Jeb! the quitter. Digital traces of private devotions.

As I often do, I’m going to pull away from various forms of Internet reading/engagement through Lent. This year, this brings to mind one of my favorite stray observations about digital libraries that I’ve never posted anywhere.

As part of the 2016 Republican Primary, Jeb! Bush released a website enabling exploration of e-mails related to his official accounts as governor of Florida in the early 2000s. This whole sentence has an antiquity to it; the idea of pre-emptive disclosure (in large part to contrast with his presumed general election opponent, Hilly Clinton) seems hopelessly antique. And at the time, it was critized for accidentally disclosing all sort of personal information, both stories and Social Security Numbers. It did not make Jeb! president. Anyhow, back then I downloaded Jeb!‘s e-mails–and Hillary’s–to think about what sort of stuff historians will do with these records in the future.

One thing I looked at was simply the time of day that Jeb sent letters. Looking at it on a yearly basis, it was clear that there were some odd seasonal patterns in the way that Jeb! sent his e-mails. Knowing that Jeb! was Catholic, I had a brainstorm that maybe this was aligned to the liturgical year. And so I wrote a little bit of ggplot2 code to break out the Lenten season from the rest of the year.

(My favorite part of this chart is the color scheme; these are the color of the vestments word during Lent and ordinary time. I can’t remember how I aligned dates to the liturgical calendar.)

Breaking it out, I think it’s far more likely than not that in the year 2005, Jeb! made some private devotion to get up early and answer his e-mails before 7AM. The only thing arguing against this is that he does get up a little early on Mardi Gras and the Monday before as well; but starting on Ash Wednesday, Jeb! is regularly sending over 50% of his e-mails for the day before he gets to the office.

And then it falls apart a wek or two before Easter. Could he not hold it together?

There’s also some sign that he gave the same effort a shot in 2006, but it fell apart mush earlier.

Jeb Bush’s outgoing e-mail times

It is odd to me to be able to talk in this particular way about the intersection of daily life and religious identity. One oddity, of course, is that this is yet another example of the kinds of information held inside the great data surplus at the tech companies; but honestly, the question here is so oddly stated that I can’t imagine datamining ever turning it up. Perhaps it says something about the potential for biographies in the digital age; the narcissism of the quantified self movement might look quite different directed at the quantified other. But is this kind of evidence really compatible with biography?

Anyhow, off to some e-mails of my own.

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Ben Schmidt
Director of Digital Humanities and Clinical Associate Professor History

I am a digital historian and Director of Digital Humanities at NYU.