The famous (and infamous) seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes is best known for his observation, “I think, therefore I am.” In his day and age, Descartes was referring to the one thing that couldn’t be doubted–namely, the human mind’s ability to be self-reflective. Today, his dictum might more accurately be stated as “I am being tracked, therefore I am.”
While reading Christian Madsbjerg’s fascinating and thought-provoking new book, SENSEMAKING: THE POWER OF THE HUMANITIES IN THE AGE OF THE ALGORITHM, i came across a term I am surprised I haven’t seen before now: “the Quantified Self.” According to Madsbjerg, this is the condition “where adherents use devices to track and quantify aspects of their behavior,” and it “reflects a broad trend in American society toward quantification: in health care, in education, in government, in our personal lives.” Of course, this is a subset of the larger phenomenon known as “big data.” As our lives become more and more filled with devices that monitor our physical and mental states, we should take some time to examine what it means to be a “quantified self.” Of course, I am sure there is a device or an app for that. So why bother doing it yourself?
In fact, why even bother thinking about it at all? According to an oft-quoted Wired magazine article by Chris Anderson (“The End of Theory,” discussed by Madsbjerg), “There is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear.” So, we should discard “every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology.” We shouldn’t trouble ourselves with the theoretical bases of these pursuits and simply ask, “Who knows why people do what they do?” In the end, “they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity.” When all is said and done, when we amass enough data, “the numbers speak for themselves.” Big Data promises to eliminate the messiness of asking “Why?” by replacing this unproductive question with answers based on pure numbers.
Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, once stated that “Most people don’t want Google to answer their questions.” Instead, “they want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” I suppose this is the rationale behind the ever-growing family of voice-assisted devices that are at our beck and call to retrieve information about everything from the weather to the latest hit song by Ed Sheeran. The upside of all this is the creation of a world where information is immediately available. The downside is the creation of a world where we our digital assistants provide only the information we want to hear. This explains what author Eli Pariser describes as the “filter bubble”–an elaborate system that filters out unwanted information, leaving us with only the voices that agree with us. And this, of course, contributes to the state in which we currently find ourselves–the world of “post-truth” and “alternative facts.” But I digress.
Back to the quantified self. Seems like the term dates back to 2007, when Wired writer Gary Wolf and his colleague Kevin Kelly (no relation, I think) decided to host a “Quantified Self” meeting, “open to absolutely anyone who thought they were quantifying themselves.” This meeting is described in Kelly’s recent book THE INEVITABLE: UNDERSTANDING THE 12 TECHNOLOGICAL FORCES THAT WILL SHAPE OUR FUTURE. What Wolf and Kelly discovered during the course of this meeting was a group of devices that measured the participants’ “diet, fitness, sleep patterns, moods, blood factors, genes, location, and so on in quantifiable units.” With several hundred such groups in existence today and around 50,000 members, Kelly remarks, with considerable wonder, that “someone at a Quantified Self meetings has demo’d an ingenious new way to track an aspect of their life that seemed unlikely or impossible a moment before [and] what seems extreme today will soon become the new normal.” Of course, there are some things that might be downright terrifying if they become the “new normal.”
Our old friend WIKIPEDIA tells us that the QS movement is also known as “lifelogging” and “is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person’s daily life in terms of inputs (food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance, whether mental or physical. In short, quantified self is self-knowledge through self-tracking with technology.” In the expected TED talk, “The Quantified Self,” Gary Wolf speaks enthusiastically about the revolution taking place that goes far beyond us “stepping on a scale every day” into a world defined by “ubiquitous computing,” where we are all guinea pigs in a laboratory of self-absorption and obsession. He places digital devices into two broad categories–those that act as windows (allowing us to turn our gaze outward to the wider world beyond our own bodies) and mirrors (allowing us to indulge in all sorts of narcissistic fantasies). Even a partial inventory of mirror-like devices is mindboggling–Apple watches, Garmin trackers, Fitbits, Jawbones, Nike FuelBAnds, Razor Nabus, Samsung Gear Fits, Technogyms, Weight Watchers ActiveLink, Zephyr BioHarnesses, Simbands, Misfit Wearables, SleepBots, WakeMates, MyFitnessPals, QardioArm blood pressure montors, Sleepios, and uBiomes, which are described as “personal microbiomes” (whatever that might be, as if I would want to know). Something I wrote about several columns ago is the Narcissistic Personality Index that should a useful reference tool to help us better understand the bewildering world of the QS. And I’m sure there’s an App for that.
Since my daughter is preparing for her first baby in three months, I suppose our family should think about becoming a member of the “Quantified Baby” movement, a subset of the QS movement that is focused on “collecting extensive data on a baby’s daily activities, and using this data to make inferences about behavior and health.” My granddaughter will be entering a world where the quantified self is as natural as breastfeeding, and this of course presents both comforting and rather scary prospects.
Contemplate, if you will (and there probably is an App for that too) this statement from WIKIPEDIA: “For quantified self, knowledge is power, and knowledge about oneself easily translates as a tool for self-improvement.” And self-improvement is what it’s all about, isn’t it? After all, we are never good enough, and can always benefit from more tracking. Stop thinking and stare at the numbers. After all, Descartes seems so seventeenth century, doesn’t he?
And what does all this mean for the future of “Kelly’s Place”? Could it be that in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to receive a read-out of how many words all my readers are reading each week? Needless to say, I won’t be able to know what my reading are thinking, but who needs that when I can have a word count? Anyone in the market for KellyTrac?
See you next week with another unquantified column.