Facebook Timeline and the quantified self

Right there with you, every step of the way

By now, most Facebook users know about the widespread introduction of Timeline, which is an adaptation of the site to share more of its users life through infographics.  Basically the site now takes all the personal data dropped into the Facebook void and knits this into a lifeline that reads like a cross between an illustrated story and an annual report.

The format is largely credited to Nick Felton, the design-uber genius who rose to fame by charting a year of his life in annual report style.  Felton’s approach is impactful, visually appealing, and somewhat provocative as it essentially quantifies life by the numbers, and the supposition is that the numbers you choose to quantify add up to the totality of your life (or, at least the totality of it you want to show publicly).  For example, Felton’s 2011 annual report contains randomness ranging from the number of hours spent at work (2,567.5), to the number of alcoholic beverages consumed (806), to the number of teeth lost by his cat (1).

In a sense, this “quantified-self movement” is somewhat iterative, as one has to ask how many of Felton’s 2,567.5 work hours were spent quantifying those very work hours. (A 1,000?  Perhaps 2,000?)  And how many of those hours were spent quantifying hours spent quantifying?  And so on..

Stepping back, this never-ending virtual solipsism is a pretty bizarre ride we’re on.  It’s as though you were to find yourself standing in between two mirrors, and, turn around as you might, you can’t quite catch a good look at the smaller versions of yourself stretching out into infinity.

P.S. The Walrus recently penned a piece on Facebook’s new Timeline format which has some interesting thoughts.

i.e. “Yet to call the sudden regurgitation of years of photos, messages, contacts, and comments disconcerting is an understatement. All along, Facebook has been tracking your data, waiting for this moment to arrive. Because it’s not just your Facebook life that Timeline captures: the first date is not, as you might expect, the day you joined; it’s the day you were born. A site best known for disseminating awkward party photos is now imagining itself at the foot of your mother’s bed at the moment of your delivery, diligently taking notes…

Rather than downplaying the mountain of data it has collected, Facebook put it on display. Look, it says, look at how much we’ve learned about one another. We’ve come a long way, you and I. Look at what we’ve built together. You wouldn’t walk away from that, now, would you?”

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André the seal gets fishing permit, whales wait patiently

Opening up our thinking

A while back in Scotland, a wee seal named André was awarded a fishing permit by the Loch Lomond Angling Improvement Association.  Fortified with his new permit and passport sized picture, André was now legally allowed to fish to his stomach’s content until October 31st, 2003.  The Association’s reason for its generous donation?  “André has been committing a poaching offense by eating all our salmon. He has already cost us thousands of pounds in fish and through loss of permit sales, so the least we could do until he is caught is to make it legal.”

Too funny.

In a letter to his newest member, Mr Brady, the Association Chair at the time, wrote: “We have decided to issue you with a fishing permit for the season. This will allow you to fish in Loch Lomond and the River Leven. Last year some of your friends (two otters) moved into the River Endrick, so you may wish to visit them and (unfortunately for us) share a salmon or two with them.”

What’s particularly interesting about this one though, is that eleven years later The Economist, stalwart economic orator that it is, has taken the unusual step to publish a proposal by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The proposal?  That whales and dolphins, based on their degree of intelligence and self-awareness, are “persons” too and as such should be accorded these rights.

According to the proponents, this idea – that is, what we call a person – does not necessarily need to be human.  Instead, in philosophy, a “person is a being with special characteristics who deserves special treatment as a result of those characteristics.” Based on this premise, cetaceans do indeed count as “persons” and therefore have moral rights as appropriate to their species.

Although the proponents have cautiously and understandably left some wiggle room here, i.e. “as appropriate to their species”, it’s interesting – and perhaps testament to our moral development – that these conversations are occurring at the level of AAAS and being picked up by The Economist, no less.

P.S. A couple of tongue-in-cheek commentators on the Economist article thought that perhaps the whales would take offence to being called people.  Still others indicated that perhaps immigration might become an interesting issue.. i.e. “the Grey Whale crosses from Mexico into US waters early each year without any documentation. Then the entire population spends months eating American molluscs and having sex in American waters until returning to Mexico (again without bothering to get their passports stamped) where each winter the next generation of illegal immigrants is born. If we recognize whales as equal to people we may have to (at last) develop an immigration policy that treats Mexicans (and others from the South) as human beings!”

Canada and the Arctic Grail

Sheesh how far do I have to go to get ice around here

In 2007, a chap by the name of McKenzie Funk published a nice piece in Harper’s, “The Coming Fight for the Melting North”.  It’s a gorgeous piece of writing on what’s happening in the Arctic given the melting ice and the subsequent opening up of transportation routes and resources (you need a subscription to see the article, but summaries can be viewed here, here, and here).

Basically Funk does a bang up job describing the intricacies of the maneuvering for territory occurring up in the Arctic.  It’s a pretty huge deal given the commercial, military, and resource value of that area (i.e. the U.S.G.S. estimates the area holds up to 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil, and whoever controls the shipping up there is going to be set).

This means that who owns what and whose territory ends where is of increasing interest. How much interest?  Well, with its expanded holdings the United States could potentially grow by 4.1 million square miles to become the world’s largest country (and acquire $1.3 trillion worth of resources to boot).  That’s… quite a bit.

Funk goes on to say that with the Arctic ice melting, “experts foresee numerous conflicts between the five nations whose borders meet there. Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States all have borders along the Arctic, and all of them have already begun research into what swathes of territory their continental shelves entitle them to claim“.  As you can imagine this has made Canada a little nervous, as suddenly its continuing entitlement to its northern coastline and waters has become somewhat more nebulous.

Although it’s tricky to predict how this will all play out and there’s been renewed interest in collaboration of late, two things stand out a bit:

  1. Despite the continuing debate about whether climate change is real, there is a very real jockeying for position predicated on melting ice floes; and,
  2. Given what’s at stake in an increasingly constrained world, if push comes to shove there’s likely going to be a lot of shoving.