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QSEU14 Breakout: Tracking Grief and Mood

Today’s post comes to us from Dana Greenfield. We asked Dana and the great QS scholar and thinker, Whitney Erin Boesel, to lead a breakout session on tracking grief and mood at the 2014 Quantified Self Europe Conference. Mood tracking is common in the QS community, and both Dana and Whitney have extensive experiences attempting to use pre-made tools to track mood. However, both were struck by the design of many current mood trackers to emphasize happiness and positivity above all else. This breakout session invited participants to come together and discuss what happens when grief and mood tracking collide. What should be tracked and what does it mean? You’re invited to read Dana’s description of the session below and then join the discussion on the QS Forum.

Tracking Grief & Mood
by Dana Greenfield

This breakout session followed my opening plenary talk, where I presented early reflections on a work-in-progress: a memory/grief/lifelogging project cataloging the experience of the recent loss of my mother. Using a google form, to log what I called “mom sightings”, I wanted to explore mood tracking where the aim is not to be rid of sadness, and life-logging, and where the aim is to log something other than my self, my fuzzy relation to and recollection of my mom. What started as a project to make something out of this collection (a data visualization as memorial of sorts), became something almost therapeutic and reflective through the process of tracking and re-remembering itself.
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I convened this breakout session with Whitney Erin Boesel to open a discussion on mood tracking for when you’re not aiming to optimize your emotional life, when different shades of sorrow are acknowledged as part of being human. I thought we might hear about and share stories of using different mood tracking tools, their capabilities and limitations. Instead, the conversation opened up with many people sharing their experiences with devastating loss and the grieving process, outside of tracking. The diverse crowd included a few mood trackers, but many of us had experienced loss, some very recently. We shared the passings of mentors, fathers, mothers, best friends, pets, and partners to both disease and divorce.

It turns out grief is a great entry point for exploring the meaning of personal data collection and analysis, from collecting as artistic expression to the role of social media in death.

We began wondering whether quantified self tactics were even appropriate for grief. For some, mourning found expression in art, like painting, which enables the flow of emotion and experience through color and open-ended form, resolving in release and relief. Creating artwork out of the remnants of a loved-ones life, on the other hand, enabled one woman to relive memories stored in an attic. While the process of handling and cataloging such artifacts was exhausting, it enabled her to construct something new. In her case, she logged all the items of her childhood home into a digital archive, finding joy and humor in her mothers eye-glasses collection, for example. Unlike her ongoing mood tracking, artistic work “helped me to deal with that [loss], and gradually let go of her.”

Others also questioned the desire to quantify something like grief and the complexity of human emotion. For one long-time tracker, the sudden loss of his father was represented by an absence in his data, an interruption to the flow of life. While grief was seen at the ‘edge’ of what we might want to or be able to quantify, some pointed out that much of “non-verbal, non-conceptualized’ human experience resisted quantification or even true representation. As one person put it: “When clearing the house of someone who died we suddenly realized there is no such rose-bud moment. The numbers aren’t really less than the other things, like… the other remnants of people’s past…it’s just another way of reconstructing something that is not there.” In other words, we collect, we track, we quantify, but is there some kernel of truth at the center? or is truth–about someone’s life past or present–always under re-construction in the act of counting and re-counting?

This question of the tracked and truth came up again when we discussed the difficulties of death on social media. How do we negotiate memorializing as well as forgetting in digital spaces? One response: “it’s been an issue in social media from the beginning. It’s nearly impossible to express other feelings than professional coolness–you’re allowed to rant or to troll people but not to express fear or things like that.” On the other hand. Whitney shared the story of friend who committed suicide, and the partner asked for the page to not be turned into a memorial site, because then it would be frozen. Another participant was disturbed over tweets to a dead man on his birthday; his wife, it turned out, had an ongoing relationship with her deceased husband on twitter. For a woman who lost a close friend, social media was a useful arena to be open about her grief, make it more visible.

I started to think of the ways we can empathy hack social media when someone asked “As we have more data and more stuff that’s reflecting us, can [death] continue to be hidden?” But now I wonder, does visibility of the data of death make us more open and vulnerable to each other, or might it desensitize? What are the implications of Facebook’s death toll? When my mother passed, I was told that my relationship to her doesn’t end because she is gone–the social media afterlife gives this sentiment a whole new meaning.

Memory and memorialization get complicated with our increasing data exhaust. For many, the tools of QS enhance memory, as the life is archived, but with death in the connected age and in social media, do we want to remember everything? And, do we have a right to forget or be forgotten? My work was specifically private, perhaps in contradistinction to a loss that was very public in our small community, and I wondered what remembering as an imperfect low fidelity practice did for me in itself. Some in the group asked me if tracking my grief, my memories enhanced the pain, if it let me linger in it too much. I wasn’t sure. For many in the room, there was a place for remembering but then putting away, enabling life to get on with itself. For some the CD-ROM was the container; for me, the spreadsheet.

One hypothesis: “Tracking could be not just a desire not to forget but the need to forget.”
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There is a tradition in anthropology of using other value systems as “good to think with,” as ways to imagine our own worlds and practices as otherwise. So in a world in which automatic tracking enables, even encourages the exhaustively remembered and logged-life, we might look to other places and peoples to remind ourselves that forgetting has its place too. Anthropologist Josh Berson offered us one such space:

“You can look at certain parts of indigenous Australia, where intense grief, during mourning is coupled with an institutionalized practice of avoidance of references to the dead person….you find [a trigger warning] at the beginning of practically any literature where indigenous australians might be exposed to where they might see images of people whom they know who are now dead. So it is possible to imagine a healthy form of grieving which is at the same time coupled to a deep respect for forgetting, institutionalization of a very shallow sense of the historical past.”

By shallow, Berson doesn’t mean trivial; rather, he suggests a qualitatively different relationship to time and memory. We left our discussion without resolving these tensions between logging, memorializing, and letting go. I was so grateful and glad for that. Grief, like it so often does, turns what seems like emptiness into an opening.

If you’re interested in grief and mood tracking we invite you to head to our forum to join the discussion on the QS Forum.

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