Ghosts of Data Past

father and daughter using laptop computer
father and daughter using laptop computer

My father died in 2002. He was a modern man, who embraced technology. He bought our first family computer, the Sinclair ZX81, in the early 1980s, on which I learned to code.

In many ways, that inspired me to build a career in technology and entrepreneurship. And this is where I find myself today, having started Dash Labs, with my co-founder, Brian Langel, and building a connected car company which is trying to use data and smart technology to make the roads smarter, greener and more affordable for everyone.

This past weekend, I drove up from New York City, to visit Legoland with my young kids. I used the trip as an excuse to test the technology my company is building. It was a beautiful, sunny day. Yet, as we pulled away north of Manhattan, I felt a pang of sadness. I had spotted a road sign for the Saw Mill Parkway and it triggered a little cloud of nostalgia in me.

You see, I lived here in the 1970s, when my father was around the age I am now, and I was the age my kids are today. Every weekend, we would head upstate, to a cottage on a horse farm in Pawling, N.Y. As I recalled those golden, bucolic memories of childhood, it got me thinking to whether this was the road we had driven, all those decades ago. The melancholy I felt was knowing I'd never find out.

My father was gone and I couldn't ask him.

And while I know he liked listening to the Rolling Stones on the record player, I wondered what other music he'd enjoyed. I remembered he'd take me for ice cream at a plaza with a waterfall near his office at the UN, but I don't know where it is. And that playground in Central Park? I can picture being at the swing with him, but I have no photo.

Had he been alive today, I could have seen what he listened to on Spotify. I could have found that waterfall on his Foursquare. He would have used the beautiful new app, Days, to photo-log fun with his children in the playground. Or reminisced himself, using TimeHop.

Instead, I just have fading memories, or ghosts of data past.

Too often, our generation is criticized for having our heads buried in our phones, checking in, messaging, photo-snapping. While that behavior can be taken to extremes, what we are leaving -- collectively, in our quotidian, often mindless behavior -- is a treasure trove of data on our times.

Forget the marketing opportunity of how targeted data enables better advertising campaigns or monetization.

I'm talking about a virtual Rosetta Stone, one that translates the data history of our times. One that will enable future generations of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers and story-tellers to better understand our place in the world.

Perhaps the finest example of the data form of storytelling is Nicholas Felton's personal annual reports (if you haven't seen them, check them out on Looking for more? Dig into Gabriel Tarde or Stephen Wolfram's work in this space.

Professor Mark Hansen, a statistician at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, has spent his career at the intersection of data and storytelling. He worked with me on R&D projects at HBO and spent time as the professor-in-residence at the New York Times.

In Hansen's words,

People tend to think of data as the tight, technical stuff of specialists. But data (is) human. Without human effort, observation and memory there are no data. Data can be powerfully expressive, even poetic, descriptors of who we are and how we live. But they are, inevitably, incomplete. I am not sure that future generations will feel any less melancholy when they discover that gap between data and lived experience.

Imagine if we had answers to questions, such as: What did Caesar eat? Where did Shakespeare sleep? What was Anne Frank's life like before she was bound to the attic?

To quote the line from Blade Runner, "All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."

Before we write off the frivolity of our generation's obsession with logging the seemingly asinine details of our daily lives, think about how these data-sets will collectively furnish us with a deep, rich, multimedia-saturated insight into our lives. It allows us, to a degree, to cheat death. Before the tide washes away our footprints.

We are unwittingly writing the autobiography of humanity. And it may be the most enduring legacy of our generation.

For my children, I know that they will never have to ask about their father, "Who was he, where did he travel, what did he like doing?" And they will never need to ask how I cherished the moments I spend with them -- they are forever captured in the data stream that follows us, through the fabric of our lives.