The faithful gathered in San Francisco earlier this month for the Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference, an annual conclave of “self-trackers and tool-makers.” Founded by long-time technology writers Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, the Quantified Self, or QS, movement aims to bring the new apparatus of big data to the old pursuit of self-actualization, using sensors, wearables, apps, and the cloud to monitor and optimize bodily functions and design a more perfect self. “Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing,” Wolf explains, trackers are seeking “self-knowledge through numbers.” He continues: “Behind the allure of the quantified self is a guess that many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are.”
“Allure” may be an overstatement. A small band of enthusiasts is gung-ho for QS. But the masses, so far, have shown little interest in self-tracking, rarely going beyond the basic pedometer level of monitoring fitness regimes. Like meticulous calorie counting, self-tracking is hard to sustain. It gets boring quickly, and the numbers are more likely to breed anxiety than contentment. There’s a reason the body keeps its vagaries out of the conscious mind.
But, as management researcher H. James Wilson reports in the Wall Street Journal, there is one area where self-tracking is beginning to be pursued with vigor: business operations. Some companies are outfitting employees with wearable computers and other self-tracking gadgets in order to “gather subtle data about how they move and act — and then use that information to help them do their jobs better.” There is, for example, the Hitachi Business Microscope, which office workers wear on a lanyard around their neck. “The device is packed with sensors that monitor things like how workers move and speak, as well as environmental factors like light and temperature. So, it can track where workers travel in an office, and recognize whom they’re talking to by communicating with other people’s badges. It can also measure how well they’re talking to them — by recording things like how often they make hand gestures and nod, and the energy level in their voice.” Other companies are developing Google Glass-style “smart glasses” to accomplish similar things.
A little more than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced “scientific management” to American factories. By meticulously tracking and measuring the physical movements of manufacturing workers as they went through their tasks, Taylor counseled, companies could determine the “one best way” to do any job and then enforce that protocol on all other workers. Through the systematic collection of data, industry could be optimized, operated as a perfectly calibrated machine. “In the past the man has been first,” declared Taylor; “in the future the system must be first.”
The goals and mechanics of the Quantified Self movement, when applied in business settings, not only bring back the ethic of Taylorism, but extend Taylorism’s reach into the white-collar workforce. The dream of perfect optimization reaches into the intimate realm of personal affiliation and conversation among colleagues. One thing that Taylor’s system aided was the mechanization of factory work. Once you had turned the jobs of human workers into numbers, it turned out, you also had a good template for replacing those workers with machines. It seems that the new Taylorism might accomplish something similar for knowledge work. It provides the specs for software applications that can take over the jobs of even highly educated professionals.
One can imagine other ways QS might be productively applied in the commercial realm. Automobile insurers already give policy holders an incentive for installing tracking sensors in their cars to monitor their driving habits. It seems only logical for health and life insurers to provide similar incentives for policy holders who wear body sensors. Premiums could then be adjusted based on, say, a person’s cholesterol or blood sugar levels, or food intake, or even the areas they travel in or the people they associate with — anything that correlates with risk of illness or death. (Rough Type readers will remember that this is a goal that Yahoo director Max Levchin is actively pursuing.)
The transformation of QS from tool of liberation to tool of control follows a well-established pattern in the recent history of networked computers. Back in the mainframe age, computers were essentially control mechanisms, aimed at monitoring and enforcing rules on people and processes. In the PC era, computers also came to be used to liberate people, freeing them from corporate oversight and control. The tension between central control and personal liberation continues to define the application of computer power. We originally thought that the internet would tilt the balance further away from control and toward liberation. That now seems to be a misjudgment. By extending the collection of data to intimate spheres of personal activity and then centralizing the storage and processing of that data, the net actually seems to be shifting the balance back toward the control function. The system takes precedence.