Old People, Lifecasting, and the Future of The Internet

Writing a review of Zazie’s breakfast. 4 stars!

Imagine a system that immediately captures every bit of information about a trip, and stores it permanently in an accessible, portable format—and on top of that, has been designed to fit your routine, not the other way around.

My parents created that system in the early ’80s, and they did it with pen and paper: since the beginning of their collective travel experiences, my parents have been keeping a log of all their travels in a series of large-ish, ruled books.

The big travel book.

My parents’ day on February 7, 2009 started in Arcata, at 8:42 AM. The wood show at the town hall in Fort Bragg was excellent. They drove around with the top down. Apparently they spoke to me…I was riding my bike along the lake in Chicago. Awesome data, right?

In the lower right-hand corner, you can see that Heaven’s Dog, on Mission & 7th in SF (YELP), was really, really good.

This is a recap of a couple days spent on the train. Click the picture to view larger.

This was Saturday, January 3. We went to the de Young museum; note the attachments on the left-hand side. We also “bookmarked” that we needed to look up 880 El Camino Del Mar, which had what we called a “Fuck You View”. If you like, I can elaborate on that in the comments.

The active book lives in the back seat of my parents’ traveling car, and the others are part of their permanent collection. At this point, there are four books, covering 30 years of travel, with entries capturing time, date, location, weather, car mileage, expenditures, activities and reviews. Further, there are attachments in the book from places along the way. Sometimes they’re taped in, other times they’re stickers from various places, and yet others just sit in the book, held by the tension of the pages. The three of us have shared entry duty as long as I can recall.

But this familiar thing became more interesting after I looked at it from a digital point of view, hoping to identify some core human behaviors that translate into the digital ones that some of us have adopted so readily.

In a way, my parents’ analog system makes Dopplr look like a royal pain in the ass, and a restrictive one at that. Certainly, the book system is far from perfect. It’s completely private: it doesn’t account for their nascent desire to share their travels with the world. But when it comes to logging and cataloging their trips, it’s pretty damn good. It’s simple, fast, and never fails due to lack of 3G service. As I stared at the books a little longer, everything started to look like well-formatted XML, with fields that would be easily parsable into useful data. [And in fact, my dad is going a little Feltron on the data right now, bringing the trips into Excel Workbooks so he can start to analyze the trends associated with our collective travels. Including, I hope, gas mileage. Their Volkswagen Cabrio (an adorable car) is a horrific gas-guzzler.]

This is where most of our trips started: Arcata, California.

While I can’t pretend that the my parents’ trip catalog is a definitive case study, I do know that it’s interesting/helpful: watching my parents’ behavior (after breakfast, the expenditure, location, and review went straight into the book) helped me solidify three positions from which I view “digital.”

1. While technologies are constantly changing, humans are the constant. Put more succinctly, none of this is new. While the technologies are new, and certainly the public-ness/immediacy of it all is something people are just starting to come to terms with, I’ve always been of the mind that the root, human drivers that power today’s interesting digital behaviors have been around for a long, long time.

I think my long-term internet friend and now-coworker (by the way, I forgot to write about that, ZOMG thanks Undercurrent for hiring my best internet friend) Johanna summed it up best:

“Motivations and behaviors across digital channels are examined and pontificated on as if they are completely new sets of behaviors that we have never seen before. In some ways, they are new, since new platforms are popping up every day that serve different purposes for different types of information and relationships between people. But the fundamentals of social behavior online shouldn’t be that surprising to us, because they are rooted in a long heritage (as in, centuries old) of group behaviors.”
Johanna Beyenbach, Cellar Door: “Social Behavior is not new”, February 17, 2010.

2. You can’t make people want to do something new, but you can make them do something that’s very similar to something else they’re already doing. It’s hard to get people to adopt a new behavior—say, logging their training on DailyMile—if they’ve never used a training log in their life. But for someone like me, who’s used training logs since I was very young (and even wrote my own little Access program to act as roll-my-own digital training log in 10th grade), DailyMile’s tracking functionality makes perfect sense, and I use it religiously after every workout. For my parents, who have been tracking every parameter of every trip they’ve ever been on, Flickr and WordPress made perfect sense and were rapidly adopted by both of them.

Put both of these things together (as I’m sure you have) and you understand why digital is so fucking interesting. People are openly sharing/spreading the minutae of their behaviors and interests, and—holy shit—you can use that information to tailor experiences to things you know they’ll like. You can look at the psychology of the collective in a new, legitimate way, rather than working backward from individuals and models for behavior.

I said three positions, right? I’ll get to the third shortly.

From books to databases.
It’s funny now to look back at some of the work my dad does when searching down our ancestors; he’s big-time into genealogy and spends a lot of time in libraries, tracking down censuses, working his way through wills, public records, and other pieces of unstructured data to piece together the lives of those that came before us. My descendants will be able to look back through my parents’ travel books and will get a pretty good picture of their lives together—from Cadillac, Michigan, through Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Northern California and travel points between—including their penchant for thrift, good food, national parks, and leisurely routes.

This is James Monroe Watts’ last will and testament. These are the kinds of documents my dad has to hunt down to understand how my grandparents lived.

If you’re looking to find out what I’m interested in, and what I’m up to, it’s pretty easy; I’m contributing almost everything about what I do with my life to some queryable database. You can see where I go, when I go there, and who I went with, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

In the morning, I go to the coffee shop. I’ve been there 15 times before, and when I post that “I’m there” to Foursquare and Twitter, I’m reminded of this fact. The act of posting that location results in the creation of a set of database entries, not just on Foursquare’s servers, but also on Twitter’s. And on Twitter, that act captures not just that I was there at that moment in time, in a particular location, but also that I had 1,485 followers and that the colors on my profile were a particular set of hex values. Additionally, consider the transactional data that comes out of my coffee-shop visit, including what I purchased, how much I spent, and how much I decided to tip. Further, while I’m at the coffee shop, I’m reading a book on my Kindle, and Amazon knows what I bookmark, what I read and how quickly I read it. They know if I tend to purchase some books and not read them all the way through, and they know if I spend a lot of time on some pages of certain books. Further, there are photos that I took of my latte, which happen to be geotagged and contain megabytes of data that could be examined, including color and composition.

Brought together, all this data (much of it structured, meaning it’s parsable by computers…unlike photos, for example) would provide a pretty accurate picture of my life at a given moment. And that’s where we go from “nothing is new here” to “holy shit the world is changing.” And if you can’t see that it is, you need to wake up or retire.

As we’ve all seen, when you apply the rapidly changing set of digital technologies to a group of people—who ostensibly are just living out their lives—is that there is an ever-accumulating cloud of data exhaust that is a result of everyday behavior. And all of that exhaust translates into context surrounding my life, my identity, who I am (when you include all the “private” records) and who I fashion myself to be (those things that I choose to publicize). Which brings me to my third position:

3. As our lives move away from unstructured, unsearchable data, scrawled in books and archived in Tupperware containers, and move toward flowing, connected, open datasets, the ways we choose to live our lives will continue to change, and the impact of our choices will have a greater impact on the lives of others.

Consider Wal-Mart and their Retail Link software, recently covered in a special section of The Economist: it analyzes over one million transactons every hour, and gives suppliers real-time access to their products’ sales statistics, including the other products in each of their customers’ shopping carts.

It’s not too crazy to imagine a system that would take transactional data and combine it with relevant statistics regarding public social profiles to create an amazingly sophisticated CRM system. Or to imagine a system that allows governments to make better decisions based on real behavioral data, rather than on the stated desires of those who decide to vote. In the inverse, it’s easy to imagine a system that examines all of my purchases and gives me an environmental/cultural impact score, or a system that looks at my complete digital life (from transactions to relationships to email to photos) and recommends books, travel ideas, products, and even lifestyle changes that would help me live out an optimal life.

From data exhaust to identity.
That last bit, for me, is the most important to consider. If the collected data on human behavior can help me live a better (if different) life than the one I led before, my ability to construct an identity that makes me happy changes a bit. My access to desirable life patterns—those life stories that we can appropriate or toss aside, such as the narratives around “being a man” or “having a career” or “being an artist”  that provide context to my life—broadens significantly, and becomes infinitely more detailed.

Consider this thoughtful review of the thinking on identity done by John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) and Charles Taylor (1931 – ), proposed by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing (if self-authorship is a good thing) but the identity must make some kind of sense. And for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one’s own choices. [...]

As Charles Taylor notes, ‘I can define my identity only against the background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters.’ Let me propose a thought experiment that might dissuade those who speak of self-choice as the ultimate value. Suppose it were possible, through some sort of instantaneous genetic engineering,  to change any aspect of your nature, so that you could have any combination of capacities that has ever been within the range of human possibility: you could have Michael Jordan’s fade-away shot, Mozart’s musicality, Groucho Marx’s comic gifts, Proust’s delicate way with language. Suppose you could put these together with any desires you wanted—homo- or hetro-, a taste for Wagner or Eminem. (You might saunter into the metamorphosis chamber whistling the overture to Die Meistersinger and strut out murmuring ‘Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?’) Suppose, further, that there were no careers or professions in this world because all material needs and services were met by intelligent machines. Far from being a utopia, so it seems to me, this would be a kind of hell. There would be no reason to choose any of these options, because there would be no achievement in putting together a life.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity

It seems to me we’re marching ever closer to this scenario: imagine the scenarios I envisioned above (smarter governments, identities informed by the whole of human decision-making, marketing departments that know everything about how I’ve fashioned my life) and consider the following quote, pulled from a recent set of interviews by Henry Jenkins:

JENKINS: You found that adults and teens had different understandings of the identity play which occurs online. Where do these differences come from?

GOODPLAY: In the dialogues, we asked what the participants saw as acceptable, and what they viewed as the risks and benefits of experimenting with and exploring one’s identity online. Both adults and teens cited the ability to test out an “ideal self” as one of the primary benefits of online identity play. The two groups also identified common risks associated with identity play, such as not being true to yourself or becoming disconnected from your offline self. However, as you note, we did observe differences between adults and teens in their attitudes toward online identity play. In addition to testing out an ideal self, teens mentioned the opportunity to recreate themselves online. Adults, on the other hand, were more likely to celebrate the ability to accentuate existing aspects of their personality.
Henry Jenkins, Confessions of an Aca-Fan: “Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About Digital Ethics (Part One)”, February 26, 2010.

People are already using digital tools to fashion an identity that may be idealized or shifted from “reality”, just in the way a tilt-shift lens modifies a camera’s view of the world (as shown above). They’re using the reactions of their social graph to judge what features of their lives get to stay and which ones have to go. The internet is becoming the “metamorphosis chamber” from Appiah’s thought experiment; unlike Appiah, however, I don’t consider the future state of identity creation much of a dystopia, if only because much of the data that is created is done so without intent. Further, it’ll be a long time before all our physical/material needs are met by perfectly efficient machines; constraints on our ability to create identity will always exist.

But a world where data are used to make decisions within a deeper field of context feels like a better one to me, and it feels like a world with less advertising and more desirable information delivered efficiently to the people who desire it most.

And that’s not so bad. Please let me know if any of that made sense.



4 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. To answer your question – that makes a LOT of sense!

    It’s so easy to overlook the human factor of how we use technology and live our lives digitally – and most people do. Twitter wouldn’t be so popular if humans inherently did not crave interaction – same goes for any of the new services we use everyday – flickr, dopplr,…you name it.

    My uncle loves photography, so does my cousin. While my uncle has scores of binders at home filled with the pictures he took, my brother has Flickr account. Essentially, the content created – in this case a photo – is the same. The way they relate to content is different. But, the fundamental driver is both cases is the same. Personally, I think my uncle values his binders more than my cousin values his flickr account. Which is where it gets interesting – so, what does it mean to my cousin that it is easier for me to copy his photographs than it is for me to make copies of my uncle’s prints? Digital identity is fascinating – and yes, metadata is what defines it.

    I love how you put it here – “But a world where data are used to make decisions within a deeper field of context feels like a better one to me, and it feels like a world with less advertising and more desirable information delivered efficiently to the people who desire it most.”

    I posted about something similar earlier today – http://tinyurl.com/y9bb86f .I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again – the concept of metadata as an inspiration to be better person is bloody fascinating!

  2. What say you to people on the “ignorance is bliss” side of the fence, who don’t want their data organized and collected? Paranoia around an organized cloud of data exhaust seems to be pretty strong, even among our generation. Do you think this pushback slows the march towards a more optimal existence? Or do you think this group gets run over?

    “…it feels like a world with less advertising and more desirable information delivered efficiently to the people who desire it most.” …reminds me of a conversation we had a while ago about the usefulness/uselessness of targeting in advertising. Delivering a useful message to people who would like to have it seems a much more logical route than searching for a target and delivering waste in the process. How do we incorporate this strategy into mass media delivery? asks the media planner. Must this thought process be aligned with digital media only?

    Thanks for a fascinating read. This may be my favorite post yet.

  3. This is so good.

    “by the way, I forgot to write about that, ZOMG thanks Undercurrent for hiring my best internet friend” om nom nom yay. I thank Undercurrent for hiring MY best internet friend first and dragging him to NY!

    “but you can make them do something that’s very similar to something else they’re already doing.” – Super point. I guess that’s in part why we dove into all this stuff so early and quickly; because we’ve been documenting our lives in some way for so many years anyway. And it was the same behavior but just on a different platform. Of course that makes sense.

    “But a world where data are used to make decisions within a deeper field of context feels like a better one to me, and it feels like a world with less advertising and more desirable information delivered efficiently to the people who desire it most.” This reminds me of that thing Mike said last week re: brands just needing to get better at connecting their offerings with the people who will want it most. This definitely seems like the way we’ll be able to move toward that…

    Excited to read that Economist article, thanks for posting that.

  4. All: really glad you liked the post. It was a long time coming.

    Gautam: Thanks for the comment, first-time-commenter. I think you’ve hit it, it’s not just the data that’s interesting, but the metadata surrounding the *actual* data, whether that data is structured or not. I like the bit about the varying levels of care regarding the photographic datasets, and I wonder if there is a correlation between physicality and care.

    Jen: In re: paranoia… I think the issue is that we don’t know what entities are doing with the data, and there’s a point in the Economist article about most consumers likely being impressed by what Amazon, Netflix, et al. are doing with data, rather than fearful…if they only knew what those companies were doing with their data. For me though, the biggest problem is that other people have some level of control over my identity, from check-ins to Facebook tags to Flickr uploads. Regarding mass media: if you knew everything about everybody, would there be a need for *mass* media? Or would we need something new?

    Johanna: All your points, just…right on.

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