Saturday, May 24, 2014

Meditations Over the Shredder

Today in an effort to do something productive while staying off of a broken toe that just doesn't want to heal quickly, I finally cleaned out my files. Normally, I do this right after I have filed my taxes, shifting the previous year's important records into my archive, and shredding all the cruft and things older than I need to keep around. This year I am rather late in doing it, and had an additional large packet of now-worthless paperwork in the form of the documents surrounding the purchase of my first home some thirteen years ago, plus paperwork from the job changes I have had over the past two and a half years.

In all of that paperwork, a stack that ran about four inches tall this time, there were only a couple of documents that had any value, be it as a record or as a sentiment. Most of it was receipts, bills, and a whole bunch of legalese. I was struck in looking at them how odd it is to see chunks of your life essentially expressed as numbers. Grocery, book, and hardware store receipts, bank statements, insurance forms, a HUD statement. Dozens of bits and pieces describing my interaction with the world around me, pretty much entirely based on the moving of money.

One of the characters in William Gibson's novel Idoru was a person skilled at sifting through the computer network and learning things about people by the trail of data they left behind. It's something I have quoted before, and the rise of Big Data and intense digital tracking of both consumers and citizens in the name of better serving them remains a subject in need of serious exploration. What does the pile of papers say about me?

Well, obviously they give a pretty good picture of my financial life, my entertainment habits, and the causes I care enough about to give money to. They show some of the changes that have occurred in my life over the past couple years: being laid off, job hunting, getting a new job and commuting, and finally moving away from the place I called home for my entire life. You could say that's a pretty complete look at me. I certainly wouldn't want just anyone seeing that stuff, hence the shredding. But I also find it interesting to consider what the stack of papers doesn't say about me.

Those papers don't tell you much about what I do for a living, and not much about whether I'm any good at it. They don't show how I interact with my coworkers or friends (although I suppose there's facebook and linkedin for that). It doesn't have the drawing of a tree I did that was terrible right up to the point where I had done enough work for it to suddenly come together and not be terrible. It doesn't show the funeral of an uncle I attended or the one for another uncle I missed because of work. It doesn't show how terrible I am on a blind date, or how much better I feel when laughing.

Numbers can automate. Numbers can simulate. But numbers can't feel. And as someone who slings numbers professionally, it's something I will try to remember. Who I am is largely determined by how I interact with the world. While much of that interaction can be quantified, seeing a beautiful sunset, or offering a smile, doesn't come with a receipt. If it did, I'd want to have many more boxes of files.

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