29 Jan 2018
In this profile of Ishac Bertran, there are two pieces related to personal data collection that I liked. The first, The Memory Device, is a simple recording device of a simple data form: timestamps. The user presses a physical button, which prompts a tiny line (the timestamp) to be drawn on a tiny vertical screen, the length of which represents the day. Each day is saved, so you can scroll through your history to see reminders of moments that you wanted to remember.
The technocrats have made a dazzlingly advanced and lucrative field out of data science, and nowadays you can’t go an hour without hearing about how so much data has gone through so deep a neural network to now so reliably predict a topic once so inscrutable to stodgy old human intelligence. Given this context, I thought this project was rather poetic and refreshing for its utter lack of “intelligence” and granularity.
I also thought it was interesting because I, too, had fantasized about the use of physical mechanisms to mark common events that I might want to collect, such as compulsions, mood states, and productivity. Consider the quick press of a small button on a bracelet on your wrist, compared to the long and disruptive process of turning on your phone, tapping in the password, opening an app, finding the appropriate tracker category, and then finally being able to mark the occasion of the birth of this blog post. And since you’re on your phone already, so you might as well tend to the notifications that have accumulated while you mustered up the willpower to actually start on your homework.
Ishac also produced a series of books, each containing a year’s worth of his Google searches. That’s it! But it’s a clever little comment on internet privacy; there’s something so ironic and immense and terrifying about having all your private and passing curiosities—which one considers such anonymous, unworthy and insignificant dust in the digital ether—not only meticulously recorded by the biggest internet company ever, but enshrined in something as prestigious as print media, available for anyone to come along and flip through.
I personally thought it was interesting because I’ve been meaning to do something with my Google data for a while. Being an Android user with poor memory, I’ve always kind of delighted in having such an assiduous witness to my life. In fact, my memory is so poor that I keep forgetting this data is available to me, so I’m keeping these links here for future reference:
A similar and even more invasive project is HTTPrint, a Chrome extension that records your internet browsing activity. The data it collects includes the pages you visit, the included images and text, and the time you spent on each. You can then print the data like a newspaper.
I like the idea of this because the content you consume online almost certainly has some degree of influence on your mood, especially considering how internet browsing is such an inveterate daily habit for most of us. I would love to run sentiment analysis on both the words coming into my brain and the words coming out, to see how they influence each other and my general mood patterns.
Finally, I love this gesture by Eugenia Kuyda, who fed old chat logs with her deceased best friend into a TensorFlow neural network, to create a chat bot that spoke like him. The bot’s selected-for-publication responses are not only logical and relevant, but also very idiosyncratic. This makes it seem quite powerful as a project and experiment, but still obviously inadequate when compared to the real person.
In the end, this work may be yet another questionable application of AI in a wider, ongoing debate over ethical use cases. But ultimately I’m hopeful that machine learning can learn enough about us via our personal data to teach us about our habits, reveal opportunities for improvement, and facilitate us in our daily lives.