Louisa Heinrich – our quantified selves and the stories of our lives

What stories could we tell with the big data we're collecting? Human beings are narrative creatures, and we need to stop being afraid of what we might unleash, says Louisa Heinrich

What is the soundtrack of you life? Even if you don’t have an answer, you understand the question. We all understand our lives in terms of a narrative. We all have stories in common. One of the reasons they’re so vital to us is that we all die – they’re a way of coping, a tiny bit of immortality. That’s why we’re so addicted to things like Twitter and Instagram – they’re little stories. And that’s why we get so happy when someone we admire retweets or shares something we’ve created.

Stories also help us explain the world to ourselves and to each other – what the world has been, what it is, and what we want it to be.

Stories can be more important to us than our own lives. One of the theories about why we love reality TV shows so much is the everyman connection – feeling a part of something. Through voting, we get to control the narrative, and so we feel it belongs to me. But the best way of feeling that you own a story is to tell it yourself. As you tell your story, you learn about yourself. Great services help us tell our stories.

We’re connecting more and more objects to the internet, which are all connecting data about us and what we do, where we go, what we consume. Human behaviour is de facto chaotic. Designers like to make artefacts. Most of what we do with this data is make artefacts – which are beautiful, but not often useful. Or we make control panels, with knobs and levers. This is not sustainable. We have a large challenge in terms of interaction and value. If we are going to use all this data to tell stories to each other, we have to find better ways of interacting. What’s the value, to me, to business?

It all comes down to choice. My life makes a lot of data, but is not made up of data. It’s made up of choices. Weavrs are bots, but they create stories, when you see what they’ve been doing. When subliminal suggestion makes us get up and walk, we’ll tell a story about why we did it – like going for a glass of water.

The quantified self is largely defined as fitness data at the moment. These things are related to other things. If all I have is an app that compares to benchmark data, it’s just drawing conclusions and telling me what to do. If I can see various data, I can spot connections. What would happen if my Weavr could go out and bring me information about myself? What connections of factors that could effect us might we spot? A lot of the time we get so excited about what technology can do that we take ourselves out of the equation. That’s not necessarily true – we need to put ourselves back in the equation.

We have this vastness of data – and we’re trying to figure out how too unleash the power in it. But we’re afraid of unleashing something terrible. That’s OK. But we need to carry on, and to find out where it will take us…