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Home > Focus > The Self At Your Wrist - 2/3

The Self At Your Wrist - 2/3

by Fabio Besti [1], 27 April 2015

(...continues from the previous entry [2]).


Certainly, technology should aim at increasing human abilities. Same as the first tools in the prehistory helped man physical capacity, the new technologies of today offer the opportunity of increasing our physical and mental capabilities.

All of this seems obvious and, moreover, desirable, but it should be noticed that if the very earliest tools [3] were only enhancing the body with brand new functional skills, such as the cutting ability, digital augmentations of today seem to always have corresponding side effects.

choppers earliest tools
Examples of a "chopper", known as one of the earliest tools (if not the earliest). Image credit: "Pierre taillée Melka Kunture Éthiopie fond" by Didier Descouens -- Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons [4]

The problem of adverse effects of technological innovations is huge. Treating it in adequate manner would require first of all more space, and secondly, a different background on my part. However, I will try to address this question by pinpointing some basic problems and hoping to entice the readers to continue the discussion.

To do this, I will propose an example, which is (hopefully) eloquent even if lacking scientific depth.

In 2010, an active member of Quantified Self [5] group suddenly decided to abandon the activity of self tracking.

It is very possible that many others preferred to devote their time to new and perhaps more exciting activities than self-tracking, but Alexandra Carmichael [6]'s case stands out because she wrote a poem on this occasion and has published it on QS website [7].

Even if the poetic value is rather questionable, her words describe impeccably the issues related to measuring life through data.

Here the link to the orginal post: http://quantifiedself.com/2010/04/why-i-stopped-tracking/

Yes, I did it...

After 40 measurements a day for 1.5 years

I. Stopped. Tracking.

What [people] didn't see was

The self-punishment

The fear

The hatred behind tracking

...Each day my self-worth was tied to the data

One pound heavier?

You're fat.

2 grams of fat ingested?

You're out of control.

Skipped a day of running?

You're lazy.

Even though there are an incredible amount of expectations, we are still in a primitive stage and we can probably consider the use of wearables as a phenomenon still circumscribed to early adopters, sometimes accustomed to an eccentric or at times extreme use of technology.

But what will happen when devices able to quantify our human experience reach a global dissemination? Will people wear a smartwatch on their wrist able to tell them how much they are worth? Certainly, there are technical prerequisites for this to happen. Rather, the point is how people will interpret this information.

Suffice it to say that the much-awaited Apple Watch will have a sensor for movement, a sensor for heartbeat, and a GPS (the one in the iPhone). Try to imagine the infinite possibilities of measuring these three components mixed together, and you will find thousands of new possible applications (understood as apps, but also as contexts or situations of use). We could be wearing a bracelet which would tell us how much physical activity we do (such as those already in the market), but also measure the depth of our emotions and even where, how, when and with whom they arise...

Extremely personal and subjective things which until now were inside us, analyzed only by that peculiar instrument called human self-consciousness, now can be quantified and seen outside of us, on devices we carry with or on us.

In the broadest, but undeniable sense, these tools will become the external and increased extensions of our consciousness, in a process of externalization totally in line with the Leroi-Gourhan theory [8] on human tendency to externalize body functions which first resided inside.

Anthropologically, man came a long way learning to externalize memory through culture and literature, freeing up resources for new activities and skills. What will happen if we start to externalize part of the elements defining us: our self-consciousness, our own Self? How will this change our self-perception, and our identity? Or as Alexandra Carmichael was asking: where will our instinct end up and where will we find reference for our self-esteem?

As this technological scenario begins to blossom, the discourse on responsibility is increasingly urgent and necessary, although it seems to arrive terribly late due to the speed of innovation. However, before diving into this theme, it might be useful to shed some light on one last controversial point which, at the same time, may hide tremendous potential in this future in which the boundary between biological and technological will slowly fade away.


Technical possibilities have forced us until now to see the electronic products as screens to look at, windows to another reality, or as objects communicating with us, by showing us something. With the birth of television, our visual pathways have been exponentially bombarded forcing us to be concerned about effects such as information and cognitive overload [9].

The theme of visualization remains central even in relation with Quantified Self and revolves around one question: how to display and thus make useful body measurements? More than ever before, disciplines such as data visualization are gaining tremendous attention and the success of wearables are totally dependent on the quality of mobile applications that accompany them. However, this brings us back to the same problem mentioned before, namely that of an information overload which already makes life accompanied by "full screen" cellulars unhealthily full of persistent and harmful distractions.

Nevertheless, today's technology is no longer just in front of us as before, but begins to come in contact with our skin. This paradigm shift opens up new and unprecedented interaction possibilities, which will forever change the concept of interface.

Through Jawbone Exo Ecosystem [10] project, I tried to emphasize how the human body provides a great deal of communication channels through its sensory system. In many cases, these alternative channels may even be far more accurate than the already overloaded visual pathways.

Currently, even if accurate, they are very little used.

Jawbone Exo Ecosystem

The products designed for EXO Ecosystem, project developed inside "The Augmented Body" a Master of Science thesis at Politecnico di Milano. Done in collaboration with Jawbone in 2013. You can find a brief presentation of the project on my website [11] and a longer one on Behance [12].

In fact, Apple realized the potential and integrated a small haptic actuator into its watch, which, for example, allows the wearers to feel on their wrist the heartbeat of another person, or to receive driving directions through small vibrations. (Back in 2013 in the Exo Ecosystem project, I called this feature Sense GPS).

EXO Apps

The applications designed for the Jawbone EXO Ecosystem. Details of the project in image's caption above.

These new possibilities for interaction are still mainly unexplored, but even in this scenario, the issue of responsibility remains crucial.

(continues> read part 3)


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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Fabio Besti
  2. 2] /en/focus/2015/04/the_self_at_your_wrist.html
  3. 3] http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chopper_%28utensile%29
  4. 4] http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pierre_taill%C3%A9e_Melka_Kunture_%C3%89thiopie_fond.jpg#/media/File:Pierre_taill%C3%A9e_Melka_Kunture_%C3%89thiopie_fond.jpg
  5. 5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantified_Self
  6. 6] https://twitter.com/accarmichael
  7. 7] http://quantifiedself.com/2010/04/why-i-stopped-tracking/
  8. 8] http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antropologia_delle_tecniche#Gesto_tecnico_e_ominazione
  9. 9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_overload
  10. 10] http://bit.ly/1vsDH7l
  11. 11] http://www.fabiobesti.com/jawbone-exo-ecosystem/
  12. 12] https://www.behance.net/gallery/17276685/JAWBONE-EXO-Ecosystem
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The Self At Your Wrist - 2/3
Articles by:  Fabio Besti
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