Is the Internet of Things the future of narcissism?
I'm surprised that Time didn't force the selfie-taking millennial on its cover about the "ME ME ME" generation to wear a fitness tracker, the new epitome of data-driven narcissism.
The Web has made it easy to quantify attention, whether it's measured by pageviews, endorsements, or interactions. Now the Internet of Things is making it easy to quantify the social value of the physical world in like manner. We have fitness trackers and motion sensors, devices like Scanadu's Scout, and smart phones that have become increasingly aware of their surroundings. This is the future of narcissism, and it's expanding one connected device at a time.
There is no shortage of devices waiting to tell you that you're fat. Jawbone, Nike, Fitbit, Basis, Withings -- these are just a few of the companies that sell connected wristbands or scales that want to measure how much you're moving (or not moving) and changing each day. Another company, Moves, wants to offer similar functionality with nothing but your iPhone. (Maybe we wouldn't be fat if we weren't spending all our time playing Dots on that very same device, but that's a separate issue.) These are some of the most popular connected devices on the market -- and perhaps the only devices to attract any mainstream attention -- and they are literally all about you and what you've done throughout the day.
Using these devices is the newest form of technology-enabled navel-gazing. Wearing a Nike+ FuelBand or a Jawbone Up isn't going to make you any less fat -- that particular point has been argued ad nauseum, but it's worth noting again. Having more data about how often you're walking around and expecting that it will help make you thin is a bit like installing Google Analytics and hoping that it will lead to more people visiting your site. While the data is nice to have (tell a website owner that they have to ditch Google Analytics or Chartbeat and you'll probably witness a fury typically reserved for Greek myths) it's little more than intellectual masturbation without a plan that goes beyond the data.
Then there are the devices and services that turn the physical world into a real-time notification system meant to showcase your awesomeness, whether it's by causing a light to flash every time someone mentions you on Twitter or, and a shudder just by typing this, your Klout score increases. It's one thing to be a smanker in the digital world -- it's another thing entirely to bring those same obsessions to the physical realm.
These products are being introduced during an obsessions with "big data," with the two fads combining and morphing into something either terribly helpful or just terrible, depending on how you think about it. No one knows this better than Stephen Wolfram, who logged his every keystroke, email correspondence, step, file change, and more for over 20 years. As he puts it:
What is the future for personal analytics? There is so much that can be done. Some of it will focus on large-scale trends, some of it on identifying specific events or anomalies, and some of it on extracting “stories” from personal data.And then:
As personal analytics develops, it’s going to give us a whole new dimension to experiencing our lives. At first it all may seem quite nerdy (and certainly as I glance back at this blog post there’s a risk of that). But it won’t be long before it’s clear how incredibly useful it all is — and everyone will be doing it, and wondering how they could have ever gotten by before. And wishing they had started sooner, and hadn’t “lost” their earlier years.That is the future, with every keystroke and step and, well, action being quantified and plotted for potential gain. You -- and perhaps some entities you don't even know of -- will know exactly when you started to gain or lose weight, or when you stopped giving a shit about email, or how many people think your every thought is absolutely brilliant and revolutionary. You will become, as my colleague Michael Carney put it on Monday, your data.
Narcissus loved the reflection staring back at him from a pool of water. We'll learn to love the reflections of ourselves gazing at us from beneath all of the graphs and charts and infographics we've created.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]