The Quantifiable Man

The Quantifiable Man

The "quantified self" movement makes me think the singularity may look more like a line graph than a robot.

The Vitruvian Man is one of the most widely recognized depictions of human anatomy. A sketch by the great painter, inventor, and thinker Leonardo Davinci. It’s also worth knowing that DaVinci has been called the last man to know the most about everything. In other words, since DaVinci, human knowledge has so splintered and specialized that no one person can know it all. In the 21st century there are entire fields of study so large and complex that no one individual can understand its entirety. Knowledge is only what can be gleaned from data, which is only as credible as the size of the sample population from which it was taken. The result? The wise man is no longer a vessel for knowledge, but a collector of data.

One of the largest stockpiles of data, currently, is Facebook. With over 900,000 users interacting with one another and publicly publishing personal information from sexual preference to shoe size, Facebook stands to make major money from selling that data to advertisers, marketers, and even law enforcement. What’s more is that this fascination with data, with the ability to precisely quantify trends and statistical probabilities within a range of universal unknowns, is becoming a fairly run-of-the-mill interest. It’s almost common practice anymore.

Case in point, a new personal data collection app called TicTrac, reported here on Technology Review, which actually collects the quantifiable data of other personal data collection sources to create comprehensive infographics on who you are. Imagine a hub where data collected from Facebook, FourSquare, Nike Fit, Twitter, LinkedIn, RunKeeper, and any of the other personal data collection apps can be easily filtered, analyzed, and projected to show you who you are based on what you do. This growing trend, called “quantified self,” promotes a greater understanding of ourselves through careful record keeping of our every behavior; an understanding that will help us to make better health choices regarding our behavior and habits.

Of course, there’s nothing hypothetical about this idea. We all have assumptions about ourselves and our behavior that are colored by preconceptions and emotions, two variables which aren’t accounted for by these data collecting apps. However, extrapolate this movement out to our current social, political, and especially professional obsession with statistical data. In the near future are we likely to see personal electronics and clothing fuse (social trends allowing for the market), and at that point personal data collection becomes a matter of course. Imagine a future where a combination of passively monitored biofeedback and a user’s online activities can be comprehensively compiled and analyzed to give individuals a picture of their lives as objective as only data can be, and as unique as their own fingerprint. Perhaps this will be the real singularity, where people go from faces and names to undulating sets of line graphs. Me as an infographic.