Remembering A Data-Driven Life

Writing, printing, daguerrotypes, tape recorders, VHS, Facebook Timelines, Google Glasses, Fitbits. Technology has always played a role in how we mark, record and remember our lives. Fundamentally, my ongoing PhD work, and hence this blog, is about looking to how the design of new technologies – specifically the trend towards a ‘data-driven life’ – will shape and be shaped by, experiences of remembering the past. Will you share a 25-year old Facebook profile with the next generation? And what will that generation make of SO MANY BABY PHOTOS? What will happen to all your emails, tweets, WhatsApps, check-ins and running data when you pass away? Will you be forever haunted by selfies with an ex? What will it mean in the long-term to know everywhere I’ve been in the last year and how many steps that took me?

I am by no means the first to consider such questions. Technologists have long fantasised about a memory machine such as Vannevar Bush’s 1945 envisioning of the ‘Memex’ – an ‘intimate supplement to memory’. Such dreams are manifested in modern times through ‘lifelogging’ with wearable cameras like the Narrative Clip (for moments that matter).  Richard Banks (The Future of Looking Back, 2011), Victor Mayor-Schonberger  (Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, 2009), and Jose van Dijck (Mediated Memory in the Digital Age, 2007) have all published books urging designers to understand the social roles and concerns of remembering in everyday life and cautioning against a simplistic notion of ‘total capture’ and creating a perfect artificial memory. My work extends this discussion by studying how we remember a data-driven life. One recorded not only in photos, mementos, diaries, and status updates – but in step counts, activity, sleep quality, goals, productivity, home occupancy, appliance use, locations, food intake to name just a few. Such a life is epitomised by the Quantified Self movement, which promotes ‘self-knowledge through numbers’. In fact the term ‘data-driven life’ comes from a notable 2010 article in the New York Times by WIRED editor Gary Wolf, proclaiming the Quantified Self.

In academic literature, the technologies which produce these records have been termed ‘Personal Informatics’. They emerge from, among other things; a confluence of low cost sensors in powerful smartphones or wearable devices; algorithms for sophisticated activity recognition and data visualisation; an ‘always-on’ and hyper connected culture; and arguably an individualistic and meritocratic society where a strong desire to better oneself is encouraged – indeed expected.

A QUANTIFIED PAST

Self-tracking is usually present or future-focused – based on goals, making and breaking habits, optimising yourself, or monitoring health. By contrast, I’m looking back to investigate the long-term uses and consequences of what I’ve termed a ‘quantified past’. Somewhat akin to preserving ephemera like old receipts, scorecards, or train tickets, I argue that emerging ‘self-tracking cultures’ – and the technology to match – create through their everday and present use a potentially compelling record and experience of viewing the past.

A quantified past can be both detailed and granular,yet often quite absent of some telling context. The exceptional and the mundane are passively recorded, often without preference or prejudgement. Predominantly quantitative, and made sense of through infographics this past often possesses a sheen of objectivity which can lead us to question our own, reconstructive memories of important events.

In future posts, I’ll discuss more why I think remembering a quantified past is a distinct phenomenon, and ultimately consider how we might design interactions with this personal data towards meaningful experiences of remembering.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of my site. Past and present projects can be found here, a list of publications here, as well as some more about me.

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