I need a personal panopticon


Attention data” is hot shizzle these days. Knowing where/when/on what/how long your attention is allocated online is extremely valuable. But most of the hoohah is about who you can/should/could share this data with.

I don’t care about that. I want it purely for myself. I need to audit my own attention, because I have no damn clue where my workday goes sometimes. For a freelance use-the-computer-for-everything knowledge-worker type, this is capitalistically unacceptable.

The whole Twitter-as-workstream thing isn’t working out. It’s not transparent/automated enough– either I think about it too much, and narrate my tasks so consciously that I can’t ever find “flow”… or I don’t think about it at all, and forget to document when I start/stop different tasks. I want something that’s always watching, and recording, everything I do whenever I’m using my computer.

I want a background application that automatically does the following during each workday:

  • Notes every website I visit (in chronological order), and how much time I spent there. I can set it to be fine-grained (each URL is recorded separately) or coarse (only different domains are recorded). I can also set “start” and “end” times for the monitoring, plus be able to “pause” it, say for lunch. It should also be able to automatically “pause” if no activity happens for a certain amount of time.
  • Notes every application I use (ie, bring to the front and actively use, not just have running in the background), with time spent using it.
  • Automatically aggregates/conforms the above data into highly flexible “reports” — charts, graphs, tables, all filterable by any variable (app, URL, time spent, time of day, etc)
  • Lets me add meaning by “teaching” it… EG: I can add context tags to elements in a report as “research-related”, “writing,” “watching online video,” etc. The more of this “teaching” that happens, the more these “semantic” meanings will become automated like everything else–increasing the value of the reports.
  • Takes a full screenshot at designated intervals (eg, every 30 minutes; or every time I switch apps), so I can “review the tapes” myself if I decide the captured data is missing something.
  • Has options for “sharing”; eg, if I WANT to port out some of the data in the form of a public workstream via RSS, or Twitter or whatever, I can automate that process.

That’s it. Not original or revolutionary. And there are apps out there (I think) that can take care of each, or some of these bullet points. But I haven’t heard of anything that does all of them in an integrated, flexible, frictionless way.

Why? It doesn’t seem like these are daunting technical problems (from the outside, from a non-programmer perspective). Browser histories and time-tracking apps already cover the first two; Google Analytics does the third; “smart” apps like Quicksilver, Netflix and Persai incorporate “teachable” semantic functionality; screengrab apps have timers for taking snapshots, and the ubiquity of XML and RSS makes the “sharability” thing seem simple enough. Why not mash ’em all together into one app? 

Obviously, this only makes sense for obsessive self-employed GTD types like myself. It would be a nightmare if a company or corporation had this kind of system monitoring its employees. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t exist?


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