I’m afflicted or blessed, depending on your point of view, with the quest for the meaning of life. Maybe it has to do with my moods. I’m always trying to find ways to stay productive and/or keep my head above water. Running long distances makes me happy, but for some reason I procrastinate it (I’ve also suffered some injuries). Reading fiction is good for me too.

I quit Facebook a few months ago because, though it had been a wonderful experience initially, lately it hadn’t been good for my mood or my productivity. Also, I’ve also always had a thing for privacy. As a performer, I’m keenly aware of the difference between my public and private personas, even if my audience isn’t. In my four years on Facebook, I followed the marketing wisdom of many music industry pundits who said you have to take down all the walls and be as accessible as possible to your audience. It wasn’t enough to make music. You had to share your hobbies and beliefs, cute pictures of your pets and sexy self-shots. Oh, and my humorous family had to be in on everything too. Having so many “friends” meant I was seeing a ticker-tape feed of thousands of people’s personal issues. It had become overwhelming.

Your Life: Economy Size or Premium?
Something had bothered me a year or so ago when Facebook unveiled their new timeline design. There was a graphic of a baby, and, had you provided your birthdate, it would show the date you were born. Then your life would proceed vertically, punctuated by milestones that were culled automatically from your posts. You could also input milestones of your own: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, degrees, home-ownership, travel, and so on. It’s great for individuals to catalog their lives — but should a corporation collect this data? At that moment I had an image of a boardroom filled with Facebook engineers brainstorming how to commodify the milestones of anyone’s life.

As Facebook gathers data about its users, the information (also readily available from many other sources online, to be sure, but not normalized and centralized as it is on Facebook) is ripe for data mining. The “big data” efforts underway at many retail institutions such as Target are just one example of how vast databases can be combed for past actions that predict future behaviors, like purchasing decisions. But what about bigger questions?

Could Facebook data predict who will divorce? That one’s not even that hard — often your average user can predict who will divorce based on obvious behaviors. Could it predict who will earn an above-average income? Who will commit a misdemeanor, felony or even a murder? Who is a terrorist?

Apparently, there is a branch of behavior economics that takes an actuarial approach to crime, predicting recidivism among prison inmates. This information is then used to calculate sentencing.

The idea has tempted science fiction minds for quite some time. The 2002 movie Minority Report had to do with predictive psychology. And my brother reminds me that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, first published in 1942, also hinges on psychohistory and human behavior on a massive (galaxy-sized) scale.

Mandelbrot’s Magic
We all believe that we make choices that determine our success or failure, in large part, notwithstanding the caprices of chance. Certain philosophies, such as the Law of Attraction, try to put a positive spin on every eventuality, counteracting our natural negativity bias so that we stay motivated enough to continue making effective choices and working to achieve elusive goals. But life, as we all know, is unpredictable. Even the most successful people — movie stars, moguls, inventors — travel a winding and often strange path to their vaunted position in society. Yet we persist in describing success, and life, as a more-or-less linear path, similar to that simplistic Facebook timeline, that travels from birth to death. Or we see it as a bell curve, climbing to a peak and then gently descending toward the inevitable end.

Apparently, this is the way economists like to think about financial markets — many cling to the “efficient market hypothesis,” assuming that stock purchasing is primarily driven by rational choice. I know this from reading “He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness” (New York Review of Books, May 23, 2013) about Benoit Mandelbrot, who died at 85 in 2010. Mandelbrot discovered a new form of geometry that “deepened our understanding of both natural forms and patterns of human behavior. The key to it is a simple yet elusive idea, that of self-similarity.”

Phenomena that are fractal (the term Mandelbrot coined in the late 1970s for self-similar, “broken” forms) include clouds, ferns, coastlines, blood vessels, cauliflowers and financial markets.

Benoit’s Breakthrough
Mandelbrot’s path to discovering fractals was as jagged as the phenomena he described. He jumped from university to university, across the Atlantic and back again, unable to fit in with purist mathematicians. But in scouting about for his last attempt as an “old” grad student to find a thesis, he came across Zipf’s law, which shows that word frequency has a very long tail when plotted on a graph. “This shape indicates extreme inequality: a few hundred top-ranked words do almost all the work, while the large majority languish in desuetude,” writes reviewer Jim Holt. This frequency distribution electrified Mandelbrot.

“In one of the very few clear-cut eureka moments of my life, I saw that it might be deeply linked to information theory and hence to statistical thermodynamics — and became hooked on power law distributions for life,” he wrote in his memoir. He eventually settled in happily at IBM research, where academic snubbing no longer mattered.

My eureka moment is certainly less brilliant than Mandelbrot’s, but here goes: One’s own personal life is fractal, and self-similar. Think of a single day: You wake up, having slept well or poorly, drink a delicious coffee or realize the coffee has run out. One minute you’re up, the next you’re so-so, then you’re down. The whole day is filled with jagged changes of mood, action and events. Zoom out to a week: The roughness persists. To a year: There it is, writ larger. Zoom out decades: Wow, there’s a lot of unpredictable stuff in there, zigging this way and that, just like the stock market or the branches of a tree.

Rough Guide
The book Predictably Irrational covers this in some detail, showing how many behaviors we think would be governed by rational decision-making are, scientifically speaking, not. It occurs to me that the unpredictable stuff is good. It introduces variation. We have some control, but not complete control. We can’t commodify our life’s milestones — and here’s where the Facebook model falls apart, because once it broadened past college students hooking up to study or suck face, it began to encourage comparison-shopping one’s entire spectrum of life choices.

Once it broadened past college students hooking up to study or suck face, Facebook began to encourage comparison-shopping one’s entire spectrum of life choices.

These comparisons have always been there for us to observe, of course. A friend gets married, another has a baby, another gets a record deal, and we question why we haven’t had the same luck. I don’t think Facebook is evil, and I do miss the friends who delighted me with their wit and stories. I think there’s tremendous reassurance, however, to be found in the idea that each human life story is fractal and self-similar. Indeed, new “sentiment analysis” software might find that moods reported on Facebook have fractal characteristics as well. For now, I’m done with the Facebook experience of keying in life milestones and hoping others “like” them — and that feeling extends to LinkedIn and Google+, two social networks that are replicating the Facebook modus operandi. Unlike many, I don’t think the problem is narcissism — it’s the way these platforms become all-encompassing instead of pleasant diversions.

Ultimately, the data points of our past performance aren’t predictors of our future success. There will be ups and downs, successes and failures, growth and death, birth and change. And it will all form a complex pattern, unfurling like the fronds of a fern, meandering like a coastline, evaporating like this morning’s fog.