Thanks to computers and cameras in things we use and wear, there’s more data available about us than ever before. Whatever you’re doing right now, you’re producing data. Whether you’re walking your dog, sitting in traffic, or jogging on the treadmill, you are leaving a trail of data points behind you like bread crumbs.
James Pennebaker, University of Texas at Austin psychology professor, says much of that data is being tracked.
“Every place I go, I know there’s records,” Pennebaker says. “Everything I ask on the computer – my search terms are all available: whether or not I enter a particular room, the degree to which I rely on elevators versus stairs. My computer gets all sort of things in terms of how much I use the brakes, how I use the accelerator. I mean there’s an infinite amount of information here.”
To some the idea of all this information might be overwhelming or frightening. But to an increasing number of people who are logging and quantifying the data points of their day-to-day life, it’s useful. They collect these bread crumbs and turn them into what are called “life blogs.” Adam Leonard is one of those people.
“I’ve been referred to as cybernetic, because I would wear, you know, heart rate tracking systems,” Leonard says. “I happen to work in data, so in my professional life I’ve always been very analytical. So there’ll be jokes about being robotic or an android or things like that at times.”
Leonard was one of the first people to wear a FitBit – a device that tracks your heart rate, number of steps you’ve taken in the day, your sleep cycle and other things. Now he’s been logging information related to his health for over a decade. He’s nearly 50 and he plays basketball and football a few times a week with guys half his age. He says meticulous tracking has allowed him to do it.
“I’ve got a gym in my house,” Leonard says. “And I built this sculpture piece, I guess you’d put it. I cut it out of metal. It says ‘age is nothing.’ And when I wrote that I was considerably younger and age was not nearly as much of an issue as it is now. But now age is something to fight. But I’m still trying to make age nothing for me, and this is the path to do it.”
Logging personal information isn’t a new idea – just ask anyone with a journal. And though technology has changed since the pen and ink days, people like Leonard have still had to manually opt into logging and collecting personal data. Austin data artist Laurie Frick thinks that will change soon.
“We’re in this moment of being tracked,” Frick says. “This was the decade that we went from being mysterious to being known. Sometime in the 2020’s people are going to turn around and go ‘Pfft – why did I think I was going to hide?’ This sense of identity itself and self-knowing that we think is so creepy now, I think we’re just not going to remember it as creepy. It’s just happening.”
Frick’s current piece of art involves interpersonal data. It visualizes her entire network of relationships – every person she can remember knowing. She thinks this might be the next step in logging personal data – not just our own steps and blood sugar, but the nature of our relationships with other people.
James Pennebaker says we can’t even begin to know what will be available in the years ahead.
“This new data revolution is going to increasingly allow us to get inside the skins of others,” he says.
So even if the future of personal data is still a little hazy, it’s coming one way or another. And more information about ourselves might mean a better understanding of other people, too.