WEARABLE TECHNOLOGIES, SELF-PERCEPTION AND IDENTITY AT THE THRESHOLD OF A NEW QUANTIFIED EXISTENCE.
“We have one more thing to cover…”
Screaming voices and enthusiast applauses are filling Flint Center for the Performing Arts auditorium in Cupertino, California.
“I’m so excited and so proud to share with you this morning the next chapter in Apple’s history.”
Music with obsessive rhythm is playing in the background. Alternating flashes of light and shadows projected on the screens are suggesting glittering materials. The camera is slowly uncovering rotating rings and metallic meshes sinuously moving and intersecting each other. We are in Silicon Valley, assisting to one of the latest Apple events. Tim Cook has just unveiled the most recent jewel launched by the US giant, the Apple Watch.
This event is much more than the newest promotional gimmick in the technological world. Actually, the most influential brand of consumer electronics is about to announce the latest major paradigm shift in human-computing interaction.
Evolving from static to portable, from portable to mobile, from mobile to wearable, technology takes another step in its tireless approach to the human body.
Anyone who thinks that this is just a simple evolution due to hardware miniaturization is guilty of oversimplification.
Certainly, the interaction between the human body and electronics is a process that started at a distant point in time, but the most interesting step from a social and anthropological standpoint had its beginning in 2008, in a basement in California, at Kevin Kelly‘s home, the co-founder and former Executive Editor of Wired.
THE QUANTIFIED SELF MOVEMENT
“Self knowledge through numbers” says the slogan.
It promotes self-knowledge through data by organizing meetings, conferences, blogs and forums, and is a global meeting point for enthusiasts, inventors, or just those interested in the so-called self tracking and the tools that support it.
Gary Wolf (on the left), the Quantified Self co-founder speaks at the 2011 QS Europe Conference in Amsterdam. Image credits Henk-Jan Winkeldermaat, on Flickr.
In a post of 2011 Gary Wolf explained:
“In 2007 we began looking at some new practices that seemed, loosely, to belong together: life logging, personal genomics, location tracking, biometrics. These new tools were being developed for many different reasons, but all of them had something in common: they added a computational dimension to ordinary existence. Some of this was coming from “outside,” as marketers and planners tried to find new ways to understand and influence us. But some of it was coming from “inside” as our friends and acquaintances tried to learn new things about themselves. We saw a parallel to the way computers, originally developed to serve military and corporate requirements, became a tool of communication. Could something similar happen with personal data?”
Its founders agree that this movement has developed in an unexpected way, and that suddenly this new opportunity of capturing data about people and their behavior emerged.
Earlier tracking was very low tech and done entirely by the person. At that stage, computers were being use only for storing data “manually” entered. As technology advanced, were gradually developed the tools for automatically collecting such data.
“[ … ] One day Kevin issued an open invitation for people who shared our interests to come to what we called a ‘Show & Tell’ at his studio. We created a Quantified Self group on MeetUp and did no other publicity. Thirty people came. Many had projects that were absolutely fascinating. The depth of knowledge and the intensity of curiosity was mind blowing. Suddenly we understood what we were doing in a new way. We were making a users group.”
“[ …] Users groups, when they succeed, are wonderful things; informal but deeply engaged learning communities operating outside the normal channels of academic and commercial authority. Here at the Quantified Self, we want to know what these new tools of self-tracking are good for, and we want to create an environment where this question can be explored on a human level.” (quantifiedself.com)
WEARABLE TECHNOLOGIES, TRACKING AND DIGITAL HEALTH.
Back in 2008, in the early days of the movement, the only devices available on the “Quantified” market were produced by Nike within Nike+ platform, which was designed by the brilliant mind of the Italian-born Roberto Tagliabue.
Over time, QS continued to grow (see Google Trends) in close relation with the development of new wearable “quantifying” technologies such as the famous FitBit, whose first version dates back to 2008, or the first Jawbone UP of 2011, followed in 2012 by the third activity tracker, the famous, now discontinued Nike Fuelband.
A visit at the specialized wearable technology, Amazon store reveals a myriad of such gadgets.
Certainly, the most common are the so-called activity trackers, incorporating a simple accelerometer (the sensor built in the smartphones enabling screen rotation), able to convert the movements of the wearer into data. Over time, these instruments have employed increasingly accurate algorithms able to distinguish between a multitude of activities. Based on the type of movements, these devices have the ability to monitor not only physical activity, but also sleep, and time spent standing, sitting or walking.
Nevertheless, these are the most common examples.
Another area that gained increasingly great importance within QS movement was mood tracking.
Today, we’re starting to get pretty close at being able to recognize and track emotions in a completely automatic way. One such example is the Italian company Empatica, whose CEO is Matteo Lai, and which invented Embrace, the first device in the world able to predict epileptic seizures by monitoring the emotional physiologic signals of the wearer.
Food tracking is another area which is still in need of a tool to make it automatic. Consumer products are not yet able to “scan” the food, but there are those who already imagine scenarios which will make it possible in the near future, such as Tellspec project.
Everything can be now converted into data and in the future, this will be more and more automatic, simple and invisible.
Ultimately, it is difficult to appreciate if Quantified Self is the creator of a trend or a reflection of a deep social and cultural transformation. However, it is a fundamental event witnessing a shift with global impact: individuals are starting to explore their own identity through technology.
Who am I? How am I? These are questions which are beginning to seek answers measured in bits. Hybridization between biological and technological goes beyond physical level, and therefore external and visible, penetrating deep in the psychological domain, which is both invisible and immaterial.
However, it is undeniable that the digital health trend, put into motion by the Quantified Self movement, has been wisely addressed by the Cupertino-based corporation, which has decided to develop its technologies in this direction. This is confirmed by the design of Health software system, together with the cardiac sensor embedded in the Watch and its possible applications in the medical field.
In the immediate future, we will be able to digitally scrutinize ourselves. We will be able to monitor our health, and share it with our doctors, relatives or even with our friends.
The personal medicine era is inevitably approaching, and everything, and more than everything, will be possible thanks to wrist sensors, processors, and screens.
“Possibilities are endless” said the same Tim Cook during the Apple event mentioned before.
This causes anticipation among tech enthusiasts and despair among the more conservative people. However, it seems that no one stops to consider the fundamental issues related to this inevitable hybridization between biological and digital, such as the direction and the impact of this conspicuous introduction of technology in our biological sphere.