Zen and the Art of Navelgazing

Geek Culture


In roughly the first half of 2009, I spent 5,173 miles in a car, 205 miles on a bike, and ran 125 miles. Spent roughly 1248 hours asleep (and took 27 naps), shaved 79 times, had 6 haircuts, and missed flossing 15 times. I played 94 board games, and read to my kids 267 times, and read 39 books for myself. I watched 9 movies at the theater, 6 movies at home, and 58 episodes of TV shows. I spent 26 hours in meetings, 125 hours at the library, and lost my temper and yelled at my kids 57 times. I did 63 loads of laundry, took out 29 bags of garbage, cooked 50 dinners, and spent 31 days out of town. And over the course of the entire year, I wrote 190 blog posts: 66 were to my book-reviews blog, 10 to my art website, 41 to my family’s personal blogs, and 73 here on GeekDad. I attempted to take at least one photo each day (and missed, during the entire year, two days).

The reason I know all this about myself is that I recorded it.

Inspired in part by the Feltron Report (which you should really check out), I set up a spreadsheet and started documenting all sorts of trivial data about myself. Some of it was not as hard as you might think: I’d already been using my Palm’s calendar (and before that, paper calendars) to record things like every book I read, every trip I took, every time I went out for dinner (though I draw the line at writing down what I ate). It was a bit short of a full-fledged journal, but for whatever reason I marked down particular activities. So I can tell you, for instance, that on Thursday, April 11, 2002, I had a polygraph test while applying for a job as an emergency dispatcher, test drove a Toyota Matrix, and went to Target. That Saturday I lost the stylus for my Palm. I bet if I cross-reference this with my financial records I could even tell you what I bought at Target (or at the very least, how much I spent).

My efforts to create my own version of the Feltron Report fizzled out, though, because by mid-June I got tired of filling out my spreadsheet and started feeling like I was putting more work into recording the data about my life than I was actually living my life. Did I really need to know all these things?

But I did learn a couple of interesting lessons.

First, that my behavior is affected by observation—the Hawthorne effect. When I force myself to record a tally every time I yell at my kids, I tend to yell at them less. When I’m tracking the number of miles I drive or bike, I’m more likely to get on my bike if I can. Granted, measuring behavior doesn’t always change it for the better, but it does suggest that there are certain behaviors that can be altered simply by paying attention to them.

Secondly, there’s a lot of data that’s constantly being collected and recorded automatically. The number of blog posts, for instance, is not something that I had to record or count up—I just go and check. With the way that things tie into Facebook or Twitter, there are some things that become easier and easier to track: I’ve noticed tweets from the Nike+ system saying how far and fast people have run. There’s an iPhone app called Data Loggericonicon that ties into Pachube which lets you set up trackers for all sorts of things. (If I’d had this last year I just might have finished out the year.)

And, finally, I’m not alone. There are plenty of people (besides Feltron) who are obsessed with recording their lives, and it is getting progressively easier and cheaper to do.

“Olhado” was a character from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series. After losing his eye in an accident, he has a camera implanted which basically records everything he sees, all the time. He can plug a jack into the camera and play back what he has seen (but without audio).

Now, compare that to the real-life tale of Gordon Bell, an engineer who decided to scan everything he had. And then took to wearing a camera around his neck at all times, to record his life. (Before reading about Gordon Bell, I know I’d read about some guy—maybe from MIT?—who had some sort of complicated setup for recording everything he saw and uploading it to a server, but I had trouble tracking that story down.)

Finally, now you can record your own daily minutiae for under $200, thanks to Photojojo’s You Vision Video Glasses. Just wear these specs and you can replay, again and again, the video of that guy making fun of your glasses. Or if you want to be a little more subtle, you can get yourself a Muvi Atom Super Micro DV Camcorder, a camera about the size of your thumb that you can clip to your lapel. I suppose if you just wait a couple more years, there will be one available that you just pop in your eye like a contact lens.

Who needs Big Brother when we do all the surveillance ourselves? As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But is it possible to overexamine your life?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jennycu/ / CC BY 2.0

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