Today we travel to a future full of spreadsheet approved lives. A future where everything we do is tracked and quantified: calories, air quality, sleep, heart rate, microbes, brain waves, finances, happiness, sadness, menstrual cycles, poops, hopes and dreams. Everything.
This episode is longer than our usual 20 minute jaunts to the future, because the future of quantified self is so huge. We cover everything from biased algorithms, to microbiomes (again), to the future of the calorie, and more.
The first person we talk to this week is Chris Dancy, who is basically living in this future today. He’s been called the most quantified man in the world. Every day Chris wears and carries around over thirty devices that track everything from his heart rate to his brain waves. You can see a live stream of his data here. Chris started tracking his life in 2008, and has upgraded his system continuously to become more streamlined and include more forms of data.
There are all sorts of video profiles of Chris online. Here’s one from Mashable, for example.
But, as I was watching a few of these videos (including the one above), I felt kind of uncomfortable. Because a lot of them treat Chris kind of like a freak show. Like this weirdo guy that we should all kind of laugh at, or shun, or see as this maniac with too many devices. But in talking to Chris it became very clear to me that he’s very thoughtful about what he’s doing. The point isn’t just to track for tracking sake, Chris is on a mission. And it’s the same mission that you or I might have when we start tracking steps or workouts or calories or menstrual cycles: to be better. To be healthier and happier. And, for Chris at least, it worked. He dropped 100 pounds, stopped drinking and abusing drugs, and feels way healthier now than he did before.
A lot of people have called Chris the most quantified man, or the most surveilled man, or the most tracked man. But he thinks about it another way. He calls himself a mindful cyborg. But being a mindful cyborg takes a lot of work. He spends $30,000 a year on his quantified self, and it’s essentially his full time job. Not everybody can do that.
When you ask Chris what the future of the quantified self looks like, he’s actually not super optimistic about it. Because right now, Chris uses all these devices to gather data, but he sometimes has to fight companies to actually get access to it. In most cases, he has to buy his data back from them, in order to use it for what he wants. He says he sees us going to “the dark future,” where all our data is mined by companies, and not used to make us healthier or happier.
To dig a little deeper into the possible dark side of personal tracking, I called Claire North, the the author of a book called The Sudden Appearance of Hope that’s coming out this summer. The main character, Hope, sort of has the opposite of face blindness, she is totally unmemorable to anybody who meets her. Which makes her an excellent thief, and the book started out as a book about thieving. But as Claire was writing it, she started getting interested in something else, the fact that without any friends or family or other humans that can even remember her, Hope has no real way of measuring her life.
There’s still plenty of thieving in the book (it’s very exciting) but there’s an added layer now. The story kind of centers around this app called Perfection. Users give it access to everything: their bank accounts, their location, what they’re eating and drinking, who they’re hanging out with, how they’re sleeping, everything. And in return, the app gives them suggestions. Don’t eat there, eat here. Don’t do that, do this. And when users link up their accounts, and comply with the app’s instructions, they get perks. Coupons to restaurants or access to special events. Users who get enough points even get plastic surgery.
But to me, the thing that’s perhaps the most sinister about Perfection isn’t that it offers you plastic surgery. But rather the way that the app decides what Perfection actually is. Instead of finding out what you want, and helping you achieve it. Perfection decides what you should want. Men should want to be muscled and have lots of money and cars. Women should want to be thin and conventionally attractive.
And the idea that data mining might be used to push people in the direction of certain, highly biased, desires or outcomes, isn’t the realm of science fiction at all. That’s how they work now, and we talked to computer scientist Suresh Venkatasubramanian, about his work on data mining and what’s called “algorithmic fairness.” Suresh explains what data mining is, and how it’s already being used to make decisions about everything from where things are in the grocery store, to who gets released from prison and who doesn’t.
(As a side note: When I was reading Claire’s book, I actually thought the name of the app, Perfection, was kind of on the nose. Certainly our future terrifying personal data app would have a softer, slicker name. Maybe “You” or “Well” or something like that. But then I went to a bodyhacking conference in Austin and I walked into the main ballroom where the first talk was being given, and up on the stage, behind the podium there was a huge banner it said “Nobody’s Perfect. Yet.” So, perhaps she was right!)
Of course, not everything about data mining is creepy and evil. Chris feels much better about his life now. And Jessica Richman, the CEO and co-founder of uBiome (who we spoke with last week as well) says that people can and will use their microbiome data to improve their lives. But Richman also knows that what she has at uBiome is a huge database of sensitive personal data. And she has to be careful with it.
One of the big questions I always have about tracking and personal data is this: I have a limited amount of time and money to track things, so, what should I be tracking? What variables are important? And it turns out that often, what we’re tracking in these systems, aren’t the right things. They’re simply the things we know how to track.
The last segment of our show this week centers about a really good example of that: the calorie. But it turns out the calorie might be a bit of a red herring. And to tell us about that, I called up Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, the hosts of a podcast about food called Gastropod. (Which is a great show you should totally go listen to it.)
They recently did an entire episode about the calorie, and asked some questions that, I had never really considered, like what actually is a calorie? How is it measured, and, perhaps more importantly, is it useful? And the answer is, for the most part, not really.
The amount of calories it says on the package doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of calories you actually get when you eat that package, or, I guess the food inside it. Don’t eat the wrapper. But they talked to one scientist who found that if you were to eat a pack of almonds that was, according to the calorie measure on the wrapper, 100 calories, your body actually only gets 70 of those calories. That’s a 30 percent difference! Plus, each person breaks down and absorbs energy from food differently, so 100 calories to me isn’t necessarily 100 calories to you.
Cynthia and Nicola walk us through the possible replacements for the calorie, like your microbiome or your metabolome, and we imagine a future with very personalized readouts for what each individual should eat and in what combinations.
By the end of our conversation though, I felt kind of exhausted. Not because Cynthia and Nicola aren’t delightful to talk to (they are) but because the idea of breaking down every single food I eat into a series of variables, and being told in great detail what I can and cannot consume, just seems totally exhausting.
And we close out the episode with a conversation about when tracking starts to ruin our enjoyment of things, and of each other. Are we happier when we track? Does it make us better humans? Does it help us understand yourself and others better? Does it make us happier? Does it make us better friends? I don’t know, and I think the answer will be different for everyone.
Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. Special thanks this week to Casey Broughton, Rory Carroll, Suzanne Fischer, Sheila Gagne, Eddie Guimont, Tamara Krinsky, John Oloier, Mat Weller. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky.
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, want to give us feedback on the show, or just want to say hi, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing from you! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.