The Self At Your Wrist

Wearable Technologies, Self-Perception and Identity at the Threshold of a New Quantified Existence.


This is a translation of the original italian article, commissioned and later published on December 9th, 2014 by Giannino Bassetti Foundation.


“We have one more thing to cover…”

Screaming voices and enthusiast applauses are filling Flint Center for the Performing Arts auditorium in Cupertino, California.

“I’m so excited and so proud to share with you this morning the next chapter in Apple’s history.”

Music with obsessive rhythm is playing in the background. Alternating flashes of light and shadows projected on the screens are suggesting glittering materials. The camera is slowly uncovering rotating rings and metallic meshes sinuously moving and intersecting each other. We are in Silicon Valley, assisting to one of the latest Apple events. Tim Cook has just unveiled the most recent jewel launched by the US giant, the Apple Watch.

This event is much more than the newest promotional gimmick in the technological world. Actually, the most influential brand of consumer electronics is about to announce the latest major paradigm shift in human-computing interaction.

Evolving from static to portable, from portable to mobile, from mobile to wearable, technology takes another step in its tireless approach to the human body.

Anyone who thinks that this is just a simple evolution due to hardware miniaturization is guilty of oversimplification.

Certainly, the interaction between the human body and electronics is a process that started at a distant point in time, but the most interesting step from a social and anthropological standpoint had its beginning in 2008, in a basement in California, at Kevin Kelly’s home, the co-founder and former Executive Editor of Wired.

He and Gary Wolf, editor at the same popular magazine, met with thirty people to set the foundations of what will soon become a worldwide movement, the Quantified Self.

The Quantified Self Movement

“Self knowledge through numbers” says the slogan.

It promotes self-knowledge through data by organizing meetings, conferences, blogs and forums, and is a global meeting point for enthusiasts, inventors, or just those interested in the so-called self tracking and the tools that support it.

Gary Wolf (on the left), the Quantified Self co-founder speaks at the 2011 QS Europe Conference in Amsterdam. Image credits Henk-Jan Winkeldermaat, on Flickr.

In a post of 2011 Gary Wolf explained:

“In 2007 we began looking at some new practices that seemed, loosely, to belong together: life logging, personal genomics, location tracking, biometrics. These new tools were being developed for many different reasons, but all of them had something in common: they added a computational dimension to ordinary existence. Some of this was coming from “outside,” as marketers and planners tried to find new ways to understand and influence us. But some of it was coming from “inside” as our friends and acquaintances tried to learn new things about themselves. We saw a parallel to the way computers, originally developed to serve military and corporate requirements, became a tool of communication. Could something similar happen with personal data?”

Its founders agree that this movement has developed in an unexpected way, and that suddenly this new opportunity of capturing data about people and their behavior emerged.

Earlier tracking was very low tech and done entirely by the person. At that stage, computers were being use only for storing data “manually” entered. As technology advanced, were gradually developed the tools for automatically collecting such data.

“[ … ] One day Kevin issued an open invitation for people who shared our interests to come to what we called a ‘Show& Tell’ at his studio. We created a Quantified Self group on MeetUp and did no other publicity. Thirty people came. Many had projects that were absolutely fascinating. The depth of knowledge and the intensity of curiosity was mind blowing. Suddenly we understood what we were doing in a new way. We were making a users group.
[ …] Users groups, when they succeed, are wonderful things; informal but deeply engaged learning communities operating outside the normal channels of academic and commercial authority. Here at the Quantified Self, we want to know what these new tools of self-tracking are good for, and we want to create an environment where this question can be explored on a human level.”

Wearable Technologies, Tracking and Digital Health

Back in 2008, in the early days of the movement, the only devices available on the “Quantified” market were produced by Nike within Nike+ platform, which was designed by the brilliant mind of the Italian-born Roberto Tagliabue.

Over time, QS continued to grow (see Google Trends) in close relation with the development of new wearable “quantifying” technologies such as the famous FitBit, whose first version dates back to 2008, or the first Jawbone UP of 2011, followed in 2012 by the third activity tracker, the famous, now discontinued Nike Fuelband.

A visit at the specialized wearable technology, Amazon store reveals a myriad of such gadgets.

Certainly, the most common are the so-called activity trackers, incorporating a simple accelerometer (the sensor built in the smartphones enabling screen rotation), able to convert the movements of the wearer into data. Over time, these instruments have employed increasingly accurate algorithms able to distinguish between a multitude of activities. Based on the type of movements, these devices have the ability to monitor not only physical activity, but also sleep, and time spent standing, sitting or walking.

Nevertheless, these are the most common examples.

Another area that gained increasingly great importance within QS movement was mood tracking.

Here too, monitoring was decidedly low tech in the early days. Tracking was made possible through platforms such as Moodscope or apps like Expereal.

Today, we’re starting to get pretty close at being able to recognize and track emotions in a completely automatic way. One such example is the Italian company Empatica, whose CEO is Matteo Lai, and which invented Embrace, the first device in the world able to predict epileptic seizures by monitoring the emotional physiologic signals of the wearer.

Food tracking is another area which is still in need of a tool to make it automatic. Consumer products are not yet able to “scan” the food, but there are those who already imagine scenarios which will make it possible in the near future, such as Tellspec project.

Everything can be now converted into data and in the future, this will be more and more automatic, simple and invisible.

Ultimately, it is difficult to appreciate if Quantified Self is the creator of a trend or a reflection of a deep social and cultural transformation. However, it is a fundamental event witnessing a shift with global impact: individuals are starting to explore their own identity through technology.

Who am I? How am I? These are questions which are beginning to seek answers measured in bits. Hybridization between biological and technological goes beyond physical level, and therefore external and visible, penetrating deep in the psychological domain, which is both invisible and immaterial.

Apple’s choice to enter the wearable gadgets’ world silences once and for all the skeptics voicing their doubts about the “mainstream” jump of these new devices in contact with the body. However, the logical step from Self quantification to the development of Watch project is not as direct and simple. There are quite a few differences between the simple activity tracking wristbands and the smartwatches; in terms of use, features and design.

However, it is undeniable that the digital health trend, put into motion by the Quantified Self movement, has been wisely addressed by the Cupertino-based corporation, which has decided to develop its technologies in this direction. This is confirmed by the design of Health software system, together with the cardiac sensor embedded in the Watch and its possible applications in the medical field.

In the immediate future, we will be able to digitally scrutinize ourselves. We will be able to monitor our health, and share it with our doctors, relatives or even with our friends.

The personal medicine era is inevitably approaching, and everything, and more than everything, will be possible thanks to wrist sensors, processors, and screens.

“Possibilities are endless” said the same Tim Cook during the Apple event mentioned before.

This causes anticipation among tech enthusiasts and despair among the more conservative people. However, it seems that no one stops to consider the fundamental issues related to this inevitable hybridization between biological and digital, such as the direction and the impact of this conspicuous introduction of technology in our biological sphere.

Technology vs Humans: Self-Identity and Self-Consciousness in a ‘Quantified’ Future.

Certainly, technology should aim at increasing human abilities. Same as the first tools in the prehistory helped man physical capacity, the new technologies of today offer the opportunity of increasing our physical and mental capabilities.

All of this seems obvious and, moreover, desirable, but it should be noticed that if the very earliest tools were only enhancing the body with brand new functional skills, such as the cutting ability, digital augmentations of today seem to always have corresponding side effects.

Examples of a “chopper”, known as one of the earliest tools (if not the earliest). Image credit: “Pierre taillée Melka Kunture Éthiopie fond” by Didier Descouens — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The problem of adverse effects of technological innovations is huge. Treating it in adequate manner would require first of all more space, and secondly, a different background on my part. However, I will try to address this question by pinpointing some basic problems and hoping to entice the readers to continue the discussion.

To do this, I will propose an example, which is (hopefully) eloquent even if lacking scientific depth.

In 2010, an active member of Quantified Self group suddenly decided to abandon the activity of self tracking.

It is very possible that many others preferred to devote their time to new and perhaps more exciting activities than self-tracking, but Alexandra Carmichael’s case stands out because she wrote a poem on this occasion and has published it on QS website.

Even if the poetic value is rather questionable, her words describe impeccably the issues related to measuring life through data.

Here the link to the orginal post: http://quantifiedself.com/2010/04/why-i-stopped-tracking/

“Yes, I did it…

After 40 measurements a day for 1.5 years

I. Stopped. Tracking.

What [people] didn’t see was

The self-punishment

The fear

The hatred behind tracking

…Each day my self-worth was tied to the data

One pound heavier?

You’re fat.

2 grams of fat ingested?

You’re out of control.

Skipped a day of running?

You’re lazy.”

Even though there are an incredible amount of expectations, we are still in a primitive stage and we can probably consider the use of wearables as a phenomenon still circumscribed to early adopters, sometimes accustomed to an eccentric or at times extreme use of technology.

But what will happen when devices able to quantify our human experience reach a global dissemination? Will people wear a smartwatch on their wrist able to tell them how much they are worth? Certainly, there are technical prerequisites for this to happen. Rather, the point is how people will interpret this information.

Suffice it to say that the much-awaited Apple Watch will have a sensor for movement, a sensor for heartbeat, and a GPS (the one in the iPhone). Try to imagine the infinite possibilities of measuring these three components mixed together, and you will find thousands of new possible applications (understood as apps, but also as contexts or situations of use). We could be wearing a bracelet which would tell us how much physical activity we do (such as those already in the market), but also measure the depth of our emotions and even where, how, when and with whom they arise…

Extremely personal and subjective things which until now were inside us, analyzed only by that peculiar instrument called human self-consciousness, now can be quantified and seen outside of us, on devices we carry with or on us.

In the broadest, but undeniable sense, these tools will become the external and increased extensions of our consciousness, in a process of externalization totally in line with the Leroi-Gourhan theory on human tendency to externalize body functions which first resided inside.

Anthropologically, man came a long way learning to externalize memory through culture and literature, freeing up resources for new activities and skills. What will happen if we start to externalize part of the elements defining us: our self-consciousness, our own Self? How will this change our self-perception, and our identity? Or as Alexandra Carmichael was asking: where will our instinct end up and where will we find reference for our self-esteem?

As this technological scenario begins to blossom, the discourse on responsibility is increasingly urgent and necessary, although it seems to arrive terribly late due to the speed of innovation. However, before diving into this theme, it might be useful to shed some light on one last controversial point which, at the same time, may hide tremendous potential in this future in which the boundary between biological and technological will slowly fade away.

A Paradigm Shift in Human-Machine Interaction

Technical possibilities have forced us until now to see the electronic products as screens to look at, windows to another reality, or as objects communicating with us, by showing us something. With the birth of television, our visual pathways have been exponentially bombarded forcing us to be concerned about effects such as information and cognitive overload.

The theme of visualization remains central even in relation with Quantified Self and revolves around one question: how to display and thus make useful body measurements? More than ever before, disciplines such as data visualization are gaining tremendous attention and the success of wearables are totally dependent on the quality of mobile applications that accompany them. However, this brings us back to the same problem mentioned before, namely that of an information overload which already makes life accompanied by “full screen” cellulars unhealthily full of persistent and harmful distractions.

Nevertheless, today’s technology is no longer just in front of us as before, but begins to come in contact with our skin. This paradigm shift opens up new and unprecedented interaction possibilities, which will forever change the concept of interface.

Through Jawbone Exo Ecosystem project, I tried to emphasize how the human body provides a great deal of communication channels through its sensory system. In many cases, these alternative channels may even be far more accurate than the already overloaded visual pathways.

Currently, even if accurate, they are very little used.

The products designed for EXO Ecosystem, project developed inside “The Augmented Body” a Master of Science thesis at Politecnico di Milano. Done in collaboration with Jawbone in 2013. You can find a brief presentation of the project on my website and a longer one on Behance.

In fact, Apple realized the potential and integrated a small haptic actuator into its watch, which, for example, allows the wearers to feel on their wrist the heartbeat of another person, or to receive driving directions through small vibrations. (Back in 2013 in the Exo Ecosystem project, I called this feature Sense GPS).

The applications designed for the Jawbone EXO Ecosystem. Details of the project in image’s caption above.

These new possibilities for interaction are still mainly unexplored, but even in this scenario, the issue of responsibility remains crucial.

The role of design in a period of identity crisis

Who is responsible? Here we have many examples of brilliant innovations, but the issue of responsibility is key and must be addressed. Who is going to be responsible for the future?” — asked Piero Bassetti at the closing of Design Will Own the Future event organized by the Giannino Bassetti Foundation at Singularity University, in Silicon Valley.

The same question remains appropriate for the example we are dealing with here. In this unbridled innovation landscape in which one user group spread across the globe, such as Quantified Self, is capable to unleash a new technological paradigm shift in a few years, who will be responsible and who will handle the issue of choosing a development path suited to human nature?

Piero Bassetti is the president of the Giannino Bassetti Foundation, a Milan based non profit organization whose mission is to promote responsible innovation. He is a key figure in Italian politics, having been the first President of Lombardy from 1970 to 1974.

Bassetti Foundation mission was to call for reflection by bringing Italian artisanship and design together in the forefront of the technological world epicenter, which, beyond any doubt, is California.

Inevitably, this also suggests a possible answer to the above question: who better than designers can begin to direct innovation toward horizons appropriate for our nature? Designing not only the object, but “the impact of innovation” itself, as the same Dr. Bassetti pointed out.

This was also the theme of Estensione, a university course I conceived and ran together with Francesco Samorè, presented within Final Synthesis Studio in Interior Design Degree at the Milan’s Polytechnic University, coordinated by Prof. Giulio Ceppi.

Through lessons and a cycle of open lectures, we explored the newest advancement in sciences and technological innovations, closely related to the human body at different levels. We explored subjects such as DNA and personal genomics, 3D printing of biological tissues and prostheses, as well as wearable technologies and smart spaces. Technology is now able to connect the nanoscale, defining our biology, to the macroscale of the environment surrounding us. An ‘extension’ of our minds and bodies towards the outside.

In a climate of change in regards to the usual low tech approach to the project in the italian academic environment, the students were presented advanced technological issues.

In addition, this academic project and this article desire to serve, in a certain sense, as an appeal to the new generations of designers and more generally to the Italian design to return to be an active player in the technological innovation.

The Italian project’s culture, enjoying a worldwide recognition in regards to style, intellectual depth and humanistic inheritance, has in fact all it takes to get directly involved in the field of new technologies.

This historical period sees a crisis which, yes, is economic, but is even more a crisis of values and human identity. The new man, free from religious and social dogmas, is still confused about self identity, and is more than ever in need of sensitive and responsible ‘human’ innovation.

In a very near future, intelligent devices will make possible the externalization of consciousness and of the Self. A digitalized and quantified Self on a wrist-worn display, which will be constantly haunted by the risk of being lost in the cloud of the Internet of Everything.

In this modern scenario, where technology, biology and psychology are inexorably mixed together, designing the artificial have more than just a mild impact on the human race. Today, more than ever, designing artificiality means redesigning humanity.

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