Follow the Data

A data driven blog

Existential computing

How cool is this course, called “The Rest of You” and taught at New York University? It was mentioned in a recent blog post at The Quantified Self, which also links to a video of teacher Dan O’Sullivan talking about it.

The Rest of You course is about building tools to quantify your experiences in everyday life, with a special emphasis on unconscious and less intentional things – for example things that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, like galvanic skin response (which has to do with e g fear, anger and sexual arousal) and breathing. As mentioned in the QS blog, a husband and wife team measured their galvanic skin responses while watching a movie, and compared the readouts afterwards. Mostly the responses were similar, but there were many times where one of them had a strong response while the other reacted weakly if at all.

The syllabus includes questions/assignments/material like:

  • What was your day really like?  Get an objective picture of your day using light, gravity, sound, image, temperature.
  • How are you really feeling? Get reading from unconsciously controlled reactions sweat, breath, temperature, electical, posture, heart, sound, subliminal input,eeg
  • Graphing data in Processing or using Flowing Data , SensorBase, Pachube
  • Using batteries, small microcontrollers, how to make the devices fit on your body, keylogging, and how to get data from a phone
  • Reading about flow and mirror neurons

It sounds excellent already in theory, but looking at some of the students’ blogs really drives home how cool it is. For example, John Kuiphoff wired himself up and devised an experiment for quantifying how well wrist braces (which he got for his carpal tunnel syndrome) stabilize movements during typing. He also did an interesting experiment about how well people can distinguish subtle variations in color. Elizabeth Fuller fitted her cocktail dress out with a proximity sensor and an accelerometer and sent data from the dress onto a computer during a party.

Apart from the tech/data aspects of the whole thing, I like Dan O’Sullivan’s idea about “existential computing”, as he calls it – to use these tools to realize that our conscious experience is actually just a small slice of the sum total of what we go through. The writing assignments pose tough questions about illusions and happiness: What are the some illusions in my existence? How do they affect your happiness? Can new technologies correct for these illusions? Can gaining insights with a more complete view of your existence improve your life?  Can it make society better?

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