publishing on demand

eBook Observer – It’s all about the data

I know that I last promised an update on my examination of the eNotebooks, but I’ve found it necessary to take a bit of a detour before doing this which means reevaluating the kind of frameworks that are required. In the meantime, I’ve been taking stock of some potentially relevant work.

Last April, I read an article by Gary Wolf in the New York Times Magazine about people who are “self-trackers” – that is, people who use new digital tools and services to produce data about themselves or their activities. The article stuck in my mind because it definitely fell into the category of “people who create information in unconventional ways” – a topic that I was (and still am) interested in. But I didn’t think much more of it at the time. Then on Monday morning, I came across this article on Slate by Michael Agger titled Data for a Better Planet where the Wolf articles came-up again. It gave me an opportunity to revisit the other article and the blog where Wolf and others write regularly.

What interests me in this type of research is how people who aren’t necessarily social scientists or other kinds of expert researchers use tools and methods inspired by these disciplines to produce information. What I found particularly frustrating about the Slate article was that it completely overlooked one of the fundamental points that Wolf was trying to make in the NY Times Magazine article. Agger’s interest in self-tracking seems to be limited to how it represents an opportunity for people to “improve society” by “sharing their data”. In other words, collecting this data about yourself and making it available to everyone and anyone is somehow necessarily going to lead to more information and a better state of affairs. But I don’t want to get into lofty critiques of certain versions of information society that assume that more information is necessarily better or about how this certainly leads to problematic issues of surveillance and bio-politics.

Rather, what I find particularly problematic is that Agger is basing his argument on a set of assumptions about how all of this data can be collected and fed into standardised information frameworks. Who decides what data is valuable and what isn’t? What is the benefit of my knowing how others self-tracked their work patterns if I don’t share the same values about what are good work patterns? After rereading the Wolf article, I realised that what had left an impression on me was that he highlighted the eccentricity of the way in which these self-trackers were gathering data. The point of collecting this data and turning into information about their day-to-day activities wasn’t to change the world but to devise situated tactics for a better understanding of their everyday lives. The value of self-tracking for these people wasn’t only the information that was produced but the opportunity to think differently about a particular aspect of their lives. Part of the conclusion that Wolf came to when examining his own self-tracking was that he was putting too much emphasis on a certain kind of metrics for measuring the quality of his work:

“I got nothing from my tracking system until I used it as a source of critical perspective, not on my performance but on my assumptions about what was important to track.”

For Wolf, self-tracking represented a great way to challenge existing standards rather than building new ones. This understanding of data gathering practices as critique is exactly the kind of thing that seems to be a part of the ongoing work at Proboscis with the eBooks. Of course, there are also some significant differences including the fact that the kind of work people are doing with eBooks that I’ve encountered to date is less focused on the ‘self’ and that the “capturing” people have described with the eBooks is quite different from the “tracking” that Wolf described.