A new exhibit asks if we’re more than just the sum of our data

“Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command,” says Ebenezer Scrooge near the end of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. That’s exactly what Karl Toomey did for the Lifelogging exhibit at the Science Gallery Dublin. In a show concerned with “exploring new ways to track everything,” the piece that has so far garnered the most attention is a gravestone belonging to the fictional Kurt Mark O’Neill.   

Born at the turn of the century and dead sixty five years later, O’Neill had 672 Twitter followers, 1, 673 Clubcard points, consumed 60,590,000 calories, had 92% positive feedback on eBay, 184 matches on Tinder, and jogged 76,928 kilometers before kicking the bucket. Each stands as a reminder of the disconnect between how our lives can be measured and what they ultimately mean. Jacob Marley spent death chained to the money he worshipped in life. O’Neill probably spends it haunted by all the Amazon rewards he never got around to using.

‘I log therefore I am’

In an interview with the Science Gallery, Karl Toomey points to the relationship between our data and our identities as one of the more interesting developments in the digital age, “‘I think therefore I am’ was a statement philosopher Rene Descartes affirmed in 1637,” he said. “Artist Barbara Kruger updated this to ‘I shop therefore I am’ hinting at the rising link between consumerism and our identities. Today though I think it could be moving towards ‘I log therefore I am’.”

While the future gravestone can seem like a stark reminder of our individual mortality, Toomey means for it to be playful. He actually thinks personal data can be extremely helpful. “If people can see the positive change lifelogging can have on someone’s life they are immediately interested,” he explains. “As I said, lifelogging can really empower people to make brilliant changes in their lives.”

And this belief is already firmly entrenched in the health industry, where data, software, and design companies are all trying to create apps that help gamify fitness and nutrition. The hope is that by allowing people to keep track of what they eat and how often they exercise, and compare that data with friends and family, it’ll create social incentives to compete against one another and stay on plan. People already dedicate so much time to competing and showing off in multiplayer videogames, the thinking goes, so why not harness that instinct and apply it to personal health and wellbeing?

As Toomey notes, at the very least, even if it can’t be used to manipulate people’s behaviors, the chance to review a numerical account of one’s life can lead to some much needed reflection. In Toomey’s case, this meant reviewing detailed bank records that gave him some “big, scary insights” into how and where he was spending his money.  Games like Bungie’s Destiny already have apps that track the total number of hours a player logs with the game, including the number of shots fired and enemies killed, tallies so high they can give even the most dedicated fan pause. Just imagine if your bank had a detailed “score card” of how much money you spent at bars or fast food joints every year.

You can see more of Karl Toomey’s work from the exhibit here.