The Personal Data Revolution

Friday, May 13, 2011

Transcript

It’s possible for the average person to collect and analyze unprecedented amounts of data about themselves. What was once the province of extreme athletes and dieters has been democratized and the resulting movement is called 'The Quantified Self.' Brooke speaks with Gary Wolf, who coined the term, a number of self-quantifiers, and MIT professor Deb Roy about what all this personal data really tells us about ourselves.

Comments [18]

Ian from Chicago,IL

Great show! I I think it would be appropriate if you folks listed the names of the songs used in the credits or in the transcript. I would like to find the name of that "do the math" rap that plays just before the last segment.

May. 29 2011 11:41 AM
Wiley from Denver

Pet peeve: "data" is not plural in English. It is in Latin, but we don't speak latin. In English, we have "mass nouns" which take singular verbs, and data is one of those. It would be weird to say "There were 500 data used to come to this conclusion" in the same way if would be weird to say that a bucket contained ten waters. We use phrases like "points of data" as a unit when we want to talk about quantities, just like we use cups or gallons of water. Which sounds more natural, "That experiment produced much less data" or "That experiment produced much fewer data". If you picked less, or you talk about points of data, you're treating data as a mass noun. So stop saying "the data are." The people who claim it's more correct don't know what they're talking about.

May. 20 2011 12:31 PM
Jared from Earth

In the intro, Brooke states, "according to the Economist, Wal-Mart logs more than 2.5 petabytes of information about customer transactions every hour..."

This is incorrect. The Economist article [1] states, "Wal-Mart, a retail giant, handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes..."

1. The Economist: Data, data everywhere - http://www.economist.com/node/15557443?story_id=15557443

May. 17 2011 01:54 PM
Lisa B from United States

fascinating show. Brooke, I love listening to your voice. Thanks to the whole team for putting this together...

May. 17 2011 10:31 AM
Willem Vanden Broek from Ann Arbor, MI

I was experimenting with quantifying various aspects of my self long before it became a hoola-hoop, or rather before Mr. Wolf started trying to promote it into one. I have graphs of all sorts of variables going back to the early 80s. Aside from the gratifying boost to my self absorption, the most useful aspect of this effort has been the applicability of a small subset of variables in motivating me toward certain clear-cut goals, similar to the pop wisdom that keeping a food diary helps you eat less. But perhaps the biggest lesson has been negative: nearly everything that is meaningful in my life defies quantification entirely. Narrative works much better. Maybe that's why we have life stories. Think about it.

May. 16 2011 02:02 PM
Roger from Alameda, CA

Loved this show. Very interesting piece about the "decline effect," and I appreciate the spirit of silliness with which it was presented. But seriously, what reason is there to believe that any such effect exists at all? Why isn't this just an ordinary example an anomalous result that didn't hold up over time? I'd guess that out of the vast set of such results, the successive measurements that ultimately disprove the original finding come in all kinds of orders. Here, aren't people are just selecting the handful of instances where those measurements happen to come out in an order that looks like a pattern-- a decline?

Seems like this is mostly an example of the well known people-love-patterns effect.

May. 16 2011 11:38 AM
CD from LA

I still struggle with the fact that a scientist can claim that an experiment is blind or controlled.

The omission of the data available to prospective grad students multiplied by Google less the effect of nerds looking to pad their resume with an apprenticeship under a published pop pseudopyschologist is only bested by the omission of hiding in the ether.

Ether, as defined by the India paper Ed. of Webster's Int'l in my backseat :
...
2. "Physics." A hypothetical medium supposed to fill all known space, even those occupied by fluids and solids ...
3. "Chem." a. A light, volatile, mobile, inflammable

ether value is the measure of the true fats (the esters of the fatty acids present).

May. 15 2011 08:35 PM
Catherine Oliven from Chicago

GREAT Job on the Decline Effect.
Scientists well know the oberver affects the outcome; that is why double blind studies are crafted. And why the palcebo effect works.

My favorite example of how the collective unconscious changes as the result of new experimental outcomes is the climbing of Everest: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_climbing_Mount_Everest

It took 32 years to do it once. In the ensuing 57 years it has been reproduced 1000's of times by many who would have once considered it impossible. Yes this is a learning curve example, but there is collective belief at work here too.

At first oxygen was thought unnecessary but noone made it. Then oxygen ws considered necessary and a few made it. Then oxygen was thought irrelevent and dozens have made it without it.

The list of those who have made it to the top is imoressive: from teenagers to 70 year olds; a blind man; a double amputee.

This is the epitome of people thinking a new thought--that something thought impossible, morphs into the possible and regresses to the norm.

Bravo!

May. 15 2011 04:35 PM
Ed from NYC

Good point, Patricia; however, I want to clarify. I don't listen regularly anymore. Brooke bugs the crap out of me. She blindly adheres to opinions regardless of contrary facts. I happen to listen and there was a point in the story for a real question about whether this data collection was really relevant and she didn't ask the question. She lobbed a softball that had a foregone conclusion in support of the data collecting that she OBVIOUSLY favored. She has no ability to distance herself from her opinions.

And your point about right wingers hanging out on left wing sites - gee, I wonder if you are left or right. Of course, no left wingers hang out on right wing sites, right, doing the same thing?

Continue to be puzzled and good luck with that. If you agree with everything you hear from other people like journalists, you lack independent thought.

I liked the last segment (probably because of less Brooke).

May. 15 2011 08:10 AM
Matt Schickele from Ridgewood, ny

Having listened to both the Radiolab version of the Decline Effect segment and the OTM version, I appreciated Brooke's closing questions/remarks. Radiolab made it seem like some reality-shaking finding, when it isn't.

Science is self-correcting: when there are anomalies, you look into them further, and gain a better understanding of the way things work.

If every time our results seem confusing we come to the conclusion that there is a collective consciousness altering reality, what we are really saying is "there's no point in looking." And is that what we really want, to stop looking?

Science is a tool, an amazing tool that sharpens with use. Speculation is welcome, indeed needed, but in the end has to be backed by evidence.

May. 15 2011 12:52 AM
Patricia Bee from Gainesville, FL

Re: comment from "ED:"

It always puzzles me why people who don't like the personnel on a show bother to listen to it in the first place. Sort of like the right-wing folks who hang out on left-wing we sites just so they can make negative comments.

Re: lots of other comments:

The world continues to change. Tho' admittedly I was disappointed that this episode was not about the week's events, nonetheless I was amazed to hear what some people are doing with the technology available to them and also relieved that no one is going to expect this of me! Yet.

Keep up the good work, OTM.

May. 14 2011 07:38 PM
HENRY SPENCER from MARGATE, FLORIDA

I turned this gibberish nonsense off after 4 minutes. This whole piece is garbage. Why in the world would anyone be remotely interested in this crap? Get a life fools!!

May. 14 2011 06:33 PM
Dr David Cawood from West Vancouver, Canada

The whole show was fascinating, but the last segment on the Decline Effect is potentially one of the biggest stories of the decade if it holds up (not subject itself to the decline effect!).

The Radio Lab did a great job. Anytime Jonah Lehrer is involved with Science writing (or Humanities too!) it's worth paying attention.

This segment should be front page news and if it holds up it will be. It will have to be, as it affects all "studies" and also our views on how we are related real-time to all humans and all animals! (This phenomenon also relates to earlier ideas from Rupert Sheldrake on what he called the Morphic Field. This is also Jung's Collective Unconscious.)

The relationship to the media is central and fundamental, in answer to the skeptic above, I would suggest. This is a huge topic and had to be tackled with humour it was felt. But don't underestimate the importance of what is suggested here.

Thank you so much.

Dr David Cawood. Canada.
mail@CawoodConsulting.com

May. 14 2011 02:04 PM
Laurence Drell, MD from Washington, DC

great show
looking forward to hearing it again
It was filled with important info and questions and so early in the morning.
What motivates people to change and what sustains that change is a key question has always been important for me and my work. The more we know about people, the mind, genetics and how our intention and hope affects us (even our biology) the closer we get to more consciously developing our selves.
Data may help.... and the ease of gathering personal data on what works for an individual may be very helpful for changing major behavior or thinking or simply learning what causes allergies or headaches for that person even though it may be an unusual cause and effect.

But the most concerning question was what is causing the decline in test results. Now that is quite concerning since so many decisions like recommending hormone replacement were based on "test results"

Laurence Drell,MD
drdrell.com

May. 14 2011 08:31 AM
NeoAmsterdam from NYC

That people would willingly spend their time and energy jotting down mundane minutiae is a somewhat alarming: taking "just a second" to annotate an event that lasted justed a second cuts one's own productivity - and socialization - by half (in the extreme case, of course).

The notion that we can understand ourselves better if we simply better quantify ourselves abstracts us from the immediate surroundings. Analysing statistics instead of observing our surroundings is akin to saying the economy is doing well because the DJIA is above 12,000. With that mentality, it's no wonder that the sub-prime crisis wasn't detected - it was nowhere on the radar because the radar wasn't "on" in the first place.

Given all the data that is being amassed behind our backs, do we really need to add more? As Patrick McGoohan was famous for decrying, "I am not a number - I am a free man!"

May. 14 2011 07:47 AM
Richard Johnston from Manhattan upper west side

What's this got to do with "the media?"

May. 14 2011 07:32 AM
Ed from NYC

More garbage. Just because this works for extreme athletes and its become democratized doesn't mean it will apply to the average person. The extreme athlete is extreme because of something within, not because of data reporting. The motivation to change has to come from within. New forms of reporting data won't cause someone to change. If people want to change, they change and those who do, know it is incremental and not immediate and they will stick with it even during setbacks. New data reporting will not help with setbacks. Its so silly.

Its more pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking brought to you by Brooke and her ridiculous faith in media. Where were the actual questions? Oh, and how about relying on other people like family and friends for feedback or are we really looking to stay in our bubbles? That's how I heard it.

May. 14 2011 07:27 AM
Ed from NYC

More garbage. Just because this works for extreme athletes and its become democratized doesn't mean it will apply to the average person. The extreme athlete is extreme because of something within, not because of data reporting. The motivation to change has to come from within. New forms of reporting data won't cause someone to change. If people want to change, they change and those who do, know it is incremental and not immediate and they will stick with it even during setbacks. New data reporting will not help with setbacks. Its so silly.

Its more pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking brought to you by Brooke and her ridiculous faith in media. Where were the actual questions? Oh, and how about relying on other people like family and friends for feedback or are we really looking to stay in our bubbles? That's how I heard it.

May. 14 2011 07:27 AM

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