Saturday, May 14, 2011

Technology: How Much is Too Much?

I got the idea for this post while watching this short TED talk. For those of you too busy to watch it, Gary Wolf talks about how much better technology has become at measuring things, specifically things about our own lives. How we sleep, where we go, how we get there, how many calories we burn, what we buy, and even our physical health. We now have the ability to record and store so much more quantifiable data about our own life than ever before, leading Wolf to title his talk, "The Quantified Self."

While the issues related to who should have access to this information and how are quite interesting, I feel that data security is considered at enough length by tech gurus, and less frequently asked is whether we want this information. In a conversation that has evolved over at least the past six years, and through multiple conversation partners willing to talk with me, I have explored the idea that technological advances may not be synonymous with progress. Before I proceed with that, let us first take a cursory look at the difference between quantity and quality.

At the most fundamental, quantitative things are those capable of being encoded numerically, while qualitative things are those experienced by human beings. So, word count in an article, the average number of articles I post in a month, and the number of hits my blog gets are all quantitative descriptors of the blog. The ideas and emotions the posts, hopefully, evoke in you as you read them, that is the, more important, qualitative information of the blog. As I have mentioned before, although I use quantities like page views to try to estimate if I am evoking qualities, such as thoughts about my posts, I must admit that this is a rather ineffective method to obtain this information.

My biggest worry about the TED talk is its emphasis on quantitative data. We base so many of our decisions on quantitative information, but I worry that we often forget that the quantitative information is simply an aid to obtaining underlying qualitative trends. For example, when you are buying a new computer, or any new piece of technology, one usually looks at technical specifications and benchmark tests, all framed in terms of numerical information. But the real information we are attempting to ascertain is how the acquisition will affect your lifestyle. The new "smart-phone" may have greater bandwidth enabling more data transfer than ever, but it probably will not make people significantly more likely to want to talk to you, so you have to decide if the increased quantity will produce a more desirable quality of life.

The other worry this data-phillia inspires in me is that it may be too successful. What if we eventually obtain such detailed and comprehensive information about our habits that we can accurately ascertain the correlations between quantitative data and qualitative experience. In a sense, we will have learned how to program ourselves. While we might use this information to reliably make ourselves as happy as we could possibly be, think of the ability to control people implied in this understanding. Furthermore, I think the human experience would be the poorer for this information. Free will may well be a lie, but if so it is one of the most beautiful and fundamental lies to human existence.

Finally, Wolf ends with the following quote. "The self isn't the only thing, it's not even most things. The self is just our operations center, our consciousness, our moral compass." And here, I must flat out disagree with him, the self is everything. I don't mean this in a solipsistic manner, that I am the only thing that exists, or even in a hedonistic sense, that my personal well-being should be my number one priority, but rather in the sense that every single thing that I ever see or do, all my accomplishments and anything I will ever be known for I experience through the lens of "self." The self is all that we know, and everything else we try to understand comes to us through the self. So, I don't disagree that "know thyself" is a valuable piece of advice, but I worry that "measure thyself" may be approaching the task from the wrong angle, more on this tomorrow.

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