Reflections on my First #24hourbookclub Experience
Yesterday was my first time participating in 24hourbookclub, reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. I wasn’t too familiar with the title choice, but I was thankful for the excuse to read fiction for the day as a break from my thesis reading. Surrounded by piles of theory and ambitious Zotero lists, a deep sense of reading guilt normally prevents me from even entertaining the possibility of cracking the spine (or file, as it were) on a work of fiction, but I’ve been feeling a bit more zen about those lists, and I jumped at the prospect of refreshing fiction and the opportunity to participate in the virtual book club experience. What follows is more personal reflection than review, but feels like an appropriate compliment to Rose’s special talent for tasting emotions in a slice of cake.
The #24hourbookclub Experience
starting off #24hourbookclub with the particular happiness of homemade scones and clotted cream via Instagram
I started the day slowly, enjoying tea and scones and clotted cream for breakfast and thinking that homemade baked goods paired nicely with the start of a novel so focused on their emotional complexity. I spent the day reading leisurely, first from the comfort of my sunny Sunday bed, then later from the couch after the sun had made its way to that side of the house. I took a short break for a nap, and then a long walk by the Thames. I stopped at chapter breaks here and there to see what people were posting to the #24hourbookclub hashtag; for a while I was on my own in British Summer Time, but my breaks slowed me down a bit so I finished up along with some of the East Coasters. I tweeted a couple of my favorite quotes along the way, but I held off as I neared the end of the book.
“I watched as she added a question mark at the end. Arc, line, space, dot.” #24hourbookclub— Sara Marie Watson (@smwat)
I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the simultaneous virtual reading experience, particularly when I could catch up on what others had to say about the prose and the character and plot development from section to section. But most of all, I was happy to partake in the pet project of someone who never ceases to inspire me, Ms. Diana Kimball. I’ve only actually met Diana a few times in person through mutual friends, but I count her as one of my internet favorites and we have become fast Twitter/Facebook/Instagram friends through our mutual love of the internet, literature, and writing. Diana is an incredibly thoughtful, nurturing, and positive voice on the internet, and I felt like I got to know her even better through this virtual flashmob reading experience for which she can be credited. Reading somehow felt a little more immediate, higher stakes, while I was reading as this community coalesced around this particular day and this particular book for a few hours together. I immediately thought of Diana when I read these lines:
“Once, a year or so before, he’d been at our house and he’d pulled out a lock of his hair and used it to teach me about eddies and helixes. It’s a circular current into a central station, he’d explained, giving me one to hold. I pulled on the spring. Nature is full of the same shapes, he said, taking me to the bathroom sink and spinning on the tap and pointing out the way the water swirled down the drain. Taking me to the bookshelf and flipping open a book on weather and showing me a cyclone. Then a spiral galaxy. Pulling me back to the bathroom sink, to my glass jar of collected seashells, and pointing out the same curl in a miniature conch. See? he said, holding the seashell up to his hair. Yes! I clapped. His eyes were warm with teaching pleasure. It’s galactic hair, he said, smiling.”
And receiving her tweet-pings of encouragement added to the experience:
— Diana Kimball (@dianakimball)
Thank you, Diana!
What I Tasted in the Book
Like Rose’s mother, I can’t help but look for signs in the things I read, and I found more than I had even expected to. For one, I really enjoyed George’s considered treatment of Rose’s gift/affliction because it reminded me of a Quantified Self experiment: “Take subject out of environment and re-test, he said, making quote fingers with his hands.” I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Quantified Self practices and the N=1 scientific method in my thesis research about personal data. Rose’s particular affliction captures so much of what I find interesting and problematic about QS—tracking the subjective and qualitative experience of mood, emotions, and tastes through scientific methods and hard data (in this case, cookies). It’s somehow reassuring to find traces of our preoccupations in places we do not expect to find them.
I also found myself thinking a lot about family relationships through food. Until this book, I don’t think I had ever put all the pieces together to see food as a medium through which families work out their issues. I also think that’s what made this story so relatable for many of my fellow #24hourbookclub members—family issues as manifest through food are seem to be universal.
As we’ve begun to define what our own version of family looks like, my husband and I have made food, and the process of cooking together, an important part of our domestic life. We measure quality of living in our series of apartments based on the size, set up, and specs of their kitchens. But I hadn’t thought so synthetically about why we care so much about our cooking: it turns out our respective extended families have very mixed relationships with food. Nick is a great cook, as guided by his mother’s years of experience cooking for her younger siblings. I’m the baker, born out of weekend muffin-making ritual with my mother. But aside from these obvious direct maternal influences, I’ve become more aware of the more subtle pulls: a grandmother’s reliance on store-bought canned goods, another’s stubborn determination for canning against all odds; a father’s penchant for indulgence in sweets, and resultant diabetes; my mother’s chicken-caesar-salad-with-the-dressing-on-the-side shtick, tied to her lifelong goal of Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly (but perhaps not adventurously); my brother’s miraculous subsistence on an exclusive pizza, pasta, and peanut butter diet. Our families have food issues, but reading this made me realize,whether its about socioeconomics, control issues, or body issues, food invariably reflects family dynamics.
I related to the idea that baked goods were the most intense sensory experience for Rose. Baked goods have been at the center of my food-related concerns for some time. I’ve been disappointed by the unfulfilled promise of comfort in baked goods: between our fickle dorm convection oven, and the complete lack thereof in Chongqing, baking has been a challenge as of late. Even in our nice kitchen here in the UK, I’ve discovered following US customary recipes with imperial measuring cups that the two standards are not, in fact, interchangeable. And since the recent onset of my egg allergy, I’ve been forced to take dessert into my own hands. Nearly every confection on a menu (with the exception of the occasional panna cotta or berry crumble) contains egg as a main ingredient. Even ice cream has about a fifty/fifty chance of being custard-based. (Scones, by the way, generally don’t use egg, hence my love affair with cream tea here in England.) So I’ve acquired a Kitchen Aid and eggless baking cookbooks and set forth on my own experimental project. My challenge, as my patient guineapig Nick can attest, is to find an adequate eggless brownie recipe. In baking, eggs are responsible for everything from moisture, to density, and are primarily responsible for rising action, all of which are important for optimal brownie texture. The eggless recipes I’ve tried have ended up on the cakey or even crumbly side of the spectrum, miles away from the desired candy-glazed squares with chewy, fudgy insides. For a process that’s meant to be comforting, every failed eggless baking attempt feels all the more disappointing.
lemon poppyseed fail #collapsingdreams— Sara Marie Watson (@smwat)
Thankfully, the egg allergy (or intolerance, to be more precise), isn’t nearly as bad as when it first cropped up. When I’ve gone through a long enough spell without any trouble, I start itching to test if I’ve grown out of my symptoms. I start with something really worth the trouble: a warm chocolate chip cookie or a glorious blueberry muffin. On my recent trip to Italy, I made it through without asking once whether the fresh pasta had eggs (it almost certainly did) and didn’t have much trouble aside from eating far too much the entire trip. But back to reality and my normal eating habits, eating things with eggs continues to make me feel bloated and generally yucky. Maybe it’s psychosomatic, maybe it’s weird protein chemistry; whatever it is, I’m avoiding eggs where I can, which means pressing on with the eggless baking trial and error.
“Baked goods were the most potent, having been built for the longest time from the smallest of parts, so I did best with a combination of the highly processed—gummy fish, peanut-butter crackers, potato chips—made by no one, plus occasional fast-food burgers, compiled by machines and made, often, by no one, and fruits and vegetables that hadn’t been cooked.”
In The Particular Sadness, I was also captivated by the treatment of the food as a technology, and the sideways critique of the food industrial complex. My favorite passage centered around Rose’s class presentation on Doritos, her pick for something in “modern society that we valued that was not around in the time of our grandparents:”
“What is good about a Dorito, I said, in full voice, is that I’m not supposed to pay attention to it. As soon as I do, it tastes like every other ordinary chip. But if I stop paying attention, it becomes the most delicious thing in the world…
“Exactly, I said. That good dust stuff.
“What I taste, I said, reading from my page, is what I remember from my last Dorito, plus the chemicals that are kind of like that taste, and then my zoned-out mind that doesn’t really care what it actually tastes like. Remembering, chemicals, zoning. It is a magical combo. All these parts form together to make a flavor sensation trick that makes me want to eat the whole bag and then maybe another bag…
“In conclusion, I said, a Dorito asks nothing of you, which is its great gift. It only asks that you are not there.”
I liked this passage for its guilty pleasure. As Nick’s preferred sandwich accompaniment Doritos hold a special place in my household. Doritos, fake-cheesy cousins, cheese doodles, epitomize the height of junk food, but I love them all the same.
Having researched enterprise systems and supply chain management technology, I’ve imagined (fancifully) a complete food provenance system based on RFID tags, that follows all the steps from farm to table, even in the most complex processed foods. Imagine an app that could the narrative that Rose tastes in her mother’s pie: “the whole kitchen smelled of hometown America, of Atlanta’s orchards and Oregon’s berry bushes, of England’s pie legacy, packed with the Puritans over the Mayflower.” Maybe that level of detail is extreme, but movements towards eating local, organic, slow etc. seem to suggest that we’re reacting against the industrial pattern that has separated us from the preparation and consumption of our food. Rose needs the separation at first to survive, but when she tastes the passion and attention to the ingredients in the French restaurant and throughout her culinary tour of LA, she’s brought closer to the pure tastes in food, rather than the conditions of its production.
As for the writing itself, I found the similes were often sloppy, the short sentences a little stilted, and the narrator suspiciously observant for her age, but I didn’t let these blemishes get in the way of my fictional reading pleasure. I guess it was like Rose, tasting the pastry chef’s hurry in the pie crust and yet still enjoying the quiche. And given my problem with eggs, fictional is the only kind of quiche I get to enjoy.
Gearing up for Quantified Self Amsterdam
I’m thrilled to be leading a breakout session on “The Self in Data” at the upcoming Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam on Saturday at 3PM. I’m hoping to have a lively discussion about the following questions:
- What is my relationship to my data? Today, over time?
- What does my data tell me about myself?
- How do I derive meaning from my data?
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.
Understanding Personal Data
[This post also appears on #wethedata.]
It’s been a wild year. From living in Chongqing, to getting married in the US and moving to the UK, we’ve been living an itinerant but momentous life this year. We’ve arrived in Oxford, gotten set up with broadband, and now we’re hitting the ground running and getting back to work.
So, what am I doing here at Oxford? I’m reading (as the Brits say) for my MSc in the Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute [and yes, at the end of this, I will be a Master of the Internet, and I ask that you please refer to me as such]. I’ve been working in tech and the internet in some capacity for the last few years, from enterprise IT to online video, so this feels like a pretty natural next step. The main difference now is one of focus: I’m studying personal data. I’ve been thinking about personal data for a while now, and I wanted a chance to study it more rigorously, and with the institutional backing to do so.
I’m also here to learn. I’m not a social scientist by training. I fashioned myself a comparative media scholar by way of English and Film Studies in undergrad, and emerged as a business analyst by teaching myself how to read financial statements. Now I’m here to explore how I might be an anthropologist, or an economist, or a legal scholar of how society understands (or perhaps doesn’t) personal data.
But I’m discovering that in getting trained in broad social science methods, I’m also here to meta-study the social scientists themselves. As much as Facebook and other platforms are using personal data to improve products and build business models, the social scientists are just as, if not more eager, to make use of the wealth of social data that’s being collected. While the latter may have IRB sanctions and methodological ethics training, the former doesn’t necessarily, so I’m interested to explore some of the similarities and differences across these two different sets of users of data. The promise of Big Data looms large right now for both, but those messages haven’t necessarily been translated to consumers except in fear-mongering, sensationalized ways (see Target pregnancy story). Bridging that gap is hopefully where I fit in.
One of my biggest motivations for studying personal data as opposed to privacy is because I believe we as a society don’t have practical frameworks for understanding the day to day decisions we make about our relationships to firms that use our data in exchange for their “free” services. It’s not just about the potential for breaches, security, protecting ourselves from identity theft. We’re in an important moment right now: we are still in the process of exploring and delineating these new norms and expectations are around data use, information flows and contexts (like many, I’m heavily influenced by Nissenbaum). I want to help shape and describe those norms, those expectations as they develop. My project is one of user awareness, savviness. It’s not one of conservatism, it’s one of conscientiousness.
And I’m in good company in thinking about how we think about data. Projects like #wethedata are trying to raise awareness and show the potential for different relationships to data. The World Economic Forum has been describing data as a new asset class. These are all steps in the right direction. But there are also some metaphors being used to liken data to oil, to be mined and refined by large corporations (i.e. Big Data). This metaphor disempowers and dehumanizes the individuals in the equation. People aren’t natural resources. I want to contribute to this dialog, and figure out better metaphors for talking about our data that could ultimately shape policy, consumer behavior and decisions, and even have an impact on the very economic model of the internet (“free” services and content in exchange for data). There won’t be market demand for changing practices around personal data if users don’t have a concrete grasp of how data is used today and could be potentially used tomorrow.
We are bringing more and more of our lives online, and in doing so, we are generating more data, leaving more crumbs, but we haven’t necessarily seen the benefits of our own quantification on a personal level. The existence of this data isn’t necessarily good or bad, but how we use it, who can use it, and where it goes in the future is all up for discussion right now, and we need a savvier user to have a say in that discussion.
[Review] The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge
The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was really excited to read The Intention Economy because it is one of the first efforts I’ve seen to extend popular privacy concerns into the realm of the economics of personal data and user empowerment. I’ve been pursuing these ideas in talking about the nature of our transactional relationships with internet services and companies by “paying with our data,” and we’ve seen early signs of this in the World Economic Forum’s discussion of personal data as a new asset class.
Searls’s strongest explanation comes in describing the underlying problem in the existing internet economy that gives data use power to companies: it’s all based on those boilerplate, impossible-to-parse terms of service that operate as “contracts of adhesion.” Contracts of adhesion is an old idea, introduced by Friedrich Kessler to describe the heavily biased positioning of bargaining power with the company. These contracts exist to allow for mass production and consumption at scale, but they get in the way of principles of “freedom of contract”. So how do we put users on a more level [contractual] playing field with companies?
Searls proposes that control over the terms of data use need to lie with the user, and that fourth party data brokers (also called data lockers) could negotiate and manage our terms and our data on our behalf to share with the services that need access to our data. Terms might include things like “If we cease our relationship, you can keep my data but not associate any PII with that data.” While customer relationship management (CRM) platforms have been around for more than ten years to help companies manage interactions with and data about customers, Searls suggests that we’ve been missing the mirrored pair on the customer side of the relationship, which he’s deemed vendor relationship management (VRM).
While I’m excited about shifting the dynamic of predominant economic models as they relate to data, Searls’ book falls short in a couple of key ways:
- It’s too optimistic. Searls doesn’t address or even acknowledge the of the limitations and challenges (most obviously, inertia) that would prevent The Intention Economy from realization. It’s too easy to punch holes.
- Searls puts too much focus on and faith in the tools. He says, “We didn’t need a car, a copier, a radio, or a smartphone until we saw one and said to ourselves, ‘I need that.’…SO, THEN Customer liberation requires necessity-mothering inventions.” I tend to disagree. While developing tools to enable these markets is important, making customers aware of the problem, and making them aware of an alternative model, is a bigger challenge, first. One audience member in Searls’s book talk asked: “Customers are lazy. What’s going to make them want to do anything about this?” Sure, having tools that make this as easy and seemless as possible is going to make adoption go a lot more smoothly, but there won’t be a market if enough consumers don’t see this as a clear problem. The popular media’s coverage of privacy concerns over the last year has certainly raised the level of discourse, but it’s mostly been focused on fear mongering. We haven’t seen much in terms of alternative models for moving forward, and that’s what conscientious consumers should pick up from this book.
- Searls doesn’t address the elephant in the room, which is: why should we trust fourth parties with our data anymore than we trust Facebook or Target? Might it just be the case that the fourth party managing our data for us will just end up being one of the companies that already has a lot of our data already? Will Facebook become our data broker, like it’s already our identity manager (given all the startups using Facebook for signup and login)? That possibility seems more likely to me, given the concentration of users already captured on these platforms. It’s harder to imagine one of the current data locker startups rising to the top to come between us and Facebook (unless of course they got bought by Facebook). But even for Facebook to become our data broker, the dominant economy of the internet will have to shift way from advertising to create something that looks a little like Searls’s Intention Economy. He doesn’t make this argument, though, since he’s so invested in those VRM startups.
Aside from this more glaring problems, Searls’s writing is full of awkward, imperfect metaphors like calf-cows relationships (“The World Wide Web has become a World Wide Ranch, where we serve as calves to Web sites’ cows, which feed us milk and cookies.”) and Chinese walls between advertisers and consumers (“If advertisers would peek over on our side of the Chinese wall, they would see two icebergs toward which TV’s Titanic is headed, and both promise less tolerance for advertising.”).
All that being said, The Intention Economy is bold, and it’s hard to cover all the bases when your arguments are so radical. But it’s also hard to convince others to rally around the cause if there are too many questions left unanswered.
View all my reviews
Facebook just won’t let up! I got another prompt today to add my fiance to my “Close Friends” list.