the Quantified Self

A recent article in the Times opened my eyes to a growing movement- the "data-driven life." There are many dedicated "self-trackers" out there now, who are taking advantage of increasingly small, light, and affordable technology (or simply just know-how sometimes) to diligently track various aspects of their lives. Think of this as keeping a journal on steroids. Keep track of your workouts? Why not write an app that lets you chart every aspect of your progress, where a heartrate/CO2 monitor as well, and correlate the data over months at time, while comparing it to the calorie counting data you have kept- all in order to gaze in what many are considering the most accurate mirror possible.
These sorts of specialized projects--tracking one's sleep, diet, concentration, coffee intake, flaxseed-influenced cognitive performance, etc.--point to an exciting, but possibly terrifying, trend in how to approach the famous Delphic dictum- "Know thyself." For so long, self-knowledge has been conceived as a sort of primitive access one has to one's own mental life. 'Insight', 'intuition', 'reflection', 'introspection', and 'meditation' have variously described this sort of privileged access. But why not approach self-knowledge scientifically? Something about these projects strike me as very true. They show how 'technology' is not a concept whose extension is limited to human artifacts. Technological artifacts embody a way of thinking- the technological mode of thought. This way of thinking is arguably the distinctively human mode of thought, insofar as humans are unique in their technological mastery over nature. A tool based approach to ourselves may be what allows evolution to continue beyond 'human'- to what we can now only label as 'post-human'. The inadequacy of this label resides in the fact that its meaning is purely dependent on what 'human' means in the first place. But what "post-humanists" have been postulating, roughly, is that technology will enable us to overcome our material bodies, and exist in a "nous[mind]-sphere" of pure consciousness. The Cartesian dream may have in fact been the offspring of the more primal human desire to overcome the so obviously imperfect, transitory sphere of nature and dwell in the eternal, perfect realm of pure spirit. Heck, maybe it all goes back to Plato afterall. Regardless, much of phenomenology and post-WWII european thought has been focused on Descartes' error to separate mind and body, and the pathologies it has bequeathed to Western culture. The later Husserl, Heidegger, and especially Merleau-Ponty have taught us that consciousness is fundamentally embodied, and that to separate our lived-bodily awareness from a higher sphere of consciousness is a mistake. We are insofar as we are in the world, you might say. Again, to be rough, this tradition has developed a suspicion of technology, aware of its artifacts as indicating a mode of thought- a mode of thought that leads to dehumanization, most evident in the wars of the 20th century, Auschwitz as their mechanized culmination. One of the purported reasons Heidegger grew dissatisfied with the Nazi party is that he recognized their overly technological form of domination as inauthentic.
I, for one, see both of these outlooks on technology--as the promise of overcoming our feeble condition, and as the promise of coldly slaughtering our fellow man--as excess and deficiency. We must avoid the excessive optimism of the 'post-humanists' who blindly praise every advance in technology as "progress". Yet the utter skepticism and cynicism regarding technology from the opposite pole is also guilty of blind generalization. Technology is not monolithic. An honest evaluation of technology is one that recognizes various technologies. Don Ihde is a notable exception to the vicious trend in the history of the philosophy of technology. Ihde recognizes that the various sense modalities create vastly different kinds of technology--all allowing for humans to extend their knowledge of nature in vastly divergent directions. A mature view of technology recognizes self-tracking and the data driven life as valiant efforts at self-knowledge. Ones that must be tempered with constant reminders that the data is merely one aspect--one of many that makes us human.

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