Optimal Idea Generation at the London Quantified Self Meetup

I went to my first Quantified Self Meetup last week in London. I’d been signed up and getting the emails for the Boston Meetup group for a while, but never felt compelled to go. Though I track a lot of things like my exercise, financial information, and nutrition, I never really identified with the movement and the more edgy “self-hacking” aspects of the trend. But at the insistence of Joshua Kauffman, I went and checked out the London chapter, and I’m very glad I did.

The format is refreshingly brief, to the point, and inclusive, all to the organizer Adriana Lukas' credit. The 10-minute “show and tell” presentations that are followed by ample time for group discussion allow for thoughtful interaction, and make use of the wealth of opinions, backgrounds, and ideas in the room. And the highly-encouraged pub time following allows for ample mingling and sharing of interests and we've all got something good to talk about after the ideas are swimming from the presentations before. Kudos to good structure!

Even in just one presentation, there were so many things that resonated with my  research interests in how people think about personal data. Case in point: The first presentation of the night after Adriana’s introduction was given by a man in a snug, sporty zip up that showed off his muscular physique. A self-described immortalist, Stuart Calimport presented his Memome project, detailing how over the last 1.5 years he has tracked more than 11,000 thoughts that came to his mind and classified them as either healthy or unhealthy. With just an Excel spreadsheet and word clouds, he quantified his preoccupation with “optimization.” Stuart also looked at his overall idea generation by matching raw output of ideas to a day’s activity with his Fitbit and Fitocracy data, and discovered that he generated more ideas on low-exercise, high-calorie intake days (i.e., at conferences), and he wants to find better ways of optimizing high impact idea generation in healthier ways. The project made Stuart aware of the disconnect between his thoughts and his values, and he explained how he believes it is important to resolve those conflicts in frequency to improve health and overall well being.

Slide from Stuart Calimport’s Memome presentation at Quantified Self London 25 October, 2012.

When pushed further by the audience to explain the negative aspects of the experience or “dark journey,” he said that we have only so many hours in the day and to use them up thinking unhealthy thoughts isn’t how he wants to spend his time. Responding to the relatively simple analysis of the data, the group offered suggestions for looking at runs in the data to show statistical patterns of healthy or unhealthy thoughts, or suggested adding timestamps to his thoughts to facilitate more granular correlation other tracked behaviors (as Self Quantifiers are want to do). But for Stuart, the act of keeping track of thought patterns was sufficient, and contributed to larger self improvement project that included becoming vegetarian and improving his muscle:fat ratio. All this, in service of his larger goals of optimizing mutual health and well being in himself and others.

Just this one story brought out so many of the themes that interest me about this community. While I was sitting the room, my initial reaction was that this is just the kind of extreme example of self tracking that leads the popular press to describe these efforts in terms of navel gazing and narcissism. What good does it do to try to keep track of ideas? But upon further reflection, Stuart’s project generated a lot of interesting questions for me: What are the limitations of analysis of qualitative content, and what’s the utility of tracking something so abstract as ideas and memetic concepts? What data is or isn’t important for self quantifiers, and to what end? How do self quantifiers use and interpret their data to weave narratives about themselves? What motivates self quantifiers to track the things that they do? And most importantly, what is the relationship of personal data to the conception of the self?

My initial reaction to Stuart’s talk also brought forward my own hesitation with identifying as a self quantifier. In what ways is my own DailyBurn calorie and exercise tracking different from his Memome project, and what about those differences makes me feel like just a hobbyist? Where is the line between what Alicia Morga described as the two camps of “Oprah Winfrey school of self-improvement than the Silicon Valley data geeks." These are important questions as I think about myself in relation to this community as I become more active both as a participant and as an observer.

The Quantified Self community collectively represents a group of people who’ve given a lot of thought to what active and passive tracking means to them, how they value their data and conceive of their ownership of it, and what their data means for their self awareness and definition. It’s a group with rich stories to tell, and for those reasons I’m leaning towards focusing my masters research this year on Quantified Self attitudes, behaviors, and conceptions about personal data. I’m betting that among stories like Stuart’s, there are just as many threads to tug on that get at what personal data means to us today and will mean to us in the future.

On a personal note, when I started putting the pieces together thinking about what I had observed at the Meetup, and began to see all the ways this group intersects with all the things I’ve been thinking about when it comes to describing personal data writ large, I’ve gotten really excited and energized about my work, and that’s always an optimal thing.