When data collection goes too far

It’s important for us to track certain things about ourselves. But this is clearly not exactly healthy IMO.

productivity
futurism
tech
surveillance
Author

Bryan Whiting

Published

July 3, 2022

Self Surveillance

I came across this article in Flowing Data and thought it was fascinating.

I’ve been on a productivity kick lately and notice these apps have habit trackers. I’ve tried using them in the past and have realized it gets too much too quickly. But that doesn’t mean as a data guy that I don’t think it’s a cool idea. It just overwhelms me.

We’ll I discovered that me tracking a few habits a day is junior varsity level. Felix’s blog is how it’s done to the extreme. Clearly this guy isn’t worried about Big Tech or Big Government harvesting his personal data. I love the boldness!

This is just 1/20th of the full page screen shot:

The number of slices and views he has is endless. It’s crazy to see everything he’s tracking, partly I’m sure because he has fun with it and the other part because he deep down hopes there’s something there.

His quote on Flowing Data has stuck with me:

Overall, having spent a significant amount of time building this project, scaling it up to the size it’s at now, as well as analysing the data, the main conclusion is that it is not worth building your own solution, and investing this much time. When I first started building this project 3 years ago, I expected to learn way more surprising and interesting facts. There were some, and it’s super interesting to look through those graphs, however retrospectively, it did not justify the hundreds of hours I invested in this project.

This guy probably knows himself in a way that none of us ever will. He can’t ever lie to himself and say “yea, I’m good at exercising every day” because he’s got the data to back it up. But is this the life we want?

Self Surveillance as a Service

SSaaS? Apparently. Exist.io tries to find patterns in your personal data and tell you when your most happy.

Exist.io

When I researched the Apple Watch team a few years back I came to appreciate what they were/are trying to do: correlate heart monitoring with insurance claims data to proactively identify preemptive signs of cardiac arrest and other health issues.

That seems meaningful in theory because information about other people can be correlated with information about me.

But does info about myself correlate with info about myself? Probably. I have cycles. I have common traps and pitfalls like any human walking this earth. Some pitfalls are daily, some are quarterly or seasonal.

But I can also take 5 minutes to ponder reflectively or talk to a close friend and identify those patterns. What’s more human?

And what’s more: if you end up changing your behavior then your past can’t really predict your future. So all of the data becomes moot once it achieves its purpose: true lasting change. Because if you truly change your behavior based on the insights you glean about yourself, those past triggers and anomalies no longer affect you in the way they did. So when you experience a personal step change in life, you’re a new you. Maybe not. But maybe.

Also, the new generations growing up on smartphones have a unique challenge: their online identities are given to them before they’re really conscious enough to determine if that’s what they want to show the world. Parents posting YouTube or TikToks of their kids are cementing for these kids an identity they themselves didn’t choose. We’ve all gone through phases of deleting Facebook photos from 15 years ago because it doesn’t reflect our current self image. What’s to be said of giving people an opportunity to change if everything they’ve ever said or done is recorded somewhere? Twitter. Instagram. TikTok. Facebook. Every post is cementing us in a way.

I think it’s better to forget yesterday. Because it doesn’t have to have any bearing on where you’re going tomorrow. It can if you let it. But your past doesn’t have to define you.

Takeaways

Would you rather spend hours setting up digital automatic and manual tracking systems just to learn what you could by opening a gratitude journal every day? Sometimes less is more. I don’t think digital self surveillance is a direction we should go. (Not to mention the moment you do get hacked you’ll deeply regret it.)

Even blogging can be dangerous for your career. Never know what’s gonna come back to haunt you years later.

So I should be careful what I say here, that is if I ever care to work for a self surveillance company in the future.