This is a slightly edited version of the words that I meant to say at Playful last Friday. It’s about what we may or may not learn from activity tracking and the “quantified self”, told through the medium of cats and jazz flute.
I’m going to talk about two small diary projects of mine. One is a bunch of photographs I’ve taken of my cats, and the other is a notebook in which I noted music I listened to while I travelled to work. The reason for both of these projects is that I wanted to understand whether I could start to spot patterns and trends in the more ambient parts of my life. Rather than just tracking what happened when I put one foot in front of the other with a FitBit, I wanted to know if I could learn anything from the seemingly more random layers of data.
In particular, the two questions I had in mind were:
- Is the place my cats sit every day anything to do with the weather?
- And how can I listen to more music?
I’m going to start by telling you a bit more about my cats.
Shirley and Dolly are sisters.
They’re named after two folk singer sisters…
… are about nine years old and, as cats go, they’re pretty unexceptional.
The other important headline is that – like lots of cats – they are creatures of habit.
When I was on maternity leave last year, I was at home during the day a lot more than usual, and I noticed they had a tendency to sit in almost the same place for most of the time. Ordinarily, this kind of observation might be the sort of thing you dwell on for a moment, before moving on to other, more challenging matters – but in the immediate period after having a baby, things can be a bit deranging. I wasn’t getting out a lot or having a great deal of sleep. And it’s fair to say that, other than looking after my child, my main areas of productivity were:
- watching every single episode of House, in order, to the extent that I almost wondered for a little while if that would qualify me to be a doctor
- and, wondering if the arrangements of where my cats sat would be a useful way of forecasting the weather.
Now cats’ fondness for routine is fairly well established, and is a reassuringly consistent presence in our news media. One of my favourite cat routine tales is the story of Sgt Podge, who pops out for his morning constitutional every day and – through who knows what cunning – has somehow trained his owner to drive 1.4 miles to a golf course every morning to collect him. You can see Podge below, supervising some human driving, before – as this piece of BBC journalism importantly points out – he goes home for breakfast and a sleep. But most importantly, Podge has made it clear to everyone that it’s not his fault. It’s the fault of the woman who used to give him sardines, who is now forcing him to walk to the golf course every morning. Just in case.
My cats’ routine is obviously a little bit less dramatic than that. For a start, no transport is involved. But don’t let that put you off.
At this particular time, I noticed my cats’ spot of choice happened to be on the back of the sofa, which has the advantage of being both next to a window (for sun) and a radiator (for heat) – but what I started to notice was that the exact arrangement of how they sat was liable to change.
Sometimes Shirley sat on the left, sometimes Dolly. Sometimes they were symmetrical, other times not.
Having watched 7611 minutes of House, I felt I was practically a scientist now, so I started to wonder whether it was possible that the place my cats sat might have something to do with the weather. And I did what all good scientists do. I started a Tumblr. And this is more or less what I observed:
Shirley has a mild preference for the left side of the sofa
There appears to be no correlation between where my cats sit and the weather
They just like a bit of variety
In spite of this being a largely fruitless exercise, it did make me think a bit more about why we track so many different things, and I started to wonder what exactly it is we’re trying to understand when we quantify ourselves.
Human beings have long been preoccupied by the idea of self-knowledge. Understanding and rationalizing our conscious existence has not only given rise to religions but to centuries of philosophical debate. And it feels as though – currently – the deeply empiricist nature of tracking everything might lead us to the same fairly bleak sense of self that the 18th Century philosopher David Hume outlines here:
I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may be truly said not to exist
David Hume, “Treatise”, Part 6, Of Personal Identity
The key part being –
When my perceptions are remov’d for any time … I … may truly be said not to exist.
Which could be interpreted to mean, roughly, I track therefore I am. But it seems likely – or at least, desirable, that there is more to life than this. And a part of me definitely remembers a time – before I had a smartphone – when I used to gaze out of the window more, aimlessly wondering about stuff.
Currently, our health, wealth and energy consumption are becoming so easy to comprehend that they have a tangible, and addictive, sense of both progress and failure. I work in an agency, so I add my working hours to a timesheet everyday. My phone tracks my every move, I have a FitBit and a savings goal on my bank account, and all sorts of reminders that my online supermarket sends me knows how much I drink and reminds me when I need to buy more gin. I can see at a glance the books I’ve downloaded and read and find a record of the music I’ve played. One outcome of this, is that it’s suddenly quite easy to set all sorts of goals that we don’t really need. For example, a man recently cycled 301 km to draw a picture of a bike on Google Maps.
This goal and activity gives rise to another question about our personhood, which to borrow the words of philosopher Eric Olson is broadly:
And how can we start to convey the sorts of things that people have through the data we collect and share about ourselves? What about the secret signals that we forget to send when everything is automated?
Which brings me, albeit very briefly, to OkCupid. OkCupid is full of words that people think make them look attractive to other people.
I’m currently reading the book by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OkCupid. One of the strangest things in it – and there are a few – is a bunch of tables that itemise the words people from different genders and races are least likely to use in their profiles. Of all the data points at which Rudder could have subdivided people – age, location, employment status – he’s chosen one of the most sensitive and offensive, in order – I guess – to make a point about stereotypes. And I’ve pulled out the ones here that are, apparently, most relevant to me.
But actually this list does something more complicated than that: it’s a list of the things that people think the people they want to attract don’t find attractive, aggregated into race and gender groups. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty complicated social artefact. It’s like an infinity mirror of preference.
Now OkCupid is probably closer to identifying the intangible qualities of human attraction than many other dating services just because it asks so many questions. But in reality, human attraction is about more than actualising a bunch of specific preferences and prejudices that we might have – or crafting our own image so that it meets the supposed criteria for people we think we want to attract.
Western love and marriage has had a relatively brief period of informality, less than 100 years in which we’ve been untrammeled by social norms and expectations. But there’s an extent to which services like OkCupid are bringing a new kind of formality: by matching people so exactly based on type and stated preference, these services will end up creating new norms and expectations about who people like you are supposed to find attractive – perhaps ultimately changing who you do find attractive, and the signals that you chose to send to them and to the word at large.
If we go back to “What have people got that non-people haven’t got?” it seems possible that non-people could have quite a lot of the same attributes as the people described in OkCupid profiles.
And what is our ability to get what we want all of the time doing to our sensibilities as humans? What resources do we need when everything that we want is available to us all of the time?
It seems to me that the ability to take short cuts and clear paths to the things that we think we want is most likely to change and challenge is our curiosity.
I can see this in how iPlayer has changed the way I listen to Radio 4. One of the most delightful things about speech radio is the way it’s possible to zone out for a little while and then, suddenly, start listening again. But now I can choose exactly what to listen to, I very rarely just turn the radio on – instead I might spend several minutes looking for something that meets my exact requirements, rather than allowing myself the opportunity to idly listen and discover. And because I’m so used to getting what I want, when I can’t do that there, I go somewhere else. I’m so used to following my own desire paths now that I don’t have the patience to discover something more unexpected that might be hiding down a different route.
Which brings me to my other small project, about listening to music on headphones.
Andreas Pavel invented the first version of the personal stereo just over 40 years ago. He called it the Stereobelt, and it was made up two fairly large cartridges that you strapped around your body on a belt. So it was, quite literally, a stereo on a belt. Pavel realised almost straight away that there was an unexpected side effect of listening to music through headphones, which is that you feel like you’re in a film.
And he had this particular epiphany while standing in St Moritz listening Herbie Mann, play jazz flute – an experience you can try to recreate here by listening to the audio on this YouTube video:
while looking at this picture of St Moritz:
Now I haven’t seen any films that combine jazz flute solos with alpine forests, but I’m assuming Mr Pavel had, because he said,
And while I might not share Pavel’s taste in music, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
But in reality, most of of the time when I listen to music on headphones, the real reason is to block other things out – either the chatter of other commuters, or the many ambient distractions at work. I realised earlier this year that the only time I really properly listen to music with any concentration is when I’m alone, walking down the street – and then I’m probably going somewhere. It’s a fleeting distraction, not a considered appreciation. I can carry 10,000 songs in my pocket but I never have time to really listen to any of them.
One of the things I wanted to do was make my journey to work better. It’s an average of about 43 minutes each way, is one of the few reliable stretches of time that I can definitely call “my own” and is reliably repeatable enough to mostly not have to think about. I get the Victoria Line to King’s Cross, where I change and go one stop to Farringdon, and then I have a short walk. And I do it all again backwards on the way home. It’s the same journey, at almost the same time, 470 times a year.
For a little while, I’d been quite into counting my steps and encouraging myself to run upstairs. And while that was great and everything and will probably mean I won’t die quite so soon, it didn’t necessarily make it a happier journey. But I noticed that paying attention to what I listened to – writing it down with a paper and pen – meant that I generally chose the next morning’s music with greater care, and the more care that went into the choice, the better the journey to work.
The things I wrote down with a paper and pen were:
- Date and time of journey
- What I Listened To
(I made a Google Spreadsheet of everything I listened to in July, hoping I’d find the time to do some fancy visualisation. But I didn’t, so never mind.)
In actual fact, the first three variables made the least difference to the quality of the journey. The thing that made the biggest difference was what I was listening to at these three, fairly unpropitious spots along the way:
These two at King’s Cross – one is the interchange for the Victoria Line, and the other the interchange for the Metropolitan line:
And this one walking down towards my office:
And if I happen to be listening to the right kind of song at the right moment when I look up and see one of these views, for some reason I feel a surge of optimism and adrenalin and as if it’s possible that day might turn out be a good one. I don’t know especially what that might mean, other than that mildly open space and a stirring song are all that it takes to make me feel cheerful. But knowing that feels more useful to me than the metrics I get in iTunes or from Last.fm.
From what I can gather, the simple act of listening to music isn’t sufficient to stimulate endorphins or dopamine. Perhaps it’s the combination of the music with the speed I’m walking and the things I can see. Or perhaps it’s a little glimmer of discovery and curiosity about the new day. But I’m pretty sure it’s improved by making a careful choice, and writing it down.
I’ll finish now with another clip of music – this one is a song that makes me feel happy when I walk down the street, or make one of those exciting interchanges at King’s Cross. I hope it does the same for you.