London, 1854. With no water or sewage systems, the city was poisoning itself in a cholera epidemic. Thousands dead. Drawing on open source medical data, John Snow mapped the cholera deaths, proving that the disease was not caused by “foul air” (the wacky established medical theory at the time). 160 years later and analyzing aggregate data is still seen as one of the most effective methodologies for solving problems.
With metrics and data being captured by censors in practically everything, we can now track almost every aspect of our lives, from nutrition to fitness, interests to habits, and sleep to sex. Rather than just being random qualitative life forms, we can now see ourselves as patterns and algorithmic cascades of data. This self-organization is helping us optimize the world we live in. We are quickly evolving into what is being referred to as the Quantified Self Revolution. To some, it is considered an evolutionary upgrade: Humans 2.0.
Each year brings a slew of services that collect personal data (smartwatches, smartglasses, smartwear, messaging MMS, smartphone pics, social networks, apps, email, etc.). Combined with personalized applications, your life can essentially be predicted through your smartphone. These tracking apps allow us to better understand our behavior, putting us in a better position to improve it.
By being able to completely map our daily life, minute by minute, frame by frame, the idea is that this helps us see something new that we couldn’t easily see ourselves (like 1854 London’s backwards “bad air” medical theory). This is a service that Lift, Personal Sleep Coach, RunKeeper, Klout, the bowel movement tracker, and thousands of others seek to provide. Sleep Coach, FitBit, and the Livestrong App allow you to record daily eating and fitness habits so you can determine what needs to be modified in order to achieve a goal. You can even improve your physiology with bio apps: Inside Tracker, for example, offers blood testing and suggests diet alterations to “optimize” specific blood biomarkers. In the bedroom, Spreadsheets quantifies your “busy time” over several months allowing you to draw insights and set goals. Tic Trac is a one stop shop for customizable tracking for just about any aspect of your life.
One advantage with self-quantification is that it allows companies to better understand our behavior. When successful, they can (theoretically) serve us better. Take Google Now, a Google app that analyzes your current location and past behavior (purchases, locations, interests, social posts, Facebook likes, etc.) to predict what information you want, making the search more convenient. “In the future, you become the future.” You’ll be Googling yourself, in a manner of speaking. Pizza Hut’s subconscious menu chooser uses a similar method to automatically choose your favorite pizza toppings among thousands of options before you can even blink.
The potential for medicine is clear: medical monitoring devices like SCOUT read your vitals and store them in an app. You can analyze the data immediately on the web and get real time diagnoses. Nanobots inserted in the blood stream can sense tumors, cancer cells, and even pregnancy. In a broader sense, the medical data that people upload anonymously can be used to detect infection outbreaks. The CDC or WHO can literally monitor the pulse of the planet. Google says it’s already able to predict flu outbreaks based on its analysis of search terms in specific areas. As long as the data is used for elevated purposes, we can extend and save lives.
If we are, as Mayer put it, the new “search term,” we might consider that some aspects of our lives may be better left without a track record. Some movements we really shouldn’t share with others, not even our future selves.