There were a couple of similar quantified self articles last week about email. They’re both joke-ish but kind of interesting with a this-is-kind-of-pointless undercurrent. In one, Paul Ford analyzes his email archive and deems it a failure after he finds nothing interesting. In the second, Emma Pierson analyzes her email in the context of a long-distance relationship.
This is the era of the quantified self and radical transformation. And I’ve made charts and counted and poked around. I can tell you the top 20 words for each of my years, the number of times I wrote about weight loss, the first time I started thinking about being a father. My basic self is just this single, continuous, thread — quantifiable, in the form of actuarial tables, bank account statements, square footage owned, number of children. But counting things doesn’t change them.
The second lesson I learned is about the limits of statistics. My relationship is not fully captured by my emails: What I remember are the moments themselves, not their digital shadows. The entire email record of my relationship can itself be attached to an email. It is but a hundredth of a hundredth of a hard drive, a pinch of electron fairydust that cannot contain four years of tears and touches. And my emails are not fully captured by my algorithms, which would react the same way if I took every carefully crafted message and scrambled the words into random order.
My main takeaway was that word counting doesn’t get you very far.