Saturday, May 01, 2010

The logged existence...

[Blogger note: in this week's USFR, I answered a question about media bias, and the usual condemnation of "mainstream media" was thrown in by the viewer.  This is most frequently code for the NYT, of course, but I offer the following science story as one data point suggesting why the characterization of such publications is wildly inaccurate. Because many partisans on the right only read the political pages or damning research on evolution, they miss the much of the breadth and superior communication of sources like NYT.  This is one example, IMHO.]

I got sidetracked into a longish (25-minutes) but fascinating report about the "Data-Driven Life" which essentially explains how people (many geeks) are using new recording devices to track their own activity, and how that information affects them.

I was alternately troubled and amused, but thoroughly intrigued.  The parallel with adding the Precision Planting 20/20 monitor to our JD 12/24 1790 planter* was eerie. Just as the PP monitor now floods us with data and maps that we are just beginning to utilize, it is not such a leap to imagine what it might do to individual behavior.
For a long time, only one area of human activity appeared to be immune. In the cozy confines of personal life, we rarely used the power of numbers. The techniques of analysis that had proved so effective were left behind at the office at the end of the day and picked up again the next morning. The imposition, on oneself or one’s family, of a regime of objective record keeping seemed ridiculous. A journal was respectable. A spreadsheet was creepy.
And yet, almost imperceptibly, numbers are infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal. Sleep, exercise, sex, food, mood, location, alertness, productivity, even spiritual well-being are being tracked and measured, shared and displayed. On MedHelp, one of the largest Internet forums for health information, more than 30,000 new personal tracking projects are started by users every month. Foursquare, a geo-tracking application with about one million users, keeps a running tally of how many times players “check in” at every locale, automatically building a detailed diary of movements and habits; many users publish these data widely. Nintendo’s Wii Fit, a device that allows players to stand on a platform, play physical games, measure their body weight and compare their stats, has sold more than 28 million units.
Two years ago, as I noticed that the daily habits of millions of people were starting to edge uncannily close to the experiments of the most extreme experimenters, I started a Web site called the Quantified Self with my colleague Kevin Kelly. We began holding regular meetings for people running interesting personal data projects. I had recently written a long article about a trend among Silicon Valley types who time their days in increments as small as two minutes, and I suspected that the self-tracking explosion was simply the logical outcome of this obsession with efficiency. We use numbers when we want to tune up a car, analyze a chemical reaction, predict the outcome of an election. We use numbers to optimize an assembly line. Why not use numbers on ourselves? 
The devices and support websites to process the data are only beginning to emerge, and I sense that our natural self-obsession could lead to a growing and intensifying navel-contemplation - only with more numbers and graphs.  But is this a good thing?
 Self-experiments like Barbier’s and Roberts’s are not clinical trials. The goal isn’t to figure out something about human beings generally but to discover something about yourself. Their validity may be narrow, but it is beautifully relevant. Generally, when we try to change, we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course. It is easy to mistake a transient effect for a permanent one, or miss some hidden factor that is influencing your data and confounding your conclusions. But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever. 
It seems to me the more toxic social atmosphere (don't mention immigration!) is nudging us toward more self-reflection, and instead of getting signals and data about ourselves from others, it is simply easier and less socially risky to get it from a machine.  Plus it's way more accurate and less prone to emotional interpretation. Instead of friends to make us feel better we may simply check yesterday's readout to spot what made it a bummer.

Let's further suppose this idea has some merit and really does grant more satisfaction, self-discipline, and control over our action by supporting instinctive feelings with hard data. What will our interaction with each other look like?  Will it replace our need for assurance or validation from friends and spouses? I'm not talking totally, of course, but I can see some small forces to devalue social integration in favor of self-experimentation.

Lord knows if this trend gets popular, most conversation would be come a me-centered drag even worse than it is now.  The old joke about what a conversation with a blogger is like illustrates:
"My blog blah blah blah posting blah blah blah blah blah my blog" [and, yes - guilty as charged]
So one strong response to this idea is it strikes me as psuedo-scientific justification for even more narcissism.  Not that that's a bad thing for some of us, of course (heh)

But the more rigorous feedback compared to memory does seem to offer a chance to understand our own mind and body at a deeper level without traipsing off to Tibet.

The contrast to the traditional therapeutic notion of personal development is striking. When we quantify ourselves, there isn’t the imperative to see through our daily existence into a truth buried at a deeper level. Instead, the self of our most trivial thoughts and actions, the self that, without technical help, we might barely notice or recall, is understood as the self we ought to get to know. Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are. Our memories are poor; we are subject to a range of biases; we can focus our attention on only one or two things at a time. We don’t have a pedometer in our feet, or a breathalyzer in our lungs, or a glucose monitor installed into our veins. We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines.
Watch out for those machines, though. Humans know a special trick of self-observation: when to avert our gaze. Machines don’t understand the value of forgiving a lapse, or of treating an unpleasant detail with tactful silence. A graph or a spreadsheet talks only in numbers, but there is a policeman inside all of our heads who is well equipped with punishing words. “Each day my self-worth was tied to the data,” Alexandra Carmichael, one of the founders of the self-tracking site CureTogether, wrote in a heartfelt blog post about why she recently stopped tracking. “One pound heavier this morning? You’re fat. Skipped a day of running? You’re lazy. It felt like being back in school. Less than 100 percent on an exam? You’re dumb.” Carmichael had been tracking 40 different things about herself. The data she was seeing every day didn’t respect her wishes or her self-esteem. It was awful, and she had to stop.
Electronic trackers have no feelings. They are emotionally neutral, but this very fact makes them powerful mirrors of our own values and judgments. The objectivity of a machine can seem generous or merciless, tolerant or cruel. Designers of tracking systems are trying to finesse this ambivalence. A smoking-cessation program invented by Pal Kraft, a Norwegian researcher at the University of Oslo, automatically calls people who are trying to quit, asking them every day whether they’ve smoked in the last 24 hours. When the answer is yes, a recorded voice delivers an encouraging message: All is well, take it easy, try again. This mechanical empathy, barely more human than a recorded voice on the customer-service line, can hardly be expected to fool anybody. But a long line of research in human-computer interaction demonstrates that when machines are given humanlike characteristics and offer emotional reassurance, we actually do feel reassured. This is humbling. Do we really feel better when a computer pats us on the back? Yes, we do.
Jon Cousins is a 54-year-old software entrepreneur and former advertising executive who was given a diagnosis in 2007 of bipolar affective disorder. Cousins built a self-tracking system to help manage his feelings, which he called Moodscope; now used by about 1,000 others, Moodscope automatically sends e-mail with mood-tracking scores to a few select friends. “My life was changed radically,” Cousins told me recently in an e-mail message. “If I got the odd dip, my friends wanted to know why.” Sometimes, after he records a low score, a friend might simply e-mail: “?” Cousins replies, and that act alone makes him feel better. Moodscope is a blended system in which measurement is supplemented by human sympathy. Self-tracking can sometimes appear narcissistic, but it also allows people to connect with one another in new ways. We leave traces of ourselves with our numbers, like insects putting down a trail of pheromones, and in times of crisis, these signals can lead us to others who share our concerns and care enough to help. 

Please read the article and tell me how it strikes you.  I could compile a spreadsheet of the responses and start a regression...

So, I'm coming down firmly on all sides of this idea. And checking on where to buy some of the sensors.

*Weird problem with this rig: when we switched to the e-Set bean plates which only have 60 cells vs. the JD 108 cells, we stepped up the drive shaft speed proportionately.  The torque required to spin the 24 units is just about all you can get from the tire-friction ground drive.  Go through even a few juicy wild mustard plants, and your pop drops as the tire slips or even skids. We're going back to the old systme for beans unless any of you guys have suggestions.  I think these plates really work best with the hydraulic drive, IMHO.

No comments: