Monday, June 22, 2015

A Bold And Arduous Project Of Arriving At Moral Perfection

Ben Franklin stands in the pages of history triumphantly mastering electricity, establishing universities, and writing constitutions. He is heroically armed with kite, with beaver hat, and with book. It seems odd to think of him doing something so quotidian as basic arithmetic.

But back in his younger days he was far less exalted: we must imagine him bent over account books, making a reckoning of each day's purchases and sales, furrowing his brow over sums our phones could do in a half second, trying to figure out whether he made a profit or loss on a printing of some evanescent pamphlet.

Accounting was incredibly important for people like Franklin, because accounting allowed merchants and like-minded souls a way of seeing otherwise invisible patterns. People kept accounts of their businesses to tell their profits and loss. They kept accounts of their own finances to see who they owed money to. And many people, like Franklin, or Robert Hooke or Samuel Pepys, tried to do even more. They tried to keep accounts of their own selves.

A writing blank; from BiblioOdyssey. Note the banker in the lower picture working over the bank's account book.

Here's Franklin's Autobiography on the origin of his famous moral accounting:

I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.... [Bad habits] must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. For this purpose I therefore contrived the following method.
I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul'd each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross'd these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.
It looked a little something like this:













The contemporary project of the quantified self promises to improve on Franklin's little spreadsheet, turning this thumbnail sketch into a warts-and-all big data portrait of an individual through time. The hype suggests that wearable technology like Fitbits and Apple Watches can turn our daily activity into numbers, and these numbers can be visualized, massaged, mined, and understood in ways we never could have dreamed of. This will allow us to uncover the hidden causes of our unhappiness, to graph our continuous climb towards self-improvement, to crunch regressions that show us just exactly where it all went wrong.

I don't buy the hype, though. Not yet anyway. The new quantified self might be able to measure a lot, but can that data answer many questions? Ben Franklin kept track of his moderation; the Fitbit can only count your heartbeat as you wait for your new girlfriend to pick you up at the BART stop. Ben Franklin accounted for his temperance; the Fitbit can only measure the number of calories you burn on your guilty post-pizza morning runs. Ben Franklin paid attention to his industry; the Fitbit can only tell you how many naps you took in the day, not what dreams you dreamt while napping, not the pleasure you get from putting a pillow over your eyes to block out the afternoon sun.

And it's those hard three in the morning questions that really matter, Am I good? Am I happy? Am I just stumbling through life? Are we anything more than a bunch of over-proud apes clinging desperately to a rock falling forever through the vacuum of space?

Nobody expects Fitbits to answer questions like these. But they are the questions people expect humanities scholars to wrestle with. So what is digital humanities to do with the quantified self?


I don't know, but I want to take a crack at telling a story of my life through data. Not just a story of how many steps I took or stairs I climbed, but a weighty story about what my life actually means. So this summer I will take an account of each day, and then do some experiments with this data to try to better understand my self and my place in the world.

But which data should I collect?

This is one of the deep problems of digital humanities. We can work real magic with data, but before we can even begin to build a database, we need to come up with a good question to answer. Then we need to figure out which data might help us answer this question.

To that end, I've set up this Google spreadsheet to canvas suggestions from you, my legions of readers, about what I should track over the summer. Should I measure the number of books I've read? The number of meals I've cooked? The number of times I've thought of a butterfly? The minutes I spent pacing through my rooms, daydreaming? Which data really matters? Which data are just noise?

I'll start the data collection in early July. Afterwards I will post with some regularity about my findings. By the end of the summer I will be able to tell a story of my life, graphs and all. If I'm lucky, it will be the kind of story that Ben Franklin might be proud of. If not, at least there will be some pretty graphs.

This post is the part of a Digital Humanities blogging challenge organized by the Berkeley Digital Humanities Working Group.