Technological narcissism and the illusion of self-knowledge offered by the Quantified Self

e13-iconKnow thyself has been a maxim throughout the ages, rooted in the belief that wisdom and wise living demand we acquire self-knowledge.

As Shakespeare wrote:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

New research on human feelings, however, seems to have the absurd implication that if you really want to know your inner being, you should probably carry around a mirror and pay close attention to your facial expressions. The researchers clearly believe that monitoring muscle contractions is a more reliable way of knowing what someone is feeling than using any kind of subjective measure. Reduced to this muscular view, it turns out — according to the research — that we only have four basic feelings.

Likewise, devotees of the Quantified Self seem to believe that it’s not really possible to know what it means to be alive unless one can be hooked up to and study the output from one or several digital devices.

In each of these cases we are witnessing a trend driven by technological development through which the self is externalized.

Thoreau warned that we have “become the tools of our tools,” but the danger laying beyond that is that we become our tools; that our sense of who we are becomes so pervasively mediated by devices that without these devices we conclude we are nothing.

Josh Cohen writes: With January over, the spirit of self-improvement in which you began the year can start to evaporate. Except now your feeble excuses are under assault from a glut of “self-tracking” devices and apps. Your weakness for saturated fats and alcohol, your troubled sleep and mood swings, your tendencies to procrastination, indecision and disorganisation — all your quirks and flaws can now be monitored and remedied with the help of mobile technology.

Technology offer solutions not only to familiar problems of diet, exercise and sleep, but to anxieties you weren’t even aware of. If you can’t resolve a moral dilemma, there’s an app that will solicit your friends’ advice. If you’re concerned about your toddler’s language development, there’s a small device that will measure the number and range of words she’s using against those of her young peers.

Quantified Self (QS) is a growing global movement selling a new form of wisdom, encapsulated in the slogan “self-knowledge through numbers”. Rooted in the American tech scene, it encourages people to monitor all aspects of their physical, emotional, cognitive, social, domestic and working lives. The wearable cameras that enable you to broadcast your life minute by minute; the Nano-sensors that can be installed in any region of the body to track vital functions from blood pressure to cholesterol intake, the voice recorders that pick up the sound of your sleeping self or your baby’s babble—together, these devices can provide you with the means to regain control over your fugitive life.

This vision has traction at a time when our daily lives, as the Snowden leaks have revealed, are being lived in the shadow of state agencies, private corporations and terrorist networks — overwhelming yet invisible forces that leave us feeling powerless to maintain boundaries around our private selves. In a world where our personal data appears vulnerable to intrusion and exploitation, a movement that effectively encourages you to become your own spy is bound to resonate. Surveillance technologies will put us back in the centre of the lives from which they’d displaced us. Our authoritative command of our physiological and behavioural “numbers” can assure us that after all, no one knows us better than we do. [Continue reading…]

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