This Mediated Life

By Christopher Butler

Time to report!

How did you sleep? What time did you wake up today? Are you working? What are you doing? Where are you? Who are you with? What did you learn today?

By default, this inquisition happens six times a day. Is this too many? You can request fewer interrogations. You can have as few as one. Would you prefer more? You can participate in as many as you wish. You could spend the entire day under questioning, if you like. Tell me when you are awake, and we’ll begin right away. How do you find the lighting in here? Is it too bright? You may choose the color you like best, as long as it is red, blue, grey, pink, or yellow.

2014_02_10_rep3

At around 2:30 in the afternoon, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I retrieved it and saw the alert: Time to Report! I opened the app. WHAT TIME DID YOU WAKE UP TODAY? 5:45. But I already… ARE YOU WORKING? Yes. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I’m in a meeting, actually… WHERE ARE YOU? I’m at work…like I said. Actually, I should… WHO ARE YOU WITH? Mark and Chris and Dave.

Mark and Chris and Dave. Somehow I feel as if I’ve exposed them. “Nevermind,” I thought, “that’s silly.” I stuffed my phone back into my pocket.

A few hours later, my phone buzzes again. Time to report! WHAT TIME DID YOU WAKE UP TODAY? What? Didn’t you already…

In the half-second between reading the question and tapping my previous answer, which had been provided for me, I worried. Perhaps I was using this thing wrong. Am I creating a data model that will later imply that I had actually woken up 6 times in one day, each time at 5:45 — which of course, would be absurd and contaminate the entire data sample — but am I? Maybe I missed some setting somewhere that would allow me to control the interval of specific questions? No, I don’t think so. I went through all the setup screens. Hmm. Why would a tool like this repeatedly request data that had already been provided unless it expected that data to change? Maybe I’ve misunderstood the question? Or maybe I should just reduce the number of reports I submit each day? No, that can’t be right. This is a default question, and six reports per day is the default setting. They must have thought this through…

“Argh whatever,” I thought. “I’ll figure this out later.” I hit submit.

Submit. Funny word, that.

“The rapid fire approach involves a psychological ploy based upon the principles that everyone likes to be heard when he speaks, and it is confusing to be interrupted in midsentence with an unrelated question. In employing this technique the interrogator asks a series of questions in such a manner that the source does not have time to answer a question completely before the next question is asked. This tends to confuse the source, and he is apt to contradict himself, as he has little time to prepare his answers. The interrogator then confronts the source with the inconsistencies, causing further contradictions. In many instances, the source will begin to talk freely in an attempt to explain himself and deny the inconsistencies pointed out by the interrogator. In attempting to explain his answers, the source is likely to reveal more than he intends, thus creating additional leads for further interrogation. The interrogator must have all his questions prepared before approaching the source, because long pauses between questions allow the source to complete his answers and render this approach ineffective. This technique is most effective immediately after capture, because of the confused state of the source.”
The Army Intelligence Field Manual

What is truly strange about Reporter is that, though it is meant to be a tool for voluntary self-reporting, it immediately feels as though you are reporting to someone else. This is a natural tendency, I think — to personify personal technology. But sometimes, the elitist in me feels like I should know better. I work with this stuff — I create this stuff — and yet, I often fall victim to that same thinking: There’s this person in my pocket. Is he friend or foe? Actually, a better metaphor is the medium. Not like the medium is the message, but like Edgar Cayce style medium. The device channelling many personalities. Some benign, some evil. Each one is different. Reporter is definitely unique. It’s got the unwavering demands of the machine and the hyperactive EVERYTHING IS AWESOME gloss of modern social media. Using it feels like conversing with the strange, disembodied offspring of HAL and Elf. Agenda #1 for this thing is clearly to install itself into my life, to get me to like it, to trust it, to tell it things I wouldn’t share with anyone else. But then what? All of that just to help me? Reporter says it’s all just between us. I can’t help but be suspicious. After all, HAL goes from chatty helperbot to murderer in relatively short order. Hey, I may have been born at the tail end of Generation X, but I feel quite comfortable painting myself with that broad brush. As far as I’m concerned, cheerful is the new sinister.

But wait a minute.

All of that is a bit over the top, isn’t it? It’s too easy to use these kinds of metaphors to activate whatever latent luddism we harbor deep down, whether in the form of who-watches-the-watchers paranoia or maybe-the-Amish-are-on-to-something line-in-the-sand-ism. It’s by no means an illegitimate critique — god, no — but it activates the victim within each of us, who of course finds it easier to attack an adversary than to address what is in conflict within himself. And we all understand, at some level, that when we rage against the machine, we’re typically raging against the makers of the machine — the people whose motives lie just beneath whatever thing we find incomplete, or annoying, or outrageously inhuman. As of this moment, I have no solid reasons to doubt the sincerity or trustworthiness of Reporter’s creators — though it should be acknowledged that the creators of What’s App spoke passionately against ad-subsidized technology until they were bought by the biggest ad-network on the planet, demonstrating once again that every promise has a price — but maybe I do anyway. Maybe I’m not quite sure why. Maybe that doesn’t really matter. Nobody is forcing me to use the thing. Reporter is just another tool offering me “self-knowledge through numbers.” It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last. I could entertain myself with a suspicious rant against this app, its makers, and the economy of information in which it may or may not someday trade, but Reporter is a symptom, not a cause, and that rant would just provoke a counter rant and there would be some truth in each side.

Instead, let’s ask another question. Is the basic idea beneath Reporter — the quantified self — a good one? Do numbers really offer me greater self-knowledge? Can quantification make me the best self I can be? We tend to question technology on a macro scale, worrying over what will become of humanity after an aggregate of invention and use decisions. But at the micro scale is that question asked of me, the individual. What happens to me when I use things like Reporter? What sort of observer effect kicks in when I am my own observer? At what point will studying my life become my life? And then, does that create a world of solipsists who gaze no further than their own navels? (Sorry, I had to.)

Simply asking those questions reminds me that self-reporting is not for me. And this time, I really should have known better. I’ve learned this before. Every attempt I’ve made to build self-reporting into my routine has failed. I’ve used — and considered using — all kinds of personal analytics tools, but none have lasted. It’s never been a matter of difficulty. It’s not that self-reporting requires more discipline than I have or reveals a life verging on out of control. It’s the opposite. I’m already too much of a creature of habit. I’m all about routine. Self-reporting on top of that becomes a trigger for the anxiety and detachment I’ve worked for years to control.

I’ve always had a difficult time being present in the moment. I’m a hyper-planner. I think way too far in advance about things that might happen and things I might need to do. To say that sort of thinking can be distracting is an understatement. When you are in a continuously analytical state of mind, reviewing the past and anticipating the future, it leaves virtually no mental bandwidth to consider the present in any meaningful way, not to mention any chance to feel truly comfortable here in the now. And therein lies the paradox: A mind “at home” in the past or future is a mind at home anywhere but reality. The past distorts with every recollection, and the future is nothing more than a projection. This how my mind works, and yet this is not how I want to be (I’ll resist the urge to unpack this other, existential paradox, of what one means by “me” when one is differentiating from one’s mind).

Routine is something I’m careful with in my own life. Right now, I’ve settled upon a lifestyle that is rigid enough to satisfy my mind’s standard operating procedure and accommodating enough for me to be the sort of human being I want to be. This has taken years to work through, and remains a work in progress. Self-reporting, though it seems useful, unravels that effort at both ends. At the tail end of that unraveling, it’s retrospectively damaging. It brings to the surface enough repetition that I’m left feeling discouraged by just how much my life is still built around routine. A week of self reporting in just about any system would show that. Here’s what I mean: I wake up at 5:45. I’m showered, dressed and downstairs by 6:15. I put my computer, notebook, and gym clothes in my work bag. I feed the cat. In the kitchen, I pack some salad ingredients for lunch in a separate bag. Then, I mix a banana, half a cup of plain yogurt, some frozen strawberries, some almonds, some kale, and some water in a blender, pour it into a glass, grab my bags, and am out the door by 6:40. I drive to work and arrive by 7 or so. I take the elevator up to my office, leave my lunch bag in the kitchen, drop my other stuff in my office, then return to the kitchen to empty the dishwasher and make coffee. Then I get to work. I stop at noon and have a salad for lunch. I leave by 5 or 5:30 and go to the gym. I’m back on the road by 6:30 and home by 7. I shower, change, and am making dinner by 7:30. I’m usually in bed by 10 unless it’s a weekend. Repeat. Ridiculous? I know. There’s more detail, I just don’t want to bore you anymore than I already have. None of this is written down anywhere. I don’t use any list, calendar or reminder apps to make this kind of repetition happen; it’s just naturally what I do. The majority of my work day is much more variable — I can’t control that nearly at all — so I lean heavily on my calendar. But here’s the point: What good would reporting all of that do for me? That I might perhaps discover some pattern I hadn’t noticed before? Unlikely. That in observing my patterns, I might discover ways to change things or a new appreciation for who I am or what is true about the world? I need an app for that? Of course not. All reporting is likely to do for me is make me feel like a robot when I should be feeling human — either when I poor over the day’s details and see my program in hindsight, or when Reporter (or whatever app) interrupts me in the midst of my humanity and asks me to think like a robot. Which, of course, brings me to the other unraveling: Self-reporting intrudes upon those moments in which I might actually be mindfully present and asks me to return to an analytical frame of mind. Not good. Not good for me, clearly, but I wonder if that sort of mediation is good for anyone.

For me, anxiety-driven anticipatory experience is my default. That means worrying about what I will do next and how I might feel about what I’ve done rather than actually feeling now how I am feeling now about what I am doing now. There’s value in anticipatory thinking, of course. It makes me good at many things that I do. But it comes at a cost — of being present, of being spontaneous, of being surprised by the world. I’m willing to balance the equation a bit, by finding ways to reduce my thinking-aheadness in order to be more often present in the moment and able to comfortably experience the people I care for. All because I want my mind to be where my body is. Self-reporting abducts me from the now to an alien place where past and future are treated with a colder calculus than even my mind is comfortable with.

After only a few days of sporadic use, I realized that I’d already begun to conform my mind to Reporter. In the midst of reporting, I was already anticipating the next report — considering how my answers would shape the larger dataset. On the one hand, I envisioned every choice I made as a point on a graph, and often thought of the shape of that graph in pretty unhelpful ways. Do I need to do this more? It should go up! Up! On the other hand, I was tempted to do something different simply to make the data more interesting, to throw a spike in what I knew would be a boring flatline. I began to see that this was much more than me doing “what Technology wants.” It was that the technology was exposing a vulnerability in my own sense of self. I was the problem. I was trying to change my life by way of a tool designed to observe. It was as if each of Reporter’s questions was a string, and there I was, both the puppeteer peering down at my puppet self on my life’s stage, and the puppet, peering back up at myself, ready to do what I wanted me to do. But I want to be a real boy.

Maybe you don’t struggle with that. Maybe you’re stronger than I, and no system or tool is going to mess with your presence. Well, then what is Reporter going to tell a person like you that you don’t already know?

Maybe you feel like you spend too much time on Facebook. So you think that if Reporter shows that you are routinely looking at Facebook when it buzzes at 3pm to interrogate you, you might decide to take a walk at 3pm instead. Why not just skip the next few months of that charade and just start looking at Facebook less now? You already know it’s bad. Reporter is only going to tell you how bad.

When I was a kid, I used to draw maps of my day. I’d try and remember exactly where I went and what I did, and I’d draw it on a piece of paper, which ended up looking a bit like a video game level schematic. There was something calming about it, about piecing together my memory and reverse engineering it into this form — this map — that would ordinarily be used in the opposite direction. It wasn’t about quantification, though. Not really. It was about engaging my imagination and working through memory in a new way. It was about figuring out new ways to draw going school, or walking the dog, or visiting the dentist. It was play. Now, of course, there’s an app for that. All I have to do is keep my phone in my pocket, and it will reconstruct every step of my day and show it back to me on a sterile, Googley map. What could be more boring and useless than that?

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