The Times article “The Data-Driven Life” struck me as ripe for commentary when it was published in early May. Nevertheless, with life and exam week being what they were, it fell to the bottom of the stack. But even if the piece isn’t exactly hot off the press, I still think it worth a review for the light that it sheds on the Ignatian practice of the particular examen of conscience.
“The Data-Driven Life” is really a string of personal testimonials in favor of the practice of computerized self-measurement. With the miniaturization of sensors, the proliferation of apps, and the mobilization of data processors (i.e., i-phones), self-improvement junkies can now monitor their every move with a minimum of inconvenience. And since our perception of even our most objective activities tends to be skewed toward the satisfaction of our appetites and away from painful self knowledge, the cold objectivity of data streams can be a bit bracing.
The aforesaid article relates, for instance, the story of a man who quits drinking coffee but begins to ‘feel’ that his concentration is suffering. He consequently considers a returning to his old habit. Incidentally, he has also happens to have been logging the time that he spends daily in focused work. When he consults his journal he notices that, despite his suspicion to the contrary, he actually has a longer attention span without coffee. The verdict: coffee is out. Our test subject concludes his account with the observation that, without the corrective of hard data, “people have such very poor sense of time.”
Other testimonials are more obviously relevant to the spiritual life. A 26-year-old filmmaker, for example, decides to track and correlate about 50 streams of personal data–his activities, moods, meals, etc. Along the way he discovers that he is troubled by doubts about his prospects as a filmmaker immediately after seeing a bad film. Such a correlation might seem rather obvious, but he had never before noticed origin of his discouragement. Armed with this bit of knowledge about his particular vulnerability to career “desolation,” he can better prepare himself for temptation.
A third man agrees to use an experimental cell phone app designed to monitor emotions. The program rings his phone at random times and prompts him to enter his mood. After a few weeks he reviews the accumulated data and notices that
his foul mood began at the same time every day. He had a rushed transition from work to home. While unfinished tasks were still on his mind, new demands crowded in. The stress followed him for the rest of the evening. The data showed him where the problem was. With help, he learned to take a short mental break right there.
An small but important adjustment.
The key in every case seems to be the externalization of the data, which frees the self-improver from reliance on subjective (and often distorted) impressions and suggests a more effective course of action. The article’s author, who is clearly an advocate for self-measured living, observes that when we try to change
we simply thrash about: we improvise, guess, forget our results or change the conditions without even noticing the results. Errors are possible in self-tracking and self-experiment, of course… But once you start gathering data, recording the dates, toggling the conditions back and forth while keeping careful records of the outcome, you gain a tremendous advantage over the normal human practice of making no valid effort whatsoever.
To be honest, it’s the externalization of the data that most interests me, since it’s probably the most neglected component of St. Ignatius’ own recommendations for the particular examen. In the Spiritual Exercises, for instance, Ignatius recommends that, in order to “rid oneself sooner of a particular fault or defect,” one should attend to it three times per day with: (1) a firm resolution upon a rising, (2) an examen at midday, and (3) a second examen before bed. Moreover, by marking the number of lapses between each examen, one can keep a crude log of one’s sins (as shown below).
Moreover, Ignatius’ “Four Annotations” on the particular examen deal almost exclusively with helpful externalizations. He recommends, for example, that we ritualize every lapse by placing by placing our hand upon our chest (which may be done discreetly “even in the presence of many”). By the early twentieth century this had evolved into the practice of sewing a string of “examen beads” to the inside of the cassock, which a Jesuit could then toggle like an abacus at every new defect. Perhaps most importantly, Ignatius also suggests that we use the log to compare morning to evening, one day to the next, one week to another.
I have to admit that I’ve never actually practiced the particular examen with all the various accoutrements—data log, comparison at intervals, breast beating, etc.—precisely because I’ve always considered them accidents of Ignatius’ personality and his era. And this is no doubt partly true. All the same, it’s also true that I still have many of the regular faults that I had ten years ago.
Maybe I’ve done too much “thrashing about.”