Too Much Information May Not Be a Bad Thing

When it comes to digital stuff — data, let’s call it — moderation has not been my forte. As an adult, I’ve either been completely obsessed with recording things — day-to-day events, finances, exercise, books I read, my sleep patterns, stupid or funny things I find on the Internet — or, usually after some months-long data binge, I’ve had no interest in recording anything and have brashly close long-standing accounts on various sites and deleted apps from my phone.

Sound familiar? The average adult American brain often finds itself at a crossroads: it knows of the Internet, and probably uses it. Maybe it uses it a lot — too much. But it remembers a time when there was no Internet. It knows how to do both things. It knows how to be a city mouse, as it were, and how to be a country mouse. It knows how to stop and admire a bird in a tree, and it knows how to waste four working hours scanning various social media sites. This is my brain, at least. It can do both, and it’s happiest in the country, figuratively speaking, but it tells itself that it’s pretty content in the city, too.

Recently something changed, or had to. I was proverbially whacked over the head by the only person I know in the world who doesn’t use the Internet, my grandfather, and I forced myself into a new routine. The routine, not surprisingly, leaves little room for the Internet. It’s pretty depressing. I no longer loiter in the shadowy corners of websites that I can’t remember having had a reason to visit. I don’t look at Twitter long enough to pick up on a narrative of the day’s events. I use the “nuclear option” on a Chrome add-on called StayFocusd, which shuts off the Internet from 1PM to 6PM every weekday. If I try to access anything during these hours, Chrome flickers to a empty white page that says, “Shouldn’t you be working?” in big black text. I never do not view this page and say, “Oh, fuck it all.” Still, I do not change the settings. I do not mess with the nuclear option. Anyway, StayFocusd has all kinds of pop-up messages that taunt you — ridicule you — if you do.

But I have found ways around this newfound diligence. The difference is that my new cheats have the same goal as the Internet ban: to be healthier, in the broadest sense of the word. To think more, and more deeply. To be organized. To be “present,” as awful as that word has become. To be more fit. To have goals. So I do allow things that exist on the Internet, things that require the Internet, things that are considered, broadly, to be social media. One of them is Goodreads, where I browse friends’ lists of books to find things to read, and where I obsessively document what I myself read. With Goodreads, I almost wish it would show me even more data, like the average time it takes me to read a book, or how my speed is affected by genre or how many stars I end up giving a book. This is what I mean when I say I can’t do data in moderation.

I also started using a popular iPhone app called Sleep Cycle, which collects data on sleep patterns using the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer. After five nights placed next to your pillow, Sleep Cycle starts giving you detailed information on the quality of your sleep. A chart of the night’s sleep shows how many cycles of REM (deep) sleep you went through, which Sleep Cycle knows by picking up on the times that you’re absolutely still, since in REM sleep our major voluntary muscles are paralyzed. But the main point of Sleep Cycle is that it uses the accelerometer to pick an appropriate window to wake you up every morning. If you’re in deep sleep at exactly 8:00, in other words, it won’t wake you up until you’re out of deep sleep. You set an alarm to go off between 8:00 and 8:30, and Sleep Cycle does the work to make sure you won’t wake up groggy.

After a week of this, I have been waking up less groggy. And I now know the average time I spend asleep, and how well (deeply) I sleep, in consideration with other factors like whether I drank tea or coffee that day, whether I exercised, or whether I had a stressful day. I get a kick out of looking at the information every morning. But the information itself is not actually that important — at least to me. It’s Sleep Cycle’s algorithms that are finding it important, and I’m just the guinea pig. But there is a goal in sight: better-quality sleep. Reading the data myself is just an added perk. It taps into a need that I seem to have, now that I’m trying not to look at other sets of data (Twitter, Instagram) so much. I still need a daily fix of digital stuff. As long as it is beneficial in some specific way, I justify it.

How far could I conceivably take this — without disturbing the actual workday, or having no actual life, that is? Through a number of different websites and apps, I could conceivably record everything I do, as the New York Times Magazine pointed out in “The Data-Driven Life,” published in 2010. It’s tempting. Microsoft’s Gordon Bell, who is in his mid-70s, has been trying to do this for more than 15 years. His efforts were chronicled in the New Yorker in 2007. Bell is a computing pioneer, and thinks of himself as a guinea pig for the future of data collection. Still, Bell’s personal archive, which is completely digitized, sounds a bit like the work of a hoarder, if a forward-thinking one. It contains, among other things:

a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails; fifty-eight thousand photographs; thousands of recordings of phone calls he has made; every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003; all the activity of his desktop (which windows, for example, he has opened); eight hundred pages of health records, including information on the life of the battery in his pacemaker; and a sprawling category he describes as “ephemera,” which contains such things as books he has written and books from his library; the labels of bottles of wine he has enjoyed; and the record of a bicycle trip through Burgundy, where he tried to eat in as many starred restaurants as he could (he averaged 2.2 stars per meal—“I do a lot of measuring,” he says).

I can almost see myself getting to this point. I now keep a diary, which contains all kinds of “ephemera,” as well as a log of the newspaper and magazine articles I read each day, a kind of low-key Goodreads for non-books. I do this because before I imposed the recent Internet restrictions on myself, I found it impossible to remember anything I did on a given day, apart from the work I completed (or tried and failed to complete), the book I read, the people I saw, and the things I ate (much, though not all, of this information now goes into the diary).

A diary, or log of some kind, is an act of remembrance. Even if you don’t read the entries ever again, the act of writing it down of course helps the information to find its own long-term place in the brain. People who diligently keep diaries are probably more accepting of death, I think. They don’t feel it all continually slipping away. That record of the day-to-day experience of life means their brain is more actively engaged with the big picture. Days must seem more distinct, and routine treasured for allowing the person to see the distinctions within the sameness. Recording events, conversations, or the weather, is comforting. And it’s more personal and arguably more pure when you’re recording information that no one else sees. Then it becomes simply about you, your day-to-day experience on this earth, a way to feel proud of what you do with your time, and a way to feel that life is not monotonous, even though some data is inherently monotonous. Plug that data into your brain and suddenly it has a purpose: you’re given a kind of map of your life.

We overuse things like Twitter and Facebook because, well, we can. There seems to be no stigma surrounding “too much Internet” the way there was a stigma surrounding “too much television” growing up. I love Facebook, in spite of its gross recent incorporation of advertisements, because it keeps me connected to friends. It is beneficial, in moderation. What we forget is that our brains don’t even consciously decide to visit sites like Facebook. It’s a habit, just like biting your fingernails. If we’re not conscious of even doing it, are we conscious of what we see when we do do it? There is some pleasure involved, obviously, some fix being obtained by the social media addict. But what actually happens when we’re in the midst of getting the fix, receiving the pleasure? I can never seem to remember.

The thing I have always been most interested in cataloging in my life is running. I now use Nike+, a colorful and slick online community that imports data from the Nike+ app on the iPhone, a chip inside a pair of Nike shoes, or a Nike watch or similar device. When you import a run onto Nike+, all kinds of data appear on your dashboard. You see a detailed map of your route, your mile splits, and a graph of your pace and even your elevation over the course of the run. There are a few things you need to do: tell Nike how you felt on the run by clicking the appropriate emoticon, and tell it what surface you ran on (road, trail, track). Soon you get a full picture of you as a runner: what time of day you favor, what surface you favor, how your mood has been. This information, like my sleep patterns, is incredibly exciting, for some reason. I suppose it’s because it’s endlessly impressive that computers are capable of this stuff. But is it useful? Does it have any bearing on whether I improve as a runner or not? Maybe not, but it does have some bearing on how excited I am about going running in the first place. That’s bearing enough.

I diligently fill out all the things Nike asks me to because it’s simply more fun to look at than the pages of a notebook, or an Excel spreadsheet. This is what the people behind nice-looking online communities like CureTogether, a health site, and Mint, a personal finance site, hope potential users think. If they can somehow make the recording of data fun (colorful, dynamic, engaged with our feelings), then the people will come, and the people will take a more active interest in things like their blood pressure and checking their account balances.

A website like Nike+ or CureTogether or Mint might be pretty to look at and use, but it’s all still going to look like work once the shiny-new-toy effect has worn off. We veer over to Twitter and Facebook because they aren’t work. They’re allowing our brains to just glide along the surface of existence. It’s a low-stakes, low-key, low-impact experience. But the brain needs so much more. It’s capable of so much more. We need to give it more.

Unfortunately, a lot of the people running technology companies seem to just want us to have fun. Jim Gemmell, a Microsoft researcher and Gordon Bell’s chief collaborator, says this, in the New Yorker article about Bell’s archive:

My dream is I go on vacation and take my pictures and come home and tell the computer, ‘Go blog it,’ so that my mother can see it. I don’t have to do anything; the story is there in the pattern of the images.

So Gemmell actually wishes his experiences could be transformed into data at the click of a button (or on voice command). That’s the farthest thing from a diary. It’s a frightening proposition, if you ask me. It seems to be born of a desire to not think at all, or to not remember at all. Once an experience is over, it’s over, Gemmell seems to think. On to the next.

When Gemmell tries to explain why this might be valuable, he descends into vagueness:

This idea of being obsessive about things is a feeling we have that this is the way things are going to be.

But obsessive about what things? And in what way? There are many “ways” things could “be.” We shouldn’t be using these tools just because they make our lives easier, or because they entertain us. We should being using them because they improve our lives. To really improve our lives, they have to ask something specific of our brain: to think, to engage. Or else, like Sleep Cycle and Nike+, they have to ask us to do something beneficial (to sleep, to exercise), and then in turn reward us for our efforts with useful (or just entertaining) information that will help us, and promote better future sleeping or exercising.

After that, Gemmell’s justification gets downright depressing. He says a “lifelog,” as he calls it, like Bell’s, could help a divorced dad defend himself against a child’s accusations that he hadn’t “honored his obligations.” With the log, the father would be able to prove that he’d made all his custody visits.

Then, to follow that argument, if the son told the father that, fine, the father had been there, but you know, he seemed distant during those visits (maybe he was looking at his lifelog too much), the father would have to pause, and go back and look at his lifelog to see how often he was smiling in pictures taken with his son during those visits. Then he’d say, “But look, I was smiling in 18 of these photos. So I would say I had a good time.” But wouldn’t it be nice to remember that you had smiled without having to check, and, if it’s not too much to ask, to remember why? TC mark

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