Our Data, Ourselves

“You are what you eat,” goes the saying, long accepted as true. In the Age of Technology, the adage may need an update. As the Internet of Things and its cousin, self-quantification, provide us with new ways to consider who, and how, we are, an equally valid claim might be, “You are what you own.”

Self-quantification, or “lifelogging,” has been around since time immemorial, or at least since humans began depicting their hunts on cave walls. Journals and letters dating back thousands of years attest to our longstanding need to document the events of our daily lives as well as our hopes, dreams, fears, passions, and angsts.

Today, as wearables work in sync with our mobile devices, those daily details record themselves. Apps on phones and watches keep track of our every step. Social media sites tell us where we were one year ago, what we were doing, and with whom. Other tools record our sleep, work, dietary, health, recreational, and personal activities as well as our feelings, thoughts, and moods, meshing us with our devices as never before.

These apps generate data not only about us, but for us. How much, and how well, did we sleep last night? How many flights of stairs did we climb? How many glasses of water did we drink? Where did we go, and how did we get there? How much money did we spend today, and what did we buy? Orwellian though it may sound, all this information offers vast potential to improve and even extend our lives.

But one of the paradoxes of knowledge is that the more we know, the more we realize how little we know. Is tracking our activities and interactions enough to truly comprehend how we are living, and to fine-tune accordingly? So many questions remain unanswered, or even unasked.

A new level

Now, though, a new kind of data-gathering stands poised to fill in the gaps: sensorization, or the Internet of Things.

Sensors, chips, and other forms of digitization already are turning commonplace objects into data collectors. Thermostats know how warm we keep our homes. Cars know how fast we drive, and where we go. Televisions know how many hours we watch, and when, and which shows we like.

Soon, it’s said, our homes, work spaces, and even our clothing will gather data about us, enabling us to examine our lives in minute detail.

Trying to cut down on coffee consumption? You might not remember to enter every cup of coffee you drink into your self-quantification app, but that’s OK: your coffeemaker may do it for you, telling not only how many cups it brewed for you on a particular day but also how strong the coffee was and when you drank it.

Not as productive as you want to be? Your devices, social media sites, and “consciousness-hacking” tools such as brainwave-measuring headbands may be able to help, working together to show how often you get distracted and what you’re doing, how much and how well you’re sleeping, and more.

When our objects communicate with one another and with us, they become extensions of ourselves, like another set of hands or a second brain that performs the mundane tasks, leaving our minds free to imagine, to create, and to dream.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. How, then, might the data our connected things collect and analyze add value and meaning to our lives today and in the future?

Guest Column: Our Data, Ourselves by Dr. JR Reagan






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