Implications of the Quantified Self

The emergence of mobile devices, constant connectivity, and big data has led to unprecedented visibility into our lives. We now constantly have applications tracking our searches, our likes, and every step we take (maybe even every breath we take?).

This parallel identity can be called the “quantified self”- the aggregation of all the actions we take online, collected into a measurable history from which a capable data scientist can construct an eerily accurate demographic and psychographic profile. This is fantastic news for marketers, and enables companies to more accurately target the right consumers with the right offers, at the right time (and increasingly, in the right place). We as consumers benefit from this as well- we receive less “spam” and irrelevant information, and receive better education and better deals on the things we actually care about. There’s no doubting that the evolution of the quantified self has been good for business- but what about the effect on our personal lives?

The aforementioned trends started to remind me a lot of George Orwell’s prescient novel 1984. As depicted in that novel, we now have “screens” that monitor us 24/7- our smartphones. While smartphones don’t actively record us or every conversation that we have, they do collect an amount of personal data that would have shocked Orwell. Think for a minute about all of the data that Facebook is collecting on you- while Big Brother isn’t watching you, Zuckerberg and his team certainly are.

The key distinction between 1984 and today is that an absolutist tyrannical government isn’t forcing this upon us- we are all willingly signing up for this data collection when we sign the Terms of Use for every “free” app and service (as an aside- and not for the easily offended- South Park hilariously lampooned Apple’s iTunes agreement in the “Human CentiPad” episode). Admit it- you never read those ridiculously long agreements- no one does. So who knows how your data is actually being used?

I believe that data today is (for the most part) being used purely for commercial, and not nefarious purposes. However, it will be an incredibly important issue for us to monitor as a society, as it appears that a small oligopoly of companies is collecting more and more data (think Facebook, Google, etc.). Also- behind the scenes, how are the NSA and other government agencies accessing our information? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but they are questions that should impact how we conduct business, how we vote, and how we interact with technology.

Bringing the analogy full circle- Apple made a big splash early on with its 1984-inspired Super Bowl commercial. There’s a certain element of irony that they now more closely resemble Big Brother than the hammer-throwing rebel that symbolized their brand in the commercial.