What might the diaries of old tell is about the quantifiable habits of past generations?

Jamie Todd Rubin
Apr 18, 2015 · 4 min read

My FitBit tells me that I have walked about 4,000 steps (so far) today. My Automatic Link tells me that I’ve driven about 23 miles today. RescueTime informs me that I’ve spent 1 hour 11 minutes on the computer today (and it has classified most of that time as “unproductive.” By doing nothing more than going about my normal routine, I collect and produce a huge amount of data about myself. Some of this data has proven very useful.

Automated self-tracking is a product of modern technology, but it seems to me that the notion of self-tracking has been with us ever since gained the ability to write things down. And the most common old-school self-tracking device was the personal diary.

I kept a diary for nearly a decade before I transitioned to a blog. It served as a reminder of what I did during the day. Generally speaking, I did not write anything in my diary I didn’t want anyone else to know. Instead, it is a kind of accounting of my daily activities. Flipping through its pages, I find there are plenty of things I quantified that could be pulled into data, if one were to take the time to do it.

It was with this thought in mind that I began to wonder: what data could we obtain by attempting to pull quantifiable information from the diaries of people from the past? And how would that data compare with the kind of information we collect automatically today? Take for instance, John Adams, the second President of the United States. Fifty-one volumes of his diary have been preserved by the Massachusetts Historical Society. What’s more, they have been made available to the public through the Adams Electronic Archive.

Imagine reading through these volumes, identifying the quantifiable information, and collecting it in some electronic form. For instance, on Sunday, January 28, 1776, Adams wrote in his diary,

Mr. Upham informs that this Town of Brookfield abounds with a Stone, out of which Allum, Coperas and Sulphur are made.

The following day, Monday, January 29, 1776, he wrote,

Rode to Springfield, dined at Scotts. Heard that the Cannon Kingsbridge in N. York were spiked up.

If you knew where Brookfield was in relation to Springfield, you’d know how far Adams traveled over the course of that day. No need to build a time machine, and take FitBit back with you to get this informtion. And if we imagine that his diary is full of these kinds of observations, and that there are many other diaries preserved across many different eras, we begin to get a sense of just how much quantification is possible from the pages of these volumes alone.

What kind of data might be quantifiable? If nothing else, you have the word counts of the entries, and their relative lengths. From the descriptions of meals it is probably possible to estimate calorie intake. It is likely you could answer “how often” questions: how often did he travel, how often did he work? For how long did he study? Enough aggregation of this data might make it possible to compare “quantified selves” across generations, or even centuries.

Because diaries are written with a subjective hand, not all of the information in them can be trusted with perfect accuracy. But neither can the data from a FitBit, which might give a different step count for the same distance than, say, a Jawbone device. The idea is that the devices are consistent in their differences and the relative values can still be useful. The same is true for the quantifiable data locked in these ancient diaries.

Today, we don’t have to record nearly as many observations as someone from John Adams time in order to get a clear picture of our daily lives. Wearables, like a FitBit, help with some of this. The digital footprint we leave behind, in the form of Tweets, blog posts, comments, Facebook status updates, photos, and email messages paints a far more detailed picture than what might be captured on the page of a diary. But that doesn’t mean those pages from the past are without useful quantifiable data. Extracting that data from those pages would be a fascinating exercise into the comparative quantification of our daily lives.

Jamie Todd Rubin

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Writer | Blogger | Coder | Paperless Guy | @sfwa Member

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