“Quantifed Self” Art

Laurie Frick, "Quantify Me"

As a follower of the “Quantified Self” work catalyzed by Kevin Kelly et al, I was eager to see Laurie Frick’s exhibit “Quantify Me” at “women and Their Work” – Marsha and I hung out there last night exploring the aesthetic representation of Frick’s mind.

Using her background in engineering and technology she explores self-tracking and compulsive organization. She creates life’s most basic patterns as color coded charts. Steps walked, calories expended, weight, sleep, time-online, gps location, daily mood as color, micro-journal of food ingested are all part of her daily tracking. She collects personal data using gadgets that point toward a time where complete self-surveillance will be the norm.

Though I’m interested in the subject, I’m not into self-surveillance because it takes too much metatime. I’m a cyborg at heart, but not particularly organized about my cyborganic data. Building a project like this around it is a way to make it more attractive to track and evaluate processes of body and mind.

Thinking about memory, association, and identification

A lesson in memory.

I showed up ten minutes early for a meeting this morning at Sweetish Hill, paid for coffee, took a cup and filled it half caf, half decaf, found  a table for two and hung my sturdy black leather jacket on the back of my chair. My Nikon was in the left pocket of the jacket. I thought to myself, “better remember your jacket when you leave.”  Matt Glazer showed up for our meeting, we dove into a focused conversation of less than an hour, said goodbye and both wandered off to our respective Fridays. 

I drove a few miles south and noticed on the left, as I turned onto Manchaca Road, that there was a truck with a piece of earth-moving equipment on it and a sign, “For Sale 44K.” I wondered if the price included the truck and trailer, and realized I hadn’t seen anything like that by the side of the road for sale by owner before. Another sign of economic instability, I thought, and thought I should take a photo and share it online, though I figured I couldn’t pull out phone or camera and get a shot before the light changed. Somehow my network of memories made an association: photo | camera | jacket pocket. Oops, no jacket. It was hanging on the chair at Sweetish Hill. I turned quickly around, headed north again, and called Sweetish Hill. The good folks there nabbed my jacket and held it for me, so all was good.

This left me thinking how the mind works. I spend more time now than ever watching and assessing my mental operations, influenced by Buddhism, and lately by the Gurdjieff work. Much of the visible wrangling of the mind is forming associations, like the association that began with a piece of heavy equipment for sale and ended with my jacket-saving realization. There’s also forgetfulness: having proactively realized I might walk off without my jacket (I know that I’m “absent-minded”), why did I not remember? The associations running through my head as I left my meeting were all about what was discussed and what’s next. It wasn’t cold enough to think about putting on the jacket. Somehow I wandered off unthinking, and who knows how long it would’ve taken me to remember, had I not made the association describe above?

I’m tempted to say something about how imperfect and error-prone our thinking can be, but the wonder is that our minds and memories work as well as they do. Memory is a mystery, no one quite knows how the mechanism works.  For many years I had complete faith in my memory, which I thought to be accurate. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that memory is usually imperfect. I passed the “For Sale 44K” sign again and realized it didn’t look as I remembered it – I recalled a black on white sign, but part of the sign was orange. How many of my memories are constructed incorrectly? I have a reputation for good and accurate memory, but it’s more effective about some kind of memory than others. My wife can remember details about trips and restaurants that I’ve completely forgot, for instance, though I have a good memory for meetings I’ve been part of and projects I’ve worked on.  

Much of memory, I’m convinced, is about where you place your attention. My attention is often on my thoughts, in my head, thinking something through internally and detached from what’s happening externally. Hence “absent-minded”: the absent-minded professor stereotype is about sinking deeply into thought. P.D. Ouspensky, a student of Gurdjieff, had this to say about this sort of thing, referring to it as “identification”:

A man identifies with a small problem which confronts him and he completely forgets the great aims with which he began his work. He identifies with one thought and forgets other thoughts; he is identified with one feeling, with one mood, and forgets his own wider thoughts, emotions, and moods. In work on themselves people are so much identified with separate aims that they fail to see the wood for the trees. Two or three trees nearest to them represent for them the whole wood.

‘Identifying’ is one of our most terrible foes because it penetrates everywhere and deceives a man at the moment when it seems to him that he is struggling with it. It is especially difficult to free oneself from identifying because a man naturally becomes more easily identified with the things that interest him most, to which he gives his time, his work, and his attention. In order to free himself from identifying a man must be constantly on guard and be merciless with himself, that is, he must not be afraid of seeing all the subtle and hidden forms which identifying takes.

It is necessary to see and to study identifying to its very roots in oneself. The difficulty of struggling with identifying is still further increased by the fact that when people observe it in themselves they consider it a very good trait and call it ‘enthusiasm,’ ‘zeal,’ ‘passion,’ ‘spontaneity,’ ‘inspiration,’ and names of that kind, and they consider that only in a state of identifying can a man really produce good work, no matter in what sphere. In reality of course this is illusion. Man cannot do anything sensible when he is in a state of identifying. If people could see what the state of identifying means they would alter their opinion.

Forward thinking about the competitive workplace

Earlier this week I attended a breakfast panel sponsored by Gensler (http://www.gensler.com), an architecture, design, planning and consultation firm that focuses (among other things) on effective workplace environments, consulting for companies like Google, HP, Yahoo and Facebook. The title of the panel was “Designing your workplace for a competitive edge.”

Here’s my set of notes from the panel:

Evolving workplace:

Version 1.0: Move fast and break things. Emerging culture. Workplaces built for speed, transparency, flexibility.

Version 2.0: 8×8, 1:1. Cubic farms on vast floor plates. Cube dwellers. Butts in seats. Embedded hierarchy.

Version 3.0: (Now). Activity-based era. Changing work process. Mobile, remote work. “We” spaces, not “me” spaces. Support for collaboration. Drivers: faster pace, distributed teams, lean and mean. Changing work processes (from waterfall to agile). Closed to open. Get products to market faster. Multiple space times for multiple work modes. Coworking. Workers not tethered to one company.

Derek Woodgate, The Futures Lab: futurist perspective
Eden Bruckman, International Living Future Institute: sustainability perspective
David Bumgardner, HP: real estate acquisition and management perspective.

Bumgardner’s job is to maximize HP’s real estate portfolio. He has to consider how employees work and what kind of environment is conducive to productivity, at the same time maintaining standards across the global HP properties. He focuses on optimal use of all properties, noting that the workforce increasingly consists of mobile employees who require no office or desk. The need for consistent standards is so that wherever the mobile employee goes to an HP facility, the work environment is fairly consistent. Other factors: environmental sustainability, affordability.

A green and sustainable workplace environment can be a competitive edge: some of the most talented employees will factor environmental impact into their decisions about where to work.

Google is another company that focuses on sustainability. The focus is authentic, no greenwashing. Google wants to move beyond LEED, looking through the lens of the Living Building Challenge (https://ilbi.org/lbc).

The build environment is an extension of who we are. We see increasing interest in building bio measurement and feedback into environments. China is looking closely at metrics in building 20 megacities.

Community will no longer be a matter of who’s aggregated in any place, but also how they share and manage resources.

Health and well-being is the new perq for employees; it’s no longer about having a corner office or other sings of hierarchy.

At Zappos, the number 1 priority is company culture, feeling that if you get that right, the rest will happen naturally. How does the built environment impact that culture?

The contemporary work environment needs spaces for energizing and spaces for discharging that energy.

Technology is moving fast, but the build environment is inherently slow.

HP created the Halo Room (http://www.humanproductivitylab.com/archive_blogs/2007/08/28/hp_halo_releases_hp_meeting_ro.php), a set of global networked technology-mediated remote conferencing environments. As these kinds of environments proliferate, travel requirements will decrease. “You’re not going to see that people interaction go away. You’re going to see better ways to get it.”

Increasingly building sustainability into design standards, which may have to vary for different (non-U.S.) contexts. Striving for a zero effect (carbon neutral). Changing densities.

Currently workers don’t feel the same commitment from companies as before, and vice versa. Companies are reducing the numbers of employees and relying more on contractors. We’re creating a world of experts (consultants).

Future workers (currently under 25 years of age) are growing up with a different set of assumptions. Their world is a world of peer groups, not authoritarian hierarchies. It’s a world that’s saturated with technology, especially for communications. For the first time ever, we’re starting to see multiple generations of employees working together in the same office.

The Filminator

James Cameron’s massive ego is probably what it takes to pull off a Terminator 2/3, Titanic, or Avatar – his latest, a creative, massively expensive 3D CGI experiment that could be a nuclear boxoffice bomb (what they said about Titanic, though). Cameron has succeeded over and over because he sinks his teeth into a project and won’t let go, regardless the level of difficulty. As he started work on The Abyss (my particular Cameron favorite), he told Fox president Leonard Goldberg “I want you to know one thing—once we embark on this adventure and I start to make this movie, the only way you’ll be able to stop me is to kill me.” Read Dana Goodyear’s great New Yorker profile of Cameron, “Man of Extremes.”

Attention, multitasking, and persistent panic

I used to tell people that “I’m a multitasking fool,” and in recent years, I’ve seen greater emphasis on “fool” – yes, I was good at balancing many tasks, I could keep a lot of balls in the air without dropping them. As I matured, I realized that depth has more value than breadth, and in recent years I’ve been trying to learn to focus and do a few things well.

Alina Tugend in The New York Times notes a multitasking trend since the 1990s, saying that “while multitasking may seem to be saving time, psychologists, neuroscientists and others are finding that it can put us under a great deal of stress and actually make us less efficient.” As a good case study who’s thought about it a lot, I felt real resonance with the quote from Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!: “Multitasking is shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession. It gives the illusion that we’re simultaneously tasking, but we’re really not. It’s like playing tennis with three balls.”

….despite what many of us think, you cannot simultaneously e-mail and talk on the phone. I think we’re all familiar with what Dr. Hallowell calls “e-mail voice,” when someone you’re talking to on the phone suddenly sounds, well, disengaged.

“You cannot divide your attention like that,” he said. “It’s a big illusion. You can shift back and forth.”

The article goes on to discuss overload, fragmentation, and the neural overhead of task-switching.

Dr. Hallowell has termed this effort to multitask “attention deficit trait.” Unlike attention deficit disorder, which he has studied for years and has a neurological basis, attention deficit trait “springs entirely from the environment,” he wrote in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”

“As our minds fill with noise — feckless synaptic events signifying nothing — the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and gradually to anything,” he wrote. Desperately trying to keep up with a multitude of jobs, we “feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.”

Sound familiar?