The unexamined life, they say, is not worth living. And soon the unexamined life may be impossible in the era of Google Glass and sensor-embedded wearable devices. As I’ve blogged here before, we are being cast headlong into an ‘age of context’ – the blogger Robert Scoble’s phrase – where sensor technology will be able to generate data on every physical object, animate or inanimate, in the ‘Internet of Things’.
For Chris Dancy, an executive at BMC Software with a Scoble-like passion for tech, the chance to plug himself into this network is an unrivalled opportunity. He has covered himself in all manner of gadgets to monitor his movement, heart rate, perspiration, sleep rhythms and so on – not to mention every micro-event in his Google calendar – in the belief it can guide him to greater efficiency. By measuring everything, he wants to identify when he is sharpest and most productive – and build that into his work habits.
Dancy says: ‘People in first world nations don’t really do much for work. We spend all of our day in our inboxes in some sort of office suite. We don’t produce anything.
‘I think if we could actually quantify the actual work we do, like how much time do you spend in all these other systems, we could create new patterns and workflow that could reinvigorate the economy.’
He says the ability to ‘search your life’ is profoundly powerful, adding: ‘I call it perspective as a service.’ The opportunities are huge, he believes. ‘Facebook, for example, doesn’t let you have access to all the data they have on you. I think we’re going to start to pivot away from data collection to data empowerment.’
Dancy makes the important point that control over our own data will be central to how we operate in the age of context. Efficiency is one thing – but who owns the information that is being fed back to Dancy through all of these monitors? And where does privacy begin and end? And how much power will we have to yield to systems of authority to help police this internet of things? These are questions we need to keep asking those who drive our technology.
Another fan of personal quantification is Nicholas Felton, a product designer at Facebook who has set about visualising data about himself using an iPhone app that constantly prompts him for information. He plotted the data into a series of beautiful annual reports that are fascinating to explore. The events of human life conceived into a new aesthetic – and with implications for the news media industry as it moves into data descriptions to complement its prose reports.
I recently dipped a toe into this age of context by enabling the sensors in my iPhone to track my movements around town, and I confess, I’m loving being able to measure the efficiencies of which route I cycle to work and when.
Next stop, while we wait for Google Glass to land, it might be fun to bring photographs into the picture with Memoto, a gadget that takes a photograph every 30 seconds and arranges them into a pretty, searchable app. To what end?
Martin Kallstrom, one of the Swedes behind Memoto, says it can change our lives by giving us a ‘photographic memory’. A scroll through the images will situate you in a time and place, and add texture to the ‘quantification of the self’.
The public appetite for these capabilities is strong. Memoto’s Kickstarter campaign raised its target of $50,000 in just six days, and eventually raised $550,000 from more that 2,000 people. Another 2,000 people have ordered its cameras through its website, making over 4,000 people who dream of documenting their lives to that degree. From September, expect to see a lot more people with a little square clipped to their collar – and if you don’t want to be photographed, you’ll have to ask them to move on, or move on yourself.
The unexamined life? Sometimes it doesn’t look too bad.