The Things You Don't Want To Know

A little while ago, one of my friends emailed me a link to Prism, an application that allows you to see a streamgraph visualization of your texting history over time.

In the email, my friend provided one small caveat: "My sources say it feels a bit creepy to see contacts appear and fade over time. Definitely a case of private data, methinks."

Image taken from Prism website. 

Image taken from Prism website. 

Let me just point out that I spend a lot of time talking about data literacy, privacy, data ownership, and what you can learn about yourself through data. Most of the work I do revolves around data collection and analysis, in some way, shape, or form(at).

In other words, you would think that I would be the target audience for something like Prism. But I couldn't bring myself to use it. Why? Because I really didn't want to see what it was going to show. I know the basics of my texting history. I know how it's changed as I've moved in and out of cities, countries, and relationships. After all, I lived through those experiences. And given that I know exactly how bittersweet some of them were, the last thing that I want to see is a cheery data viz reminding me of just which people have popped in and then slowly (or even worse, abruptly) faded out of my life. I already feel that particular shade of wistfulness when I stumble over similar information in other people's lives; how much worse will it be to see it in my own?

Maybe that's something that we should talk more about. Just because we have access to all sorts of data about the world and ourselves doesn't necessarily mean that we need to see all of it. To be clear, I'm all for data analysis, empowerment, journalism and the things that you can through all three. But surely we can acknowledge that not everything is suited to routine and saccharine representation through shapes, lines, and maps. Do you want to know how few of your friends will be alive for your 95th birthday? Do you want to know how many times you cried after your last breakup? And those are just the trivial examples!

Perhaps there are things in this world—-messy, difficult, things—-whose very nature demands that we consider them apart from the sense of order, categorization, and understanding that data visualizations tread in. Maybe some things mean less, not more, once categorized and put into metrics.

Or maybe I'm wrong. After all, I could just be squeamish. So you tell me: is there always something to be gained by relentless quantification, or are there things that gain more power by resisting it? I'd love to hear from others (and not just because I'm staring at a CSV file of my old iMessages, wondering whether or not to open it).