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November 04, 2011

Know Thy (Quantified) Self

The ancient Greek aphorism Know Thyself (Greek γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Latin nosce te ipsum) reaches so far back into our received wisdom that no confident identification of its provenance can be made.

Philosophers (who have been described as torturers of language) sometimes approach "Know ThySelf" through parsing; What is it to Know? What is the Self? Generally, the phrase is seen as advocating introspection.

Presented with the internal-external dualism, humanity is inclined to look outward because it's easier, more satisfying, and far less painful. Our senses are external, and our external observations are more confirmable - I see it and it's red, do you see it as well?

Thoughtful people have long held that self-knowledge is the prerequisite first learning. In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates uses the maxim 'know thyself' as his explanation to Phaedrus for why he has no time for mythology or other far flung topics. Socrates says, "But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to investigate irrelevant things."

Ben Franklin sought to know himself, and to improve himself, with his little book in which he recorded his performance on key metrics (as some might say today). This approach applied the (previously external) techniques of the scientific method - observing, documenting, analyzing, pattern recognition, hypothesizing - to the cognitive realm.

A modern movement called The Quantified Self approaches self-knowledge through quantification, and more specifically through data collection using ubiquitious computing — generally, extending the network through SmartPhones and wireless sensors. Here is Gary Wolf at a TED conference:



This week brings the first mass-market self-quantification sensor, delivered to the general public rather than the early adopters: the UP by Jawbone, which works in conjunction with your SmartPhone. (Applications available on the iOS (Apple), Android Apps are soon to follow).


The UP wrist device is more than a one-way sensor; it has a limited ability to communicate back to the wearer through haptic feedback, just like a rumble-pack on a game controller.

The UP device senses movement which permits analysis of (for example) activity, exercise, and sleep patterns. The software prompts you for evaluations of your mood and energy level.

You can have the device wake you at an optimum point in your sleep cycle. You can run cause-effect analysis that produces results like: I feel lousy the day after I eat cheese. Here's a map of where I have allergy problems, is there a pattern?

The "UP" is a crude first offering, but it is marvelous in its implications and next steps. Bluetooth-networked heart monitors seem to be an obvious upgrade. Apple has a patent for ear buds that measure blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, and temperature.


What I really want is continuous glucose monitoring. This is an application that would come to market at a perfect time, as the "diabetes epidemic" is just about to hit.


As often happens, the initial focus is on the hardware, on the device itself. The value is in the system, in the software; we're going to move beyond the Up pretty quickly, but the software will be the value proposition. The device/sensor provides data; the software and trend analysis promises to provide knowledge.

We acknowledge that providing the Cloud (that is, corporate industry) with our biometrics will have negative implications. When They can tell that my heart rate goes up when watching certain advertisements, when They can tell that I ride my bike to SouthSideWorks, when They can tell that I'm sleeping when I'm supposed to be working — that's all possible, it's not a stretch at all. And when They can tell Me, hey taking your medicine at a different time will probably delay bad things for another five years — I'll consider the package a bargain.

We also feel obliged to point out that Up, the iOS application, and the Quantified Self movement are all American innovations.





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