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Mechanical Proust

Posted by Samuel Arbesman  October 12, 2010 10:09 AM

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John Horton, a graduate student in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (and a friend of mine), has created a project known as Mechanical Proust. It combines two rather different matters: the Proust Questionnnaire, designed to gain insight into an individual's personality, and Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online market where people perform simple tasks for pennies, like labeling photos, though more recently, social scientists are using it to do online experiments). Marcel Proust popularized this type of questionnaire through his answers to such questions as "Where would you like to live?" Vanity Fair's website even allows you to take a version of the questionnaire and compare your answers to those of celebrities, generally published on the back pages of their magazine.

Horton's Mechanical Proust pays individuals three cents to answer randomly chosen questions from the Proust Questionnaire, which are then posted automatically to the blog (more information here). And the result combines literature and technology to yield beautiful and heartfelt, and sometimes existentially weird, answers.

A selection:

Q. What is your favourite colour and flower?
A. Purple - and I love freesias

Q. Where would you like to live?
A. I would like to live In Rockwall Texas near the Lake.

Q. What is your favourite occupation?
A. I have drove truck, worked in a factory, counseled, been in sales, and worked on a farm. Out of all of these, my favorite occupation has been working with animals on the farm. They don't argue, talk back, try to use you to promote themselves, and they never ask for raises, vacation time, sick leave, etc.

Q. What is the natural talent you'd like to be gifted with?
A. eidetic memory

Q. What is your idea of misery?
A. Misery is the death of your child.

Q. What is your biggest accomplishment in life?
A. I would say graduating college because it took me 6 years plus I paid for it all out of my own pocket.

Q. What do you hate the most?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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