Nicholas Felton Quantified Literally Every Conversation He Had in 2013
It may be the most ambitious piece of personal data-gathering in history.
All of Nicholas Felton's communications for 2013. Image: Nicholas Felton.
Every year, the graphic designer Nicholas Felton releases a report about his life. It varies from year to year, but it usually contains data like how many cups of coffee Nicholas drank that year. How many steps he walked. How many books he read, and the different geographical locations he visited. It's called the Feltron Report, and it's made him a superstar in data visualization circles.
It may be the most ambitious piece of personal data-gathering in history. The 2013 Feltron Report is a summary of all of Felton's communication in 2013. Not just SMS messages, email, and postal mail, which are relatively simple to collect and quantify, but every conversation he had in real life.
Every time he spoke out loud to any human being—his girlfriend, his co-workers, the barista at the neighborhood coffee shop—he pulled out his phone and tracked the occurrence, measuring the conversation's length, where it occurred, and, most bogglingly, all the subjects discussed.
the map is not the territory
When I first met Nicholas Felton earlier this summer, at a festival for data geeks called EyeO, where he inspired hushed awe among attendees, I asked him something I assumed he'd been asked a million times: Have you ever read Borges?
Jorge Luis Borges, I mean: an Argentine writer known for speculative stories about infinite libraries and labyrinths, mysterious books and one-sided coins. One of Borges' most cited works is a 1946 one-paragraph short story called "On Exactitude in Science," which imagines a lost empire where the science of cartography is so detailed that mapmakers cannot rest until they have created a map as complete as the empire itself. A one-to-one map of the world.
This is an allusion to "the map is not the territory," an axiom set forth a decade or so earlier by the Polish-American semanticist Alfred Korzybski. In Borges' story, the map withers away over time, revealing the empire beneath, echoing Korzybski's assessment that while many people confuse models of reality with reality itself, abstractions have no relationship to the things from which they are derived.
While the 2013 Report, like all of Felton's near-psychedelic examinations of self, reveals a boggling amount of granular detail—he listened to Nico 66 times and received 33 pieces of mail from Pennington, New Jersey—it doesn't tell a stranger anything about Nicholas himself, or how he experienced the year. Which is to say that the Feltron Report is not Nicholas Felton's life, only a model of it.
But what a model it is.
Motherboard: Let's start with the 2013 Report. It's extremely ambitious. What motivated you to take it to this level, and how did you do it?
Nicholas Felton: I'm always looking for aspects of my personal data output that haven't been explored, or seem like a frontier that will be fruitful. I like tasks that are on the cusp of being achievable. In some areas, the task of gathering all my communications seemed really easy—it was already being gathered for me, like SMS and email—but conversation was this big burly unrecorded entity that I was really interested in capturing.
The challenge was in coming up with a methodology for actually gathering that stuff in a sustainable way. I was interested in the low-end, rather than perfect fidelity. I was more interested in getting closer to an absolute number of people that I actually talked to, and figuring out the landscape of strangers versus acquaintances versus close friends. What is the ratio of people that I talked to that I didn't know their name, versus whose names I knew?
In prior reports, I'd really been interested in as close to 100 percent accuracy as I could get. This Report required me to step back a little; at the low end, of ordering a latte, I might be 100 percent complete in capturing the conversation, but in the real juicy conversations, at a dinner party or a wedding, where I'm talking for hours and hours, there's going to be far lower fidelity, and I had to be comfortable with that.
What I wound up doing was demoing a bunch of apps from the App Store on my iPhone. I found one that's mainly used by city workers or urban planners—basically it's primarily about marking a lat-long, and then filling out a survey that goes along with it.
Through trial and error, I developed a survey that started encapsulating more and more of my patterns. For greetings, I would just have a list of all the options—hello, how are you, what's up—that I could quickly tap. All the stuff that was mechanical, rote, and repeatable, I could capture in a couple of taps. And then it would get all the metadata for me as well: where I was, what time it was, which was pretty interesting to me, and would save me some time and effort.
Then I just got really good at recall. For longer conversations, I would transcribe after the fact. If I could get in pretty close to the beginning, I could get into a flow state where I could follow one idea into the next and basically transcribe most of it, or at least the big ideas.
Did this process dictate the kinds of conversations you had in 2013?
Certainly the long conversations were interesting enough that it was worth it, but it would cause me to avoid picking up the phone if I didn't know the number. It all takes energy, so if I was tired and someone held a door for me, it made me a little more of an asshole—I might decide not to say "thank you" because that would count as communication.
But it was a two-way street, because sometimes I'd be like "oh, that was awesome, I had a conversation with a policeman, or the person I almost ran into coming around the corner, now this place has significance for me," so that became interesting.
How did people react to this? I imagine that the people close to you are used to this kind of thing by now, but what about acquaintances, strangers?
I don't think most people knew what I was up to. I told really close people what was going on, and of course I behaved differently depending on who I was around. If I don't know you very well, I'm not going to pull out my phone and start typing notes—but with my family, or my girlfriend, I'm taking notes on a continual basis.
This whole project speaks to a larger trend that I've noted in self-tracking: as you want to know more about yourself, you wind up including all these other people around you, because we aren't siloed data-streams—everything is commingled.
If I'm having a conversation with someone, it's a two-party thing, and the same is true for all the devices that people use to gather data about themselves. You can talk about data ownership, but ultimately you wouldn't have the data that Nike gathers without Nike.
I assume that having lived this data, you have a very different experience of it. You see a high frequency of telephone conversations with one person and you see love. You see places on a map, you see memories.
Some of that is purposeful. I am the editor of this, and I get to put forth the facets of my life that I'm comfortable sharing. There are certainly pieces of it that I curate around— I don't want to reveal the vocabulary of my girlfriend and myself to the world. It's in the data, but it's not something that I'm itching to share.
It's partially my prerogative to share what I choose to share. But it's also, to some extent, the limits of the data. It's one of the things that's interesting about this communications data: I've learned how revealing metadata is. It's so obvious who my close contacts are. Ninety percent of my text messages go to my girlfriend.
40,000 text messages.
It's evidence. That's the channel we use, and this is the person that I'm closest to. But when you look at the whole glut of communication, it gets really murky. You realize how overrun communication is with sales terms: "click," "offers," "returns," all these words that have to do with commerce, muddy up the personal aspects of the data.
Having that conversation database turned out to be such a great foil, because this is where the really important things in my life wound up being expressed.
we aren't siloed data-streams—everything is commingled
These Annual Reports represent so much information that you end up spending months of the following year cleaning up and compiling them. Living in the present while compiling the previous year's data—does it affect the way you live?
A little bit. It's certainly meditative, and I think it causes me to go back to those memories more than other people. This was certainly the case in 2010, when I did a Report about my father's life, which was an insanely therapeutic thing.
I spent six weeks meditating over his possessions and his travels, transcribing documents and looking through all his photos. By the end of it, I certainly felt like I had expressed a ton of his experience, and hopefully his humanity, at a level of expression that I don't take my own Reports. There was also the benefit of having 81 years of material there, so the stories were better captured, the broader strokes were more evident…
It certainly feels more like a narrative.
At the beginning it was super rough, in the middle I wasn't sure I was doing him justice, but by the end I felt I'd preserved his memory in a way that was meaningful for me. I felt that I'd captured his essence, and that was something that I was able to give to his friends.
They didn't know him for all of his life—just like I didn't know him for all of his life—but I knew I'd done a good job when these 75- and 80-year-old people took the time and effort to look at this crazily-formatted document and started honing in on the touchpoints that they'd had with him.
Do you feel that because you're so encyclopedic about recording this information that you have a better memory of your past?
I actually think that the Reports, when they're completed, kind of replace my memory of that year. I certainly have memories that are not included in them. It's trivial, but I have a good recollection now for what year I went on what trips, because can I see it in the Report. My repository for the memory of that year is that Report, and so it's kind of like an exterior brain. When you write the memory enough, it becomes the memory.
It must take a tremendous amount of discipline to do this.
I don't know how publicly it's being performed, but there is a performance art aspect to it. I've committed to this thing, it's a marathon, I'm pretty sure I can do it for the rest of the year—but I remember vividly many times, being in the shower, calculating how far through the year I am, "I'm three months into the year, I only have to do this three more times, and it'll be over…"
I think the thing that's kept me going is just knowing that this is something that really no one else has access to, this is something that's uniquely interesting. I'm only going to do it for a year, and it'll be this incredible record of what was happening in that time.
Just the book I made of all my conversations—this 400-page book, almost like a bible, that encapsulates the year—just looking at that, not even reading it, but just looking at it, and realizing that I could go to any day of the year and basically relive it through my conversations, it's really powerful.
It's a meta-experience of your own life. Is that hard to shake? What did January 1st, 2014 feel like, once you were free to have undocumented conversations?
I was a little shell-shocked for a couple weeks. This has happened with several different years, where I'm just in this state where I gotta do this thing for an entire year and I'm so well trained that I become a Pavolvian dog. Especially with greetings. I was highly attuned to hearing "hello" or "hi."
But you alternate easy years and hard years, right?
I've considered this to be a ten-year project for the last few years. The 2013 Report is the ninth one, and I'm in the process of collecting for the final one right now. Wanting to go out with something big—it seemed to be the right time for it.
The Report is fueled by my curiosity, and I do feel like I'm running out of things that can be captured. Conversation was one of the last big things, and so that drive to explore a new data provenance was really exciting to me. That's what pushed me forward.
What is the White Whale here? What is further than conversation—thought?
If that ever became possible, would you do it?
Maybe. I don't know—does thought include everything that's happening, the thoughts that go into having this conversation, or are these private thoughts?
The dream report would be amazing. It's so incriminating. It would be the most radioactive thing. It'd just be like, "here's your annual Report for your dreams," and you're like, "burn it!"
You could easily do a dream Report.
All the places you went, all the people, all your extra lovers, all the celebrities you were hanging out with…
We live in a different world than we did when you first started compiling these Reports. The idea of data-gathering is inextricable from the reality of how much of this data is being collected without our knowledge by corporations, websites, and the government. Has this changed the way you think about your Reports?
As someone who works professionally making tools helping people to gather more data about themselves, yeah, 2013 was challenging, and 2014 is really challenging. It's not just a sandbox anymore, it's very much a big boy's game.
The trajectory of this has shifted for me. I think I saw it in much more utopian terms earlier, or maybe naive ones: that everyone will have access to all their personal data, they'll have this amazing searchable record of the things they do, and the storytelling possibilities will be endless. Now I see many more calculations about the existence of data, and whether the benefits and potential pitfalls balance each other out.
I would almost trade my privacy for ten years of beautiful graphs about my life.
As with all powerful technology, the worst thing to do would be for people to put their heads in the sand and ignore its existence, or try to will it out of existence.
Your location data is probably being saved by many corporations-slash-agencies, and yet you don't have access to it. So if you do have access to it, maybe you sleep less well at night, but you're aware of what's being captured.
What are you doing for 2014?
2014 is an easy year. As the final one, I'm trying to bring everything full circle and look at what I can make of all the devices out in the world. I tried to instrument myself as well as possible with activity trackers: I have a Fuel Band, a Basis Band, and a Fitbit, I've got a location tracker on my phone, I have a breathalyzer that I use pretty much every day to keep track of blood alcohol level, I have my car instrumented.
It seems like no matter how intense your Reports are, you tend to keep it fairly subtle. There's a tastefulness to it. You're not walking around with a camera strapped to your head.
You're really dialing up the observer bias when you do stuff like that. I always try to come up with approaches that are going to catalogue my life in as natural a way as possible.
Do you think it's possible to create a totally objective Report?
The primary objective is to make it reflect my experience, so if I do some query on a set and I don't recognize it, then I know I've done it wrong, or the data's just not that interesting. It's nice to be able to have this built-in test routine for figuring out if something is working, which is basically only possible because it's data that I've lived.
The trajectory of this has shifted for me. I think I saw it in much more utopian terms earlier, or maybe naive ones.
Do you go into the data and monitor your behavior, or do you not look at it until it's completely finished?
The latter. The rule used to be that I couldn't even start until January 2nd. I'd take off the first, and then get to work. The datasets have just been getting too large and unmanageable, so I've had to start earlier. But they're just not really in a state where I can see the patterns.
These days, it takes a month to get to that point, which is one of the reasons that there's not that much behavior change that comes out of them, because it's a really glacially slow feedback mechanism. It's like going to the doctor once a year.
What about the future?
I really like my ten-year approach. I'm looking at what's out there, seeing if the dream of Feltron ten years ago has been realized, and to what extent. I think the first year off will be interesting.
I think I've got a Michael Jordan-style asterisk in there. If curiosity gets the better of me, I'm not writing off the fact that I may come out of retirement and do another one. If the most amazing dream sensors show up on the market, it will probably be irresistible.