Let’s start by clearing the air on what is too often a dirty topic. What are data? What is a datum?
In it’s most basic sense, a datum is a piece of information and data are a whole set of these pieces. So this begs the question — what is information?
For this I’m going to go to the definition specific to computing:
- (in information theory) a mathematical quantity expressing the probability of occurrence of a particular sequence of symbols, impulses, etc., as contrasted with that of alternative sequences.
I’m not a mathematician, so I’ll only talk about what this idea means to me, not the academic perspective. In general, it is either more likely to be true that a particle is in a certain place as a given time, or not. Quantum perspectives complicate this, so I’m not accounting for those considerations. Focusing on our own experience as an observer, we either experience a chair to be in front of us or not from a material perspective.
We are not accustomed to only half of our living room rocking chair to show up based on random chance, nor would we expected only the silhouette to show up but leave the substance behind. The sequence of impulses that make up our chair are the chains of particles forming molecules that have bound together to form something reliable and material that we expect only to change if some other material thing acted on it. A termite, perhaps.
So in this example, the information is actually the chair. Not only that, it’s all of the ‘chair-ful’ things about the chair. The sound it makes when different amounts of load and force are put upon it from different angles, the scent of the wood its crafted from, etc.
Last year I attended Edward Tufte’s one day conference, and one of the quotes that stuck with me (paraphrased, though I suspect this was one of the quotes he included in the one pager of key points) was that we should stop dumbing things down for our audience because we’re concerned they won’t get it — that’s an insult to your audience. This doesn’t mean intentionally provide obscuring language and details for you to hide behind as a presenter either.
I bring this up only to say that when I say I think that everything is data, I’m speaking from the perspective of the kind of example up above. If we’re speaking in probabilistic terms, this can be expressed more quantitatively by expressing this probability in terms of binary. Is it true or false that I have a rocking chair in my living room? Short of someone stealing it from me while I am sitting across from it writing this post, I can say with high confidence that I do, in fact, observe a rocking chair in my living room at this very moment.
So what can we extend this way of thinking about information and data to? Rather than just saying “everything” yet again, here are some specific categories of data that I feel are exceptionally meaningful, many of which require what we might term as ‘non-rational’ analysis methods.
This is an area of growth and development for me, so I won’t be as explanatory here as exploratory. The complexity of interactions between two bodies (particles, people, groups, organizations, countries) doesn’t occur only at points of contact, but begins at their point of influence over at least one body by the other.
From a data design perspective, we see this in the concept of establishing the directionality of the data relationship. Does on entity/objective only ever affect the other, or is there a mutual exchange?
We can extend this idea of relationship to everything. If we acknowledge that our bodies are made up of component parts, it quickly follows that our body is full of many nested complex relationships, each exerting its own energetic influence, even before applying any observable force. Observations then, one might imagine, are also skewed by influences and relationships that are imperceptible to our rational minds and the speed at which we’re able to capture observations. To assume that the only things that exist are those that are slow enough for you to observe might be foolish, though.
Your body generates, gathers, processes, and acts on so many data every second that it’s easy to forget that living organisms are incredible organic computers. One of the perils of humanity’s gift of willpower and choice is that we can make decisions that our bodies would never make their own, and then our bodies have to figure out how to let us know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Getting really sick right before a trip you were trying desperately to avoid, or perhaps getting really sick right after you beat your body into submission in order to finish a ‘mission critical’ work project. Usually we go that far before we notice that perhaps we weren’t managing ourselves in the best way, but usually there are hints beforehand. A tight jaw, shoulders riding up towards your ears, loss of appetite, loss of desire to do anything outside of what you force yourself to do. All signals that you might be using mind over matter in the wrong way. Conversely, you can use information you get from your body to discover solutions. You don’t need to articulate these, or need to explain yourself to other people. Often you just need to trust that the wisdom that seeps into your awareness is worth listening to and joining with as a partner in making day to day choices, even if you can’t articulate what it’s telling you.
Perhaps this is needless to say, but to be explicit, these layers of data seem to stack one upon the other. Energy is the most subtle layer, then becoming embodied experience, and finally it begins to reach our consciousness and forms perception. I feel aversion, delight, attraction. I think I like a thing, I decide to make myself pancakes because I want something sweet for breakfast. I’m not suggesting we have no say in what we otherwise call human will, but I am suggesting that it starts from data processing at many layers before it emerges into something we perceive as real.
This also is where we find the internal feedback loop (sometimes referred to as a change of behavior-state) where one experience that emerges in the consciousness then informs future experiences. If I have form a positive association with making my own drip coffee at home, I may form an attachment to that behavior, regardless of the quality of the actual coffee. Almost everything tastes better when you do it yourself, if you take pride in the activity, skill or behavior and have some attachment to it. Your perception of taste has the extra seasonings of pride, joy, and satisfaction.
This works in reverse as well — if I have a negative experience with a person my feedback loop will almost certainly create an aversion to that individual… but it may also go a step further and look for a pattern in order to avoid similar experiences again. If we’re thinking rationally here, you normally wouldn’t want to forecast future experiences based on a single data point (in this case the single perceptual outcome). However, our brains are lightening fast computers and so before we realize it may have already set about flagging a variety of variables describing that interaction as correlating to your negative experience. This could be the cologne they were wearing, the color or shape of their eyes, the way they spoke, their skin color, the place you were in — the options are nearly infinite.
In either a positive or negative outcome scenario, we are pressed with the challenging question – what part of my awareness is real?
This may be a disappointment, but I don’t know that we as individuals necessarily generate too many observational data. Mostly, it seems we’ve shut our capacity for that kind of data processing off, or else we limit it to very short run periods, perhaps while meditating. This could also be largely a challenge of a culture oriented around dualistic thinking. Something is either good or bad, or at least more good than bad, and we want to be on the side of what’s good. The relative measure of ‘good’ can be wholly subjective. To some, corporate capitalism is good, to others it’s an evil entrapment. Polyamory can be a peak of emotional and relational maturity for some, and for others it could be gluttonous and irresponsible. If we’re being fair, it’s clear that both are true – nearly everything is both good and bad, so perhaps that’s not a data point worth orienting decisions around.
The ability to take the observer seat is an immense challenge, but it comes with its own gift. The practice of low-inference observations can be applied just as well to watching your mind as to observing an interventionist delivering services. Observations I’m making about myself right now:
- There is a radiant pain in my neck and right shoulder
- There is a slight pain in my right wrist and into my hand
- I am feeling judgmental towards myself for continuing to type at this angle
- I am excited that I have persevered with writing this piece
- I am irritated that I produce so many misspellings
- I am concerned I might include observations here I will later regret
- My stomach still feels empty
- I want another pancake
An exercise like this might feel almost exactly what meditation can feel like — a series of mostly inane seemed thoughts. The spaces in between and beneath the surface is where the powers of observation become valuable. Why am I persisting in a behavior that I experience as painful? How will I make it up to myself? Does it serve me to be judgmental over accepting? Why do mispellings matter to me? What am I afraid I might share (or over-share)? Why do I experience shame or guilt around those things?
Much meatier topics.
Coming back to the original framing of data as sets of pieces of information, by the time we get to this observational level, there’s so much that’s been aggregated and processed that is difficult to say that any observation is definitely true or false. It is just as likely that I could be hungry without my stomach feeling empty, or that I could experience a feeling of emptiness and no hunger. It is just as likely that a shift in perception, or a different sensation in my body, or a different energetic attraction would change my observations from true to false or vice versa.
Material objects tend to give us the least trouble in this discernment task. I have never experienced a rocking chair disappear before my eyes, so I attribute nearly no energy to wondering if these items will be reliable. I do attribute lots of energy to wondering if I’m making the best choices for myself.
Remembering that drawing more observation to the lower granularity data (energetic and somatic) can have a greater impact on my day to day perceptions makes building and maintaining a practice feel more and more invaluable.