Somewhere in San Francisco a marked dollar bill came into my possession. Likely, Saturday afternoon at Peet’s Coffee on Chestnut Street, when I gave the cashier $20 for a large coffee and apologized for not having anything smaller. I didn’t notice it until this morning when I opened my wallet to buy breakfast. Printed in red block letters along the edge of the dollar was: wheresgeorge.com. Within 30 seconds I Googled the site, decided it was safe to access, and entered the serial number in the submission field.
Where’s George is an American currency tracking system conceived by a guy named Hank Eskin in 1998 and named for the man on the money. Users enter their zip code, the serial number, and series of the bill to view its history. FAQ’s on Where’s George indicate he started the project “for fun, and because it hadn’t been done before.” (I emailed him anyway to tell him I liked the idea and ask how the site came about.) Many similar currency tracking web sites have popped up since. Scientists have created algorithms from Eskin’s data of human traffic patterns to predict the spread of infectious diseases such as Swine Flu. This is a case of seemingly random data tracking with a realized public benefit.
It’s fitting that yesterday I finished reading Gary Wolf’s article “The Data-Driven Life” in The New York Times Magazine. The story describes how the development of mobile tracking devices like cell phones and the proliferation of social networking sites have helped fuel a growing public obsession with personal tracking programs, self evaluation, and results sharing. For instance, just last night one of my Facebook friends posted his weight before and after working out at the gym. The difference: 2 pounds. But of what?
People everywhere are looking for meaning in numbers. Tallying their location, diet, purchases, conversations, thoughts, friends, sleep, dreams, moods, fears, and finances, in an attempt to understand any decipherable patterns of behavior. They are looking for self improvement between cells on an Excel sheet, tweaking their stride inches to save seconds, analyzing minutes to gain hours.
I have a decidedly contentious relationship with numbers. There are those that explain and those that confuse. I have never balanced my checkbook. I do not track my expenditures, keep receipts, or examine my retirement funds. I log on to my bank account once every two weeks just to make sure the money is still there. Perhaps I am just in denial. Perhaps I am afraid of what the numbers will really tell me. Or maybe, I just don’t care. Numbers are meaningless to me without context.
I have never counted calories or my weight. The only personal data figures I have ever recorded are my mileage for running, and, when injured, minutes in the pool and on the bike, how many pull ups I can muster, how many reps I can handle. However, I recently began tracking the time I eat lunch after working out because I started feeling nauseous after mid-day running. Within three days I determined that I need to wait longer before eating. I haven’t tracked since. To me, that type of measuring has a purpose. It has context. It is not justifying my existence, it’s simply improving it.
And despite evidence from sites like Where’s George that numbers can be used for a larger purpose than initially imagined, I don’t believe that numbers alone will save us from ourselves. Because they never tell the gaps in the story. The details we don’t include. Consider my dollar – C 711976411 B. It took 13 days, 13 hours and 39 minutes to travel from Rohnert Park to Ukiah to San Francisco before winding up in the till at a Palo Alto café. But what about the stops along the way that weren’t punched into the system? What about the times someone never saw the marking, didn’t trust the web site, or simply didn’t care to enter the information? It’s not like those moments didn’t happen, they just weren’t noted.
I don’t want to think a person can be summarized by a series of numbers on a spreadsheet. That the contents of our hearts and minds can be calculated. I don’t believe we can glean anymore meaningful insights about ourselves from an algorithm than we can by simply listening to our bodies. I already knew I felt gross eating after running. I didn’t need my notebook to tell me that. But I felt I should be scientific about my diagnosis.
While reading Wolf’s article I cringed at the concept of people noting every idea they ever had, the conversations with every friend, their moods at every hour. That level of analysis frightens me. It seems as though it’s living to log on. I don’t want to watch my life exist in ordered rows and columns, telling me that I was happy when I did X, but not Y, and especially not with Z. I feel that is not being self-aware. I carry a notebook in my purse. But I only write down the good ideas I have. Sometimes weeks go by between entries. If I’m going to leave anything behind I’d rather it be worth reading.
Despite my internal struggle against calculating without context, I do love community tracking projects like Where’s George. Because I like that it connects people who will likely never meet. Because though it only measures the distance, time, and condition of the bills between log ins, the experiment allows for the type of detail I embrace: wonder. Who encountered this dollar before me? What did they spend it on? Who will hold it in their palm next? How long will it be in circulation before retirement? What will its final transaction be?
Naturally, I wanted to participate in recording the life of this bill. I typed: Somewhere in San Francisco this bill came into my possession. I am about to go spend it on muesli.
Editor’s note: By the time I finished writing this post Eskin responded to my query saying, “It was just a quirky idea that popped into my head 11 years ago.” Thanks Hank! As of May 4, the Where’s George web site has more than 5,365,358 registered users and 194,949,784 bills have been added.