A data point can be extracted from most of the things that you experience every day. Every step you take, every degree change in temperature, or even how the neurons in your brain send signals. Every point can be measured and analyzed. And that brings to mind the work of On Kawara, an exceptional Japanese artist who lived in New York City for the majority of his life before passing away in 2014. I was fascinated by his exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York a few years ago that chronicled a life spent obsessing over precision…or data. 

Guggenheim, museum, stairs, guggenheim floors, art,

The Guggenheim museum in New York City. Credit: Banana FIRE Guy.

Walking into the Guggenheim, its best to explain the layout with the above picture. You walk in circles around the Frank Lloyd Wright spiraled stair case as you take in art. One of the advantages of the On Kawara exhibit was you could view his art sequentially by walking up the stairs. It felt like we were advancing a year with every step.

One of his signature works was dates (the Today portion), obsessively marking down dates and corresponding newspapers. And by obsessively, check out this description from the Guggenheim:

On January 4, 1966, On Kawara began his Today series, or Date Paintings. He worked on the series for nearly five decades. A Date Painting is a monochromatic canvas of red, blue, or gray with the date on which it was made inscribed in white. Date Paintings range in size from 8 x 10 inches to 61 x 89 inches. The date is composed in the language and convention of the place where Kawara made the painting…He did not create a painting every day, but some days he made two, even three. The paintings were produced meticulously over the course of many hours according to a series of steps that never varied. If a painting was not finished by midnight, he destroyed it. The quasi-mechanical element of his routine makes the production of each painting an exercise in meditation. Kawara fabricated a cardboard storage box for each Date Painting. Many boxes are lined with a cutting from a local newspaper. Works were often given subtitles, many of which he drew from the daily press. Kawara’s choice of dates appears to follow no overall principle. Some dates may have been personally or historically significant. Above all, however, the Today series addresses each day as its own entity within the larger context of the regularized passage of time. The series speaks to the idea that the calendar is a human construct, and that quantifications of time are shaped by cultural contexts and personal experiences.

He kept all of this information. It’s difficult to overstate how obsessive and detailed these projects were. One (the I met series) involved a catalogue of every single person that Kawara met through the course of the day. Flipping through books on display show examples of dates and people visited with. Some days there are 10 or more. Some days there are zero.

On Kawara. Credit: Alden Projects.

Another project was postcards (I got up) sent to people all over the world every single day marking when On got up. An example of one reading “I got up at at 9:47AM.” At first glance I thought a lot of this was meaningless falling into the “Well I could do that” or “What a waste of time” trap that I sometimes let my negative conscious go to. “But you didn’t” is the reply you should say to anyone who says that. What this collective art showing showcased is exactly how people can be measured in data. It’s a wonderful physical example of how much information can be gathered about someone.

The Growth of Data…

The growth of how much we can be measured is growing. And very little of it is tagged or used in a suitable way. The IDC pushed out a white paper sponsored by EMC that said only 3% of potentially useful data in 2012 was tagged and even less was analyzed. Another EMC report says that number could grow to 35% by 2020. With the advent of new technology in wearables, it’s not far off where insurance companies will pay people for the amount of steps they take or devices that measure and catalogue the insulin levels of a diabetic child remotely.

We’re now walking catalogues of information that is constantly recorded. I’m thinking of this neat video of writer Gay Talese and his physical address book and how it helps him remember specific meetings:

We all carry around information with us and the sign of an advanced society is one that is able to catalogue and remember. But, it’s not enough to simply remember as the internet of objects will be able to measure and catalogue more. Data will become more and more a portion of our lives, with software making it possible to analyze our behaviors, our routines and health. It’ll help designers build products based on their usage or allow personal finance bloggers to make money in new ways. This is all a good thing, but there seems like a nebulous portion that is unclear: do you want all your data points out there? Do you want a catalogue of who you met, what you read and what you’re doing every single day of your life? That’s a question we must all ask.

Relationship with FIRE:

I think a big point of FIRE (read more about Finanical Independence/Retire Early here) is this ability to choose what you want to do. A large part of that is questioning basic facts that we are told to believe. Are pushes people to think in new ways. On Kawara has done this that in his life. What can you do with that information?