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Guest Thinkers

Extreme Introspection

We’ve always had a strange fascination with watching ourselves. Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray famously agonized over the reflection of a hedonist life on his portrait, which aged and suffered at each step. Many of us also yearn for a portrait like that, one which obsessively and mercilessly documents our changing biology—physical, mental, and emotional. Thanks to a plethora of new gadgets and websites, you can now succumb to your desire for extreme introspection, recording everything from how long you slept, to your mood at any given moment, to even the last time you “got busy.”

Around the age of puberty, most young girls get swept into the trend of self-quantification: they begin to measure calories. In fact, they measure many things: their weight, their exercise routine, the width of their waist, their dress size…the list goes on. Weight Watchers brilliantly devised the points system, where each food was deemed equivalent to some number of points, and thus perfectly catered to this desire to quantify in order to observe and control one’s biology.

Athletes are also used to this kind of competitive inner scrutiny. Runners, for instance, are constantly keeping track of how long it takes them to run x number of miles. With the Nike+ shoe, tracking became absolutely effortless: the shoe tracked your time for you. Embedded with a tiny sensor, the shoe not only measures the time and distance of your run, it also sends it to your email, and your Facebook and Twitter status. The Nike+ accompanying website lets you log and compare your times to other runners. Nike reports that the shoe has been used by over 2.5 million runners since it was released in 2006: it was literally a runaway success.

Now imagine if your bracelet could measure your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels; your sunglasses meticulously noted your alertness as you drove; and your pillow kept watch over how soundly you slept. These are just some examples of how automated quantification of every single aspect of your biology is going to be documented, organized, and available for you (and if you want, for everyone else as well) to view.  Great tools that are already available include FitBit and DirectLife, with many more listed on the Mecca of information for introspectigators:

Why would you want to keep track of so many things? As Gary Wolfe (co-founder of QuantifiedSelf) discovered while researching his excellent article for the New York Times, the unsatisfactory answer is often: why not? It’s free. It’s probably going to be useful for something someday. The fact is that there is more than a grain of truth in that. Physicians constantly complain that they are limited in their diagnosis because they don’t have a complete picture of the patients’ history and habits.  At sites like CureTogether and PatientsLikeMe, patients meticulously record all their symptoms and experiences with medications, and share it with each other or just take a printout to their doctor. By visualizing and viewing information about your habits over a period of time, you can adjust your behavior to one that optimizes your mood or your productivity. This is exactly the kind of promise that is propelling the spread of self-quantification like wildfire amongst the digerati.

Perhaps the strange thing about extreme introspection is not that we humans have a natural curiosity to try to understand ourselves, but that we seem to have no qualms about broadcasting it at high volume. Many of the listed sites have the option to keep one’s data private, yet surprisingly most people willingly and happily sign away that right. Introspection has traditionally been associated with a quiet and shy demeanor; that association will now have to be updated to loud and gregarious. 

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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