The Rise of Homo Auxilium?

Jan 31, 2014 | Updated Apr 02, 2014

If anything defines the age that we live in today, it's our addiction to data. From real-time analytics on the movements of our assets traded in stock exchanges, to the metadata religiously acquired by the NSA, to even building the perfect baseball team a la Moneyball, we crave information. With the mainstream momentum of wearable technology like the Pebble smartwatch, Google Glass, and wristbands from FitBit, Jawbone, and Nike, 2014 could very well be the year of the "quantified self" -- turning this addiction inward, and finally towards ourselves.

Started in 2007 by two editors at Wired magazine, the quantified self movement (QS) bills itself as the marriage of technology to self-improvement -- necessitating active self-tracking with wearable sensors, down to the day, the hour, and even the minute. According to its followers, the ubiquitous personal trivia in our lives, such as the amount of caffeine we consume or our blood oxygen levels, could piece together into a much grander picture, from which patterns could be sought and progression could be made. In an editorial three years later, Gary Wolf (one of the founders) wrote that "numbers have won fair and square" in our governments and in the office. Then logically, isn't it time to embrace these quantifications "infiltrating the last redoubts of the personal"? I'm not so sure.

For now, I'm not interested in wearing a FitBit wristband -- not because it's ugly, or because it somehow wouldn't make me healthier or more aware of what is and what isn't good for me, but rather because it would leave me somewhat confused with what to do with all of this information. Being left to interpret my different metrics sent wirelessly to the cloud, with only canned suggestions and a nonexistent background in statistics to guide my decisions, feels uneasy. Considering QS at its current state, I sincerely believe that beginning to interpret this data as citizen-scientists, beyond the role of consumers, is downright dangerous. Even the FDA formally shut down the primary operations of biotech startup 23andMe, attempting to not only conduct "health reports on 254 diseases and conditions" from personalized genome sequencing, but also suggesting specific medications for prevention based on admittedly spotty technology. Like them, I also fear that our addiction just might push us over the slippery slope of big data already starting to dominate our lives. Here's why.

As citizen-scientists, I imagine we would attempt to walk the same path as the "life-loggers" of our past -- the cave painters of Lascaux, the diary-keepers of Victorian England, and even the great Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Chronofile of photographs and newspaper clippings, that quite literally fills a library dedicated to his documented life. Though from a distance, QS appears to be a natural extension of a timeless human curiosity, we forget that our chronicling in the past has been subjective and even private -- with the ability to polish up a memory on Instagram before sending it out to a world of exactly 813 friends and thousands of distantly connected strangers.

Quantification would then objectify us all, for better or worse. Perhaps encouraging LED messages and successes in "self-body experiments", like relating a focus index to a choice of beverage would be a good thing; or maybe our data, and subsequently our motivations, would be left "inconclusive." Society would continue to skip down a yellow brick road of efficiency and self-improvement, while you and I might be left paranoid and distraught in a Darwinian-like natural selection, wondering why we can't gain as much muscle or lose as much weight or score a higher mood index. That's a frightening thought.

In the name of data addiction, the QS movement could add another dimension to the inner struggle that governs each and every human -- of superiority and inadequacy, confidence and insecurity. The technology around us today already defines so much of our identities -- our ringtones, wallpapers and choice of browser now say as much about ourselves as a love for Gregorian chants or pineapple pizza -- and with a "data-driven" quality, our lives could realistically merge with our gadget companions. One day, maybe men and women-like humans will understand social cues from the different colors emitted from a mood wristband, and hold inner instincts replaced with quantified algorithms that command -- instead of suggest -- the distance of a morning run, daily caloric consumptions, and careers that stem from genetic predispositions instead of free will. The philosophes of Silicon Valley call this the post-human -- I call it "homo auxilium". The aided man.

The quantified self holds an astounding potential to tackle humanity's problems, but let's not forget about humanity itself. Innovations like fitness trackers and personalized education technologies have the power to conquer obesity and disrupt the way we collectively learn, but can also create a society incapable of enjoying life itself without technological appendages. A quantification of life, without the inner discourse of data that happens within a business or government, can very well create bodily vessels that we "murder to dissect", in the words of the great English poet William Wordsworth. We all know that numbers have the odd knack of sometimes leaving out what we remember most about moments, like the air on a cold and still night, or the last words of a good book. Making you think differently about the world.

Yet, we stick by them fatefully, defining ourselves in recent memory through test scores, IQs, take-home salaries and hometown zip codes. As I write this blogpost today, with pen and paper after my hard drive failed (quite fittingly), feeling the fervor of words and scratching away phrases with ink, I find myself not ready to live the "data-driven life" just yet.