From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

May 28, 2016*: The unbearable tedium of life-logging.

Maybe I’m projecting here, but it’s a good guess that we’re all constantly interpreting the world, and our place in it, to ourselves. More often than not we do this through talking to ourselves, though for some reason there are people who think that doing this means that they have a problem. And if I’m already projecting, I might as well get further out of my field and claim that this ongoing inner conversation is what we call consciousness. Where most of us maintain an inner verbal conversation (even if it's silent) some have put it in writing – whether in private diaries or in a more public format. Whether public or private, this conversation has traditionally been a bit amorphous, concerned more with impressions than with details. We may attempt to find the precise words to express our thoughts, but those thoughts have to a large extent been rather amorphous. What hasn't been written down has also been short-lived as new observations and thoughts push aside the old. Over the past few years, however, digital tools have made it possible for us to keep much more precise track of what we do, and to and to keep a record of that. This had led to a different kind of inner conversation - to an ongoing accounting of the minutiae of our daily activities, to what’s known as the quantified self movement.

Digital tools are particularly adept at quantifying, meaning, perhaps, that were Michel de Montaigne our contemporary, instead of being blessed with his reflections we'd have a list of what he ate, how many steps he took and how many pages he read each day, and more. There's nothing wrong with lists of this sort - no doubt quantifying can most definitely give us insight into our daily behaviors. But the sort of insights we get this way are significantly different from those that we find in Montaigne. He was certainly capable of keeping a ledger of each of his activities, but what we find fascinating about him isn't lists but his reflections. Had he had access to the tools for precise measurement that we have today he may have become preoccupied with list making, and our world would be poorer for not being able to read his observations.

Though it got off to a relatively slow, and often mocked, start, the quantified self found its way into the mainstream. This was primarily due to what I guess should be called the fitness craze. Though various tools have been around well before FitBit wristbands became de rigueur, miniaturization, and smartphones, made what was once clumsy and unwieldy into a fashion statement.

Personally, I haven't taken part in the quantified self "movement". I don't have any particular interest in how many steps I take, or my calorie intake, or how long it takes, or doesn't take, for me to fall asleep at night. Perhaps I should, but … sorry, it just doesn't interest me. My own life-logging activities are considerably more subjective, and they show up in these columns, on my Hebrew blog, in the correspondence in my email. These are far from comprehensive, and I'm sure that there's lots that I forget, but other than an occasional, and very mild, panic attack when I can't find something that I'm convinced I really need, I can't say that I'm bothered by having things slip through a memory hole into oblivion.

That doesn't mean that I don't find the concept fascinating, and even captivating. For a few years now I've devoted at least a few minutes of many of my presentations to trying to explain this movement. Even if it doesn't speak to me, it's a logical development of digitality, and to a large extent its popularity makes perfect sense. Up to a point, at least. In these presentations I tell about Gordon Bell and his My Life Bits project. This invariably causes people to ask whether this is a joke, and when told that it's real they'll wonder why someone would devote so much effort to recording everything that they do. Strangely, I can (more or less) understand the urge to do this. What I don't understand is how it's possible to keep it up. It seems to me that if we're serious about recording everything we're creating a recursive loop. Are we still recording when we review what we've recorded? Does our reviewing what we've done become the basis for yet more reviewing? Are we gazing into a set of barbershop mirrors where we continually see our image as it diminishes in size and fades into the distance, but is clearly still there?

For me these questions are enough to convince me not to start down that particular rabbit hole. And I suppose that because of that I was only slightly surprised to read last month that both Bell and former Wired editor Chris Anderson, another life-logging enthusiast, have decided to call it quits. It seems that these pioneers have reached the conclusion that it just ain't worth it. As Anderson put it in a tweet:

After many years of self-tracking everything (activity, work, sleep) I've decided it's ~pointless. No non-obvious lessons or incentives :(
Considering that Bell devoted many years to his project it's a bit disconcerting to read his main reason for abandoning it. He rather blandly explained to Mike Egan at ComputerWorld that it:
wasn't something that was bringing a lot of value to my life
That's a strange way of signing off from a project that Bell started fifteen years ago, and for the past ten has to a large extent been the focus of his professional, and, I suppose also inevitably, personal, life. In all fairness, Bell gives another reason: The tools he developed and worked with in order to record everything have been superseded. As Egan explains:
Bell's foray into the kind of all-encompassing lifelogging he attempted was too early. In the future, he said, we could see the price of memory come way down, as well as breakthroughs in battery technology and artificial intelligence (A.I.). But for now, it's not possible to automatically record everything using a mobile device. And it's hard to manage and use the terabytes of data generated.

Meanwhile, Bell said, we do have a version of Bush's Memex: "It's the smartphone."
I have my doubts about that. Though it's most certainly a computer in our pocket, and able to keep a record of what we do, it seems to me that there's a big difference between automatically, perhaps unconsciously, recording everything and choosing when to record, what to save, what to send where or to whom, and more. Then again, if Bell and Anderson (and less well-known others who also signed off) are right that the constant recording doesn't bring much value and is even "pointless", then the purposeful intervention of deciding what to save, a built-in necessity of simpler tools, isn't a bug but a feature. Instead of being involuntarily inundated with too much useless information, it's possible to choose what's worth saving and deliberately filter out what we think is noise.

And maybe our life-logging has been too successful - so successful that we now understand that it just isn't all that interesting. Maybe after all our life-logging we're realizing that we're pretty much creatures of habit, and we don't really need to keep track of everything. It can even be rather depressing to discover that we're continually repeating ourselves. And if that's what we discover, not saving everything can be liberating. If at first we thought we'd found a way of knowing ourselves we find ourselves faced with a self portrait that becomes so highly focused on even the smallest details, that in the long run we miss the forest for the trees.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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