If there’s a prototypical example of the “quantified self,” the geek movement that has sprung into mainstream consciousness over the past few years, it’s Stephen Wolfram. The quantified self is all about tracking and measuring one’s life and, as I wrote about back in March, Wolfram has been doing so for more than 20 years. Consider this visualization of his email activity that he published last year:
This is the stuff of uber nerds, and I mean that in the best possible way. The quantified self movement has been characterized by personal empowerment. Individuals figure out a system to track themselves, and then play around with the data for fun and to glean insights.
Needless to say, this isn’t for everyone. And yet the quantified self is going mainstream, thanks to mobile sensors and a coming wave of new kinds of wearable devices. But it won’t look anything like Wolfram’s experiments.
The coming ubiquity of the quantified self needs to be safe for the math-phobic, for those who have no desire to load up Excel or Stata and play around with data. That means new devices and apps will need to offer some utility to their wearers/users beyond just the joy of data. It also means that the data side will be tracked not for users’ benefit but for the benefit of corporations.
To get a glimpse of this, consider a recent New York Times article describing Disney World’s new wearable tech:
Visitors would wear rubber bracelets encoded with credit card information, snapping up corn dogs and Mickey Mouse ears with a tap of the wrist… Disney in the coming months plans to begin introducing a vacation management system called MyMagic+ that will drastically change the way Disney World visitors — some 30 million people a year — do just about everything.
Visitors who use this system might get a kick out of seeing some of their data – maybe a map that replays their trip, or a ranking of the rides they went on the most. But the real value is for Disney. The quantified self, in this case, is more accurately the quantified customer.
The Disney case is relatively self-contained, but wearable tech in everyday life will elevate concerns not only over privacy but ownership. If Nike Fuel Band is tracking all my physical activity, for instance, do I have a right to download that information and share it with my doctor?
If we’re going to get the most out of wearable tech, we’ll have to get these issues sorted out. There’s huge value in this kind of data. The question is who gets to capture it.