I met Alberto Frigo in May 2014 during the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam (QSEU14). When I was speaking with Steve Jonas (@skjonas) about my notebooks, which I’ve been keeping now for over 5 years, Steve said “Well, you just have to meet Alberto, he’ s been taking pictures of everything his right hand touches for over 10 years, surely you’ll have things in common”. Sure enough, the next day we bumped into each other at coffee and talked for hours. Alberto has taken pictures of his right hand when it uses an “instrument” for that past 12 years, e.g., a fork, a screwdriver or a pen, and has had several shows over the years (see for example, http://www.fastcodesign.com/3042784/exposure/for-11-years-this-man-has-taken-photos-of-everything-his-right-hand-touches). His plan is to continue the project for 36 years. He has also developed a kind of Noah’s ark of memories, with news clippings to photos of the people he meets and scans of litter he finds on the ground in different countries (see his web page, http://2004-2040.com/). Most interesting to me though are his thoughts about quantifying the self, his philosophy, based in part on other great quantifiers like George Perec. I met him recently on a rainy Stockholm afternoon (see photo above) and we chatted over a supper of reindeer and mashed potatoes. I wondered if he would write something for the blog, and couple of weeks later he has sent me a text, which I thought would be nice to share. Here goes.
It happens over and over again, the knowledge that stems from activities by self-trackers (like me) keeps getting labelled as “too little scientific” to be part of academia and “too scientific” to be part of the art world. On both sides of the spectrum, I perceive a narrow polarization of what self-tracking actually implies. I don’t want to focus on what the data that self-trackers generate actually means. I am quite sceptical it means anything at all, except as a task carried out by an individual who wishes to set a goal in his or her life, without so much looking back. Here I’m most interested of thinking in terms of what it means to have an aim in life.
Stoically speaking, rephrasing the Roman Emperor and philosopher Marco Aurelio, my interest lays in self-tracking as a form of a “Principle Directive” which individuals might craft for themselves. I’m not so concerned with the technology, the life-logging and QS gadgets that get so much attention recently. I’m rather interested in the actual techniques, the imaginative ways with which individuals set up systems to capture their lives and to filter the overflowing reality around them.
In that context, all the privacy and related surveillance issues are irrelevant. I’m rather referring to personal and esoteric methods that allow people to deal with life and develop their own sense of “meaning”, which modernity itself has helped to erase. I’m not interested in what big corporations might do with the data stolen by folk persuaded to wear certain surveillance devices. I’m looking into scattered marginal activities, the few modern shamans performing holistic rituals to seize samples of reality and bring them to back to life.
Let us allow to discuss self-tracking in terms of poetic and stop suffocating the discussions with political talks. Poetic, the act of compiling and stowing as the etymology implies, is what scattered individuals might in fact be inclined to do. Look at Janina Turek for example. This Polish housewife, deluded by life compiled and stowed away notebooks recording everyone she met, every present she received and so forth. Now scholars might be ready to label her practice as collecting or even worse, as hoarding. To me it is pure poetry, her book being tidily stowed in a cabinet of her tidy house overlooking a Celtic burial mound where centuries before an hero also was buried along with a store of artefacts, in preparation for his afterlife.
Apart from ethical and political aspects then, there are most definitively other ways to look into self- trackers, particularly if executed with a certain engagement and not fully automated and effortless, like the gadgets and apps scholars and journalists keeps referring to. Indeed, yes, there is a movement and one cannot deny that many hipsters just find it cool and fashionable, at least for a while, to use these trendy gadgets. I have perhaps a more subtle interpretation on the matter. To me, and considering the kind of self-tracking I started years before it became trendy, my self-tracking feels like a drive to deposit myself back to nature. It is not hoarding, filling up my life and or my computer with data. On the contrary, it is a neat stowing of samples from reality (I’m collecting 36 of them for 36 years), with a strong desire to one day deliver them in a most compact form back to reality.
Figure 1. A prototype of a time-capsule I have been working on in order to “stow” all my self-tracking projects in the most compact way. The idea is to let the time-capsule have life of its own, more as a vehicle deposited on a landscape. Also the time-capsule will present both dynamic content like audio visuals as well as graphical content. While 18 of the projects are pure self-tracking, the other 18 I call meta-data as they are outcomes of the former (e.g. exhibits and so forth).
Since the beginning I’ve been obsessed by this idea as much as perhaps Janina and any Celtic warrior. I’ve thought through many ways to bring the data I was taking from life, back to life. I thought of land art works using flowers, or remote cathedrals and vessels like Noah’s ark (now I’m leaning more towards the latter). There was this guy in Alaska, I think his name was Waterman, who set off with all his journals for Mount McKinley and never returned. I read in the book “Into the Wild” that he was recording all sort of things like all the conversations he had with other people. Later his journals accidentally caught fire while he was attempting to go on his most daring mission, to climb an unexplored route up Mount McKinley. Not so much in Freudian terms, in my view, effortful self-tracking reflects a higher challenge set by individuals to overcome an otherwise unchallenging life.
Rather than talking about the maker movement, I definitively see in these individual examples something I would define as “stowers”, an ultimate extreme form of poetry, as a natural inclination of certain individuals facing death in their attempt to stow meaning. So stowing is not as selfish as storing. With stowing one puts something away in preparation for trip (e.g. to the after-life or to another time and space). Rather than life-logging, poetic self-tracking practices should be labelled life-stowing.
Only speaking in regards to practice, I think that my ultimate desire is in fact to dissolve into nature, in an authentic and to some degree sublime nature worth dying for. Aside from all the discussions about privacy and big data, I look neatly now at my inner motivations and find a willingness to dedicate my life to something worth living for. No bourgeoisie living… give me a volcano in Iceland, give me the permission to manually deposit my work there over the years and I would sail off tomorrow.
I have now spent many years in Sweden attempting to fulfil such a challenge. But when I come close to fulfilling some ideas, I get pushed away. Once I tried to make space in a forest to build up a site to deposit my data. I spent day after day clearing some trees in a forest with an axe, until I got into a conflict with some locals who just saw the forest as a potato field, to be used for profit. My current project is a challenge. I’m a third of the way and I feel a bit like Ulysses at sea, far from finding a place or a way to deposit my data, heading back into the outdoors.
Well, this is my small confession, with the hope of quieting all these noisy and misleading discussions I keep hearing in reference to self-tracking. I have been honest with you reader: I have no interest in being part of a trend, no fetishism in wearing a device, no ignorance in adopting frameworks developed by corporations or using social media sites to show off. Much to the contrary, there is a will for autonomy and to embrace a new kind of life, or a real life. All I’m doing is keeping track of the processes related to my will. Nothing too romantic. As Sweden showed me obstinacy, my next move is perhaps a semi self-reliant existence in a more normal and less remote nature.