July 9, 2017

The Memex vs Quantified Self

The term “Quantified Self” (and the motto of “self knowledge through numbers”) sometimes conjures up images like this:

Tim Cheater "You Are Just A Number" in The Sunday Times Magazine
Tim Cheater "You Are Just A Number" in The Sunday Times Magazine

I’ve stopped using the term to describe what I’m doing because people start arguing about the futility of reducing a life down to numbers without realizing that I already agree! After almost seven years of religiously tracking everything from food/drinks, to sleeping, to mood and stress levels, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to find any surprising correlations or lessons from the data beyond things I know about myself already (of course I should sleep more or drink more water!). I’m much more interested in building an incredibly powerful journal where personal metrics act as metadata around memories and experiences.

When I mentioned the above to someone this week, they recommended I check out the work of Sara Watson who spent a lot of time researching the Quantified Self community as part of her Masters studies. She interviewed many people in the community and summarized her findings in her thesis which I read this week. What I found most interesting was her enumeration of the different motivations individuals have for working on Quantified Self projects.

Here are a few metaphors for how people see their relationship with their personal data:

  • A macroscope. A microscope can examine the cellular level and a telescope can measure the universe; similarly, a macroscope can be used as a scientific tool for examining the self
  • A mechanical dashboard. She cited an example of someone who uses personal data as a “dashboard” to warn of impending burnout
  • A managerial tool. Use of personal data to “manage what you can measure”; similarly, used to add objectivity to subjective human experiences.
  • The mirror. Personal data as a way to reflect on yourself (as well the aspects of narcissism and vanity that come along with that)
  • The portrait. A painting of one’s self, though perhaps a poorly-lit one due to incomplete data or a portrait in an impressionistic style.
  • The narrative. Making sense of the messiness of human experiences through narrative.
  • Supporting a practice. Use of self-tracking as a way to support a particular activity like meditation or yoha.
  • Means for disaggregating. Separate out a particular aspect of one’s life for examination or reflection.


I put together a prototype of using data from the Memex to automatically populate calendars that can be imported into Google Calendar or iCal. Here’s what a slice of a day looks like with data from a few different calendar feeds:


  • Green: my existing calendar on Google Calendar
  • Yellow: ebook reading sessions
  • Purple: movement data
  • Blue: eating/drinking log

I can take any query of the timeline (such as verb:ate or provider:twitter) and turn it into a calendar feed. Pretty exciting!

But, there’s a big problem with Google Calendar: it doesn’t update external calendars frequently, sometimes taking more than 24 hours to update. Here’s seven years of complaints on Google’s Product Forums about this issue. Clearly, Google isn’t in a rush to fix this. Stale calendars will be frustrating for users and the better solution might be building calendar entries immediately through the API. For OSX’s Calendar, things work fine and presumably other calendars systems refresh feeds frequently as well.

I’ve been in Montreal for the weekend which is an urban paradise in the summer. I’ve prioritized being outside over writing about more topics in this week’s newsletter.


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