I recently started using a FitBit. I use it mostly to understand why I’m not fit, not because I think it’s going to encourage me to get fit. It turns out my non-teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays are probably killing me, and Sundays aren’t helping. I know this because I can look at my week and see daily counts of how many steps I’ve taken, the miles I’ve walked, how many calories I’ve burned, and how many flights of stairs I’ve climbed. I’m grading papers today, and right now, at noon, my numbers look like this:
Calories burned: 941
Stairs Climbed: 1
That’s really bad (so bad I’m questioning the validity); worse than my typical Tuesday, Thursday, or Sunday, even.
Counting as a way to know something about who I am is an example of ‘the quantified self.’ There’s a ton of commentary about the significance of the quantified self, just do a Google search. Maybe start here: http://quantifiedself.com/.
On some days when my counts tell me I’m a bad person who is going to die young, I go for a walk around campus. I’m walking less to get fit and more so that I don’t feel bad that my count is low. On some days it’s so I don’t lose so spectacularly to my wife in the ‘step challenges’ our phone apps run for us.
An unintended consequence of these walks has been that I keep running into and talking to people I don’t regularly see in my typical work day. I’ve run into colleagues from the math department, a new anthropologist I never see otherwise, an economist friend, a former student who is out in the world doing really cool things, as well as many others. My brow is usually sweaty, and I have to say ‘look, I’m wearing a FitBit!’ (it’s required).
After that, however, we’ve had nice conversations about non-work topics. We hear often that technology is making us less social, substituting ‘false’ relationships for ‘real’ ones, etc., etc., etc. I don’t believe that, and I’m always looking for counter evidence. For example, when people are staring at their phone, more often than not they are interacting with someone on the other side. Staring at Facebook or Twitter are examples of being really involved with other people, and the phone just happens to be the interface. Similarly, I’m out walking to increase my steps, but I end up in the world, meeting and talking to people.
So, maybe we need to think about not just the ‘quantified self,’ but also the ‘quantified self and interaction.’
Things are still changing, but in my lifetime I’ve seen technology exist on each end of the spectrum: from “it’s dividing us” to “it’s bringing the world together.” I think the integration of new technology into our lives is finally coming into a comfortable rhythm with how we interact with each other: the “wearables” market. I’m pretty sure “new technology” has had this dilemma before, especially when railroads helped close massive gaps across contiguous landmasses. I’m definitely excited to see what the next “new technology” is going forward that purportedly divides society.