My problem with your feelings

Contemplate the concept of a number. It is a representation of reality. It is reality made sound or symbol. Ever thought how absurd a negative number such as -2 is ? Can it be represented in reality ? -2 pineapples ? Impossible.  The number represents two missing fruits but it cannot be represented in reality. The representation is uni-directional. How is representing -2 different from representing -3 pineapples ? It isn't. I would have to show you the same empty space where previously lied 2 or 3 pineapples. Numbers are a tough abstraction of very physical things.

Now your feelings. You might think they're floating intangible things. They're not. Love, greed, lust, fear ... Each feeling has a physical equivalent. Each of your feelings is synonymous with a given physical state, more specifically, each will activate a given part, or several given parts, of your brain. Your feelings are very 'tangible'. Think of them as muscles you can train. Seriously. Read this excerpt of a paper on Primal Leadership :

Studies on the brain affirm the benefits of Tom’s visualization technique: Imagining something in vivid detail can fire the same brain cells actually involved in doing that activity. The new brain circuitry appears to go through its paces, strengthening connections, even when we merely repeat the sequence in our minds. So to alleviate the fears associated with trying out riskier ways of leading, we should first visualize some likely scenarios. Doing so will make us feel less awkward when we actually put the new skills into practice.

So think of that guy / gal you despise. Imagine yourself standing in front of him / her and imagine yourself smiling to him / her and feeling love towards him /her. Do it several times. The day you'll meet him / her, you'll be able to mobilize this positive feeling more easily. Your feelings are very physical.

Numbers = abstraction of physical things. Feelings = physical. So, normally, I should be able to quantify your feelings. Hourray ? Nope. My problem with your feelings is that you express them. Joking. Not really. When you tweet or write a Facebook status and do express your feelings about something, you use words most frequently. Words are yet another representation. So when I want to analyze your feelings using Web data (which what Nanoeconomics is all about), I need to analyze words (potential problem #1), allocate them to feelings (potential problem #2), then count them and re-analyze them with indicators (potential problem #3). So it's a representation twice removed. James Gleick writes about something similar in "The Information":

Paleolithic people began at least 30,000 years ago to scratch and paint shapes that recalled to the eye images of horses, fishes, and hunters. These signs in clay and on cave walls served purposes of art or magic, and historians are loath to call them writing, but they began the recording ofmental states in external media. In another way, knots in cords and notches in sticks served as aids to memory. These could be carried as messages. Marks in pottery and masonry could signify ownership. Marks, images, pictographs, petroglyphs—as these forms grew stylized,conventional, and thus increasingly abstract, they approached what we understand as writing, but one more transition was crucial, from the representation of things to the representation of spoken language: that is, representation twice removed. There is a progression from pictographic,writing the picture; to ideographic, writing the idea; and then logographic, writing the word.

So when we analyze sentiment using Web semantics, we are not facing "pure" information but rather "noisy" information. Impure and corrupted. Representation does that. So imagine the effect of several representations.

Cool. Thanks. But why am I reading this ? Well because feelings are the coming "bug" in the tech and economic realms. On three levels:

  1. A nationwide scale : Everybody's complaining today about how mis-representative of well-being the GDP is. Indicators are flowering to promote the survey of populations' feelings. Feelings. For it is thought, and rightly so actually, that this might be the best way to evaluate policies' effectiveness. Not economic value creation but rather well-being creation. We need to quantify feelings.
  2. A enterprise scale : At company level today, for brands that are actually interested by that aspect, there is an overflow of social data coming their way. Tweets that mention them, blogs criticizing their products, rankings on price comparators, opinions on online retailers' websites. Considering the mass of data, automation looks like a viable solution and feelings soon get translated into numbers. Hence the current obsession with a social media ROI. We need to quantify feelings.
  3. A personal scale : Brace yourselves for this one. A big hack is underway. At the human scale, communities everywhere are sharing experiences, learning from each other, setting best practices to : enhance their bodies, their sex life, their dating life, their social skills, their IQ, their lifespan, their ... Do I go on ? You've heard about the "Quantified Self" movement. Initially a sub-set of the body-hacking community, it will soon span out to embrace ... yes, the rest of the human dimensions. Including feelings. The next hack, the ultimate hack I guess, is of one that would tackle the very management of feelings. And for that you need measurements. We need to quantify feelings.
Summary ? We need to quantify feelings ! Now ! But we can't. Not well enough. Not until we succeed in hiding a sensor in your smartphone to track brain waves :) Joking. Really. Truth is : the solution is not quantification. It's rather a de-quantification. Something completely different. An evolution in how we perceive indicators.
  • Enterprise level : Yesterday at Ignite Paris 13, Damien Douani talked about ROA (Return on Attention), about ROE (Return on Engagement) and about ROO (Return on Objective). His talk shows how ROI is incompatible with social media. Social Media doesn't yield quantifiable stuff. It yields human reactions and feelings. Quantify that ! Well, Damien explains, since you can't you need to locate which other numbers Social Media will affect. For example : Collaboration on Social Network creates self-help groups and online forums eliminate the need of some consumers to call the call center. Hence, a drop in calls indicates social media's positive yield.
  • Nationwide scale : You can measure the number of visits to museums and movies to see if people's well-being is improving.
  • Personal scale : I wish I knew a cheaper alternative than MRI to track brain activity and act upon that information to enhance feeling management. Till then, you can use your memory ... your brain :)
In conclusion, we've been thinking that the flood of information must be countered by a flood of indicators, numbers that will represent them and hence reduce their dimension and volume. The thing is the quantity is not the only problem. The flooding information is also of a different nature. It's a quality issue. Truth is it's the most interesting kind of information we've yet had to deal with. What I'm saying is : I care about your feelings :)