J'analyse donc je suis

Writing a letter in prison, Bertrand Russell wrote, "No one has the least idea how much I get into a day". Stephen Wolfram, in some ways his latter day intellectual heir, has the answer: Personal Analytics.

He has logged every single keystroke for 30 years and every morning gets an email summary of all his activity – including emails. Let's not focus on the circular analytical trail there yet. That tells him how productive he has been the previous day. To doubt Mr Wolfram’s genius is to call one’s own semblance of an intelligence into question. But let’s ask the fundamental question anyway. Does everyone need or want or stand to gain from his brand of analytics? Carefully perusing through smartly visualized reports of one’s digital activity is arguably only productive for someone who is planning to commercialize and sell that sort of analysis to the masses, as he is. To everyone else, it is one more thing to do they got by without just fine until someone invented it for sale and profit. At that personal level at which he intends to track it, what is productivity?

Why was I not as productive yesterday as the same day last week? Because on my way to work, I paused in the park as I caught a whiff of the most delightful scent on the air, and on following it, espied a glorious bloom of rose bush (a literal truth). Why was I less productive in the month of May 2011 than in May 2010? Because in 2011, my girlfriend left me, whereas in 2010 we were just back from a very happy holiday. I remember both events vividly. Why was I apparently shirking work in August 2000? Simply cannot remember. And should I? Those that write journals or personal blogs can quickly check. Others do not write journals for various reasons. It might entertain them to look for unexplained patterns in digital data and wonder some day when they have nothing better to do and they have just been through old photos. But do we all need to dissect and analyse every single blip in the data, constantly?
Omar Khayyam Profile
Bust of Omar Khayyam
Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
From WikiMedia Commons
If I scrutinised my productivity so thoroughly every morning I expect two things: A) I expect to deliver ideas equivalent to being the Omar Khayyam of my time. B) I expect I will see the daily analytical report as a waste of the time that I might better spend working on whatever makes me that great. If I take a break to pause and smell roses, I would rest in peace knowing that every such single instance over the course of my life was well considered and justified at least in that moment, regardless of whether I remember for all time to come. If I do not remember, I shall trust my judgement in the past and also allow for it to evolve in a way that my present disagrees with the past but without regrets. Thanks for the software then, Mr Wolfram, but I think I will spend the cash otherwise. A book on Indo-persian algebra, perhaps.

And there's the connect - the kind that this blog scouts for. It is a weak but direct link to a couple of recurrent themes - Productivity and Work-Life Balance. I've said before: any talk of productivity is meaningless without spelling out the values being produced. Even the simple case of a sensory experience of natural scents involves multiple values. In the moment, I value that experience very highly indeed, and there is very little the world offers that I would trade it for. In general, I value the memory of such simple pure pleasures from the countless occasions in the past. I also value the conceited knowledge that I seem to have the increasingly rare appreciation for these self-anointed values! I could go on, but you get the idea. If ever in the future they make an app for a wearable devide that somehow records the metadata for that experience, or fate forbid, attempts to assess the quality of the scent of the particular rose, I would elect to ignore it. (You know where I stand on this. I brought it up with that story of the schoolchildren scaling tall ladders en route to a school set in pristine wilderness.)

Analysing 'personal' productivity means scrutinizing either what one produces 'for' oneself or 'out of' oneself. Surely, even for the self-employed few, that includes many things that in no way help bring in an income? Whichever gender, we certainly cannot 'have it all'. It comes down to setting one's priorities early on and keeping an interal tab on how we fare. When it is time to take stock, judge leniently. After all, we did not rely on an app logging everything and presenting it to us with the morning coffee. And may that email that I eagerly read before leaving for work be from a friend or colleague in another time zone. For I can handle any number of emails from friends - and colleagues, if the request is within a very broad reading of my job description. (I'm looking at you. Yeah, you know who you are!) Just as long as it is not a bot that sent me an email about my email traffic.

Decades after that prison stint, Russell came to write, "A great deal of work has come upon me, neglect of some of which might jeopardise the continuation of the human race”. Now there's a candidate for it!