After 1984

iTunes Genius

iTunes 8 has added a new feature called “Genius” that harnesses the collective behavior of iTunes Music Store shoppers to generate “perfect” playlists.

Had an interesting email exchange with my mom earlier today about Monica Hesse’s story Bytes of Life. The crux of the story is that more and more people are self-monitoring and collecting data about themselves, in many cases, because, well, it’s gotten so much easier, so, why not?

Well, yes, it is easier, but just because it is easier, doesn’t automatically mean that one should do it, so let’s look at this a little more deeply.

First, my mom asked about the amount of effort involved in tracking all this data:

I still have a hard time even considering all that time and effort spent in detailing every moment of one’s life, and then the other side of it which is that it all has to be read and processed in order to “know oneself”. I think I like the Jon Cabot Zinn philosophy better — just BE in the moment, being mindful of each second doesn’t require one to log or blog it, I don’t think. Just BE in it.

Monica didn’t really touch on too many tools that we use to self-monitor. It’s true that, depending on the kind of data we’re collecting, the effort will vary. But so will the benefits.

MyMileMarkerIf you take a look at MyMileMarker’s iPhone interface, you’ll see how quick and painless it is to record this information. Why bother? Well, for one thing, over time you get to see not only how much fuel you’re consuming, but how much it’s going to cost you to keep running your car in the future:

View my Honda Civic - My Mile Marker

Without collecting this data, you might guess at your MPG, or take the manufacturer’s rating as given, but when you record what actually is happening, you can prove to yourself whether filling up your tires really does save you money (or the planet).

On the topic of the environment, recording my trips on Dopplr gives me an actual view of my carbon footprint (pretty damning, indeed):


As my mom pointed out, perhaps having access to this data will encourage me to cut back excess travel — or to consolidate my trips. Ross Mayfield suggests that he could potentially quit smoking if his habit were made more plainly visible to him.

What’s also interesting is how passive monitors, or semi-passive monitoring tools, can also inform, educate or predict — and on this point I’m thinking of where of course my music taste is aggregated, or location-based sites like Brightkite, where my locative behavior is tracked (albeit, manually — though Fire Eagle + Spot changes that).

My mom’s other point about the ability to just BE in the moment is also important — because self-tracking should ideally be non-invasive. In other words, it shouldn’t be the tracking that changes your behavior, but your analysis and reflection after the fact.

One of the stronger points I might make about this is that data, especially when collected regularly and when the right indicators are recorded, you can reduce a great amount of distortion from your self-serving biases. Monica writes:

“We all have the tendency to see our behaviors in a little bit of a halo,” says Jayne Gackenbach, who researches the psychology of the Internet at Grant MacEwan College in Alberta, Canada. It’s why dieters underestimate their food intake, why smokers say they go through fewer cigarettes than they do. “If people can get at some objective criteria, it would be wonderfully informative.” That’s the brilliance, she says, of new technology.

big-brotherSo that’s great and all, but all of this, at least for my mom, raises the spectre of George Orwell’s ubiquitous and all-knowing “Big Brother” from Nineteen Eighty-Four and neo-Taylorism:

I do agree that people lie, or misperceive, and that data is a truer bearer of actualities. I guess I don’t care. Story telling is an art form, too. There’s something sort of 1984ish about all this data collection – – as if the accumulated data could eventually turn us all into robotic creatures too self-programmed to suck the real juice out of life.

I certainly am sympathetic to that view, especially because the characterization of life in 1984 was so compelling and visceral. The problem is that this analogy invariably falls short, especially in other conversations when you’re talking about the likes of Google and other web-based companies.

In 1984, Big Brother symbolized the encroachment of the government on the life of the private citizen. Since the government had the ability to lock you up or take you away based on your behavior, you can imagine that this kind of dystopic vision would resonate in a time when increasingly fewer people probably understand the guts of technology and yet increasingly rely on it, shoveling more and more of their data into online repositories, or having it collected about them as they visit various websites. Never before has the human race had so much data about itself, and yet (likely) so little understanding.

The difference, as I explained to my mom, comes down to access to — and leverage over — the data:

I want to write more about this, but I don’t think 1984 is an apt analogy here. In the book, the government knows everything about the citizenry, and makes decisions using that data, towards maximizing efficiency for some unknown — or spiritually void — end. In this case, we’re flipping 1984 on its head! In this case we’re collecting the data on OURSELVES — empowering ourselves to know more than the credit card companies and banks! It’s certainly a daunting and scary thought to realize how much data OTHER people have about us — but what better way to get a leg up then to start looking at ourselves, and collecting that information for our own benefit?

I used to be pretty skeptical of all this too… but since I’ve seen the tools, and I’ve seen the value of data — I just don’t want other people to profit off of my behaviors… I want to be able to benefit from it as well — in ways that I dictate — on my terms!

In any case, Tim O’Reilly is right: data is the new Intel inside. But shouldn’t we be getting a piece of the action if we’re talking about data about us? Shouldn’t we write the book on what 2014 is going to look like so we can put the tired 1984 analogies to rest for awhile and take advantage of what is unfolding today? I’m certainly weary of large corporate behemoths usurping the role the government played in 1984, but frankly, I think we’ve gone beyond that point.