critiques of personal informatics is that it’s “just numbers,” as if we can’t really learn anything about ourselves from numbers. I believe that this critique is shortsighted because we can, (and do!) learn a tremendous amount from numbers. But what I believe this critique is really getting at is that “numbers” don’t do an especially good job of capturing sensory experience. However, not all quantified-selfers track their lives in numbers.

Consider the Narrative Clip, a small device that one wears while it snaps a photo every thirty seconds. Certainty this kind of tracking isn’t simply a “bunch of numbers” but rather a rich set of visual data which captures a more complex sense of space. Perhaps, this gets closer to what my home feels and looks like. My world is full of objects that are particular to me. There are things in my space that I see everyday, and these things shape and personalize my space, but Reporter is unable to capture details beyond the number of times I was at home.


Quantification vs. Qualification

When I began this project, I had preconceived notions of qualitative and quantitative; I assumed that Reporter was operating on a quantitative level and my journal was operating on a qualitative level. Although I still believe this to be true to some extent, I think it’s worth considering exactly what “qualitative” and  “quantitative” really mean. There are many who argue that we need to turn qualitative experience into quantification in order to deal with it on the level of data science. However, there are some who argue that we need to find ways to understand the qualitative nature of individuals without reducing them to numbers. Latour, for instance, writes, “We confuse quantitative social sciences with a historical way of doing statistics. But those techniques have changed immensely over the years. Rather than trying to eliminate individual variations so that they don’t perturb the overall result, many other ways of handling them have been discovered.”

Although this is part of a much larger argument, what this might mean is that a set of data can be considered as a qualitative set of statistics. Even the phrase qualitative statistics sounds peculiar, but I believe Latour (and others) are on to something. The reason this makes sense now (perhaps more than at any time in history) is precisely because of the ability to track things digitally. It would be impossible to record, by hand, our entire lives, every moment, the feeling we get when we read a book, the thoughts we have when we see a waterfall and so forth. But these moments are precisely the kinds of information that we tend to attach the “qualitative” label to. But if our individual desires and beliefs—the things that often guide self-reflection and drive storytelling—can be systematically captured, this could have tremendous implications for data science. However, we cannot assume that a machine can analyze, or even make use of this data. Current technology is not capable of understanding the complexity of emotion, taste, touch, or even one might argue, history, relationships, lies, and motivations. If we consider the Narrative Clip as an example here, we may end up with a lifetime of photos documenting our every move. Narrative Clip’s tagline is: “Remember every moment.” Who remembers? The computer? Or us? When would we ever have the time to view, let alone analyze, these photos and to what end? Perhaps a better question is: Why would we want to remember every moment?

Remember what it was to be me

Didion writes, “I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon; … My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.” Reporter and most quantified self projects try harness the power of data to get at some kind of great truth about our lives. But despite all the marvelous digital tools we have to help us remember, record, save, gather, quantify, and analyze our lives, I have to say I prefer the trusty pen and notebook. It wasn’t that I fully captured the sensory experience of my life in my journal, or was able to get even an accurate portrait of my life. I’m sure I misremembered, left out details, hyperbolized tiny moments, and probably outright lied in the journal. But, isn’t this how we make sense of ourselves? What I have come to learn through my thirty-day experiment is that there is a great value in the subjective nature of journaling, and the ability to lie, forget, manipulate, rearrange, and tinker with our past. Surely there must be something more to my everyday life than simply the who, what, and where that Reporter tracks. For digital data tracking to provide any real insight into our everyday lives, there must be a way to collect individual perspective, our idiosyncratic perceived sense of time, the particularity of our spaces, and our unique ability to wrangle these parts of ourselves into a story we tell ourselves. Maybe the more important point is that I don’t need an app to collect this “data.” In some way, all of these ideas are captured, if somewhat haphazardly, in my handwritten journal and in my own fuzzy brain. I can’t claim to attach any "objective truths" to my thoughts, but if nothing else, when I flip through my journal entries, and put the pieces together on my own, I can remember what it was to be me.