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The age of digital improvability

Denizens of this new self-monitoring technopolis have been identified as members of a new tribe: “Datasexuals”
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First Published: Sat, Mar 30 2013. 12 13 AM IST
An explosion of intimate technologies—miniature chip sensors and smartphones—is rendering digital every experience of reality. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
An explosion of intimate technologies—miniature chip sensors and smartphones—is rendering digital every experience of reality. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
Updated: Thu, Apr 04 2013. 03 48 PM IST
We know of professional cricketers studying slow-motion video of their hook shots, tennis players poring over replays of their backhand. That kind of technologically enabled self-analysis stands to be democratized. We ordinary people now have better and better means of helping our flawed selves get more perfect: tracking personal performance data to spur us to run farther, sleep deeper, lose weight faster, take better decisions, capitalize better on our valuable time. Spreadsheets for calorie intake. Pie charts breaking down how we spend our money. Apps like Placeme offer to map our daily routes and can help determine better ones. Internet programs that alert you as to how many hours you’ve been wasting that could be better spent improving your intelligence.
It’s all happening through an explosion of intimate technologies—miniature chip sensors, smartphones capable of hoovering up and rendering digital every experience of reality, and the massive aggregating device of the cloud. Link them all together, and they are giving many of us the capacity to virtually livestream data about ourselves, and to sort it into patterns, upward and downward graphs, cycles and flatlines. The aim, ostensibly, of such self-tracking: to improve the quality of our personal lives and selves.
Denizens of this new self-monitoring technopolis have been identified as members of a new tribe: “Datasexuals”, devotees of the Quantified Self movement (yes, it exists—with chapters across the world), who come together to share their egometrics. One might think of them as Techno-Gandhians: Individuals obsessed—as Gandhi once was—with logging their own personal data, none too trivial, and with making it public, in order to spur on others and themselves to do better.
The quantification of quality is no longer an oxymoron to our ears. It’s been creeping up on us for some time (I’m sure there’s some graph somewhere that could show us its decadal progress). Now, it’s been normalized by the expansion of the digital universe, with its high promise of rendering reality into forms that are immediately comprehensible and manipulable.
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Data mine: Google Glass handsfree display technology allows users to record and share what they’re looking at.
The emergence of the Datasexual is a symptom of what Evgeny Morozov, one of the most trenchant critics of the coalescence of new technologies that we generically shorthand as “the Internet”, calls “solutionism”. It’s the belief, or ideology, that in essence, the world and our relationship to it are puzzles to be solved: That complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty and disagreement are all merely confused renditions of problems that have answers which can be discovered, whether by algorithms, networking, data mining, or crowdsourcing.
Of course, what Morozov calls “solutionism” long predates the rise of modern digital technologies. It’s been the sustaining dream of technocracy: the dream that politics—the arena of contest and compromise, debate and disagreement—can be transcended in favour of non-contentious “fixes”. What is novel now is the mutual support between this will to solve, and the availability of powerful new technological tools that appear to give us the means to fulfil it.
In the past that technocratic ambition was associated with states and government—benign know-alls who would govern in the interests of the populace. That dream has now resurfaced, in a form more attractive to a generation mistrustful of government and the state, but enamoured of their own capacity to manage their well-being.
Now, the dream of continuous self-improvement can be realized by our own actions, with our own gadgets. We can all now discover our own inner technocrat—that better self, who compiles the data, creates the databanks, and then seeks to regulate our behaviour to bring it into line with “best practice”. Like the mirror in the gym, digital tracking becomes a perpetually at-hand guide to make us self-aware of our patterns and habits—and, as with the mirror in the gym, it also lets us steal glances at the performance of others, so we can compare and improve.
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Measure living: Jawbone Up, a fitness tracking device that keeps tabs on your sleep, diet and excercise routine.
And yet. Self-quantification may be a way of making us feel unique—creating our own individual number profile. But it also turns us into a statistic, an impersonal number that can be compared with others. The accumulation of large data sets on habits and actions, the creation of ranking systems for products, services, experiences—all this gives governments and policymakers, companies and organizations, the raw material through which to shape our behaviour. New policy strategies are emerging, connecting such data with behavioural psychology: For instance, policies based on “nudging” and “gaming”—which advocate the creation of “choice architectures” that encourage people to make what are determined to be better choices (for example, in the West, to order smaller portions of sugary drinks, or choose fruit instead of chocolate as that impulse buy while waiting in checkout lines), or giving them incentives (for instance, points they can accumulate) to do certain things that are deemed in their own interest. One of the main advocates of such policies, the Chicago legal philosopher Cass Sunstein, has—in another oxymoron—labelled this approach “libertarian paternalism”. It’s an approach being embraced by other Western governments: In Britain, for instance, a behavioural insights team, attached to Downing Street, has been specifically created to devise “nudge” policies.
Such a conception of policy seems peculiarly appropriate for the Internet age, reliant as it often is on digital technologies both to make apparent patterns in large-scale collective behaviour, and to promote compliance. So, in an example Morozov cites, Google News introduced a system of awarding badges to readers on the basis of how many stories they had read about a particular topic—hoping in part to encourage people to be more avid readers of news, and to be able to display to others their developing expertise. Twitter too, with its trending updates, can be used to generate crowd pressure to behave in certain ways, to make or refuse certain choices through the pressure of “peers”.
Is this kind of paternalism really any better that the straightforward old-fashioned variety? Is it any different from the technocratic belief in knowing what’s best for the rest of us?
Now, in the face of all the array of major problems that we confront, it might seem perverse or reactionary to suggest some scepticism towards the idea that we should be harnessing the aggregating, sorting and visualizing capacities of digital technologies to address our manifold problems and challenges. No doubt there are real gains to be had. The availability of technology can, of course, instil good habits (for Gandhi, a stickler for punctuality, one of his most valued gadgets was his pocket watch).
But, even as some of us strap on our wrist trackers and our body-mass watchers, we might ask more circumspectly what such data can help us with—and try to identify more clearly those problems that could have solutions, and those activities that are intrinsically unending. Searching for better ways to educate ourselves, rule ourselves, improve our selves—these are not, can never be, technological questions with definitive answers. In one of his last essays, Sigmund Freud noted three human activities that were in his view interminable: education, government, and our quest to understand ourselves (what he termed psychoanalysis). These most basic human inquiries will always remain open-ended, resistant to solutions, impervious to the accumulation of data.
Sunil Khilnani is Avantha professor and director of the King’s India Institute at King’s College London.
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First Published: Sat, Mar 30 2013. 12 13 AM IST
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