July 15, 2013

Scenario Planning for the "Overexamined" Life

Patrick Marren

"It's rampant narcissism!" our client said last week, exasperated. 

We had just been discussing potential future scenarios, and I had brought up the possibility that things like The Quantified Self movement, in which people record data about themselves constantly for self-improvement purposes, might grow into something much more universal. 

I first ran into The Quantified Self in the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by social psychologist and researcher Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney. The authors contended, among other things,  that self-improvement outcomes for people recording their personal data (e.g. diet, exercise, weight loss, etc.) were statistically superior to those who attempted to simply bite the bullet and, e.g., lose weight; and outcomes were improved further when such data was shared via social networks, "shaming" people into sticking to their routines rather than anonymously sloughing off: "Public information has more impact than private information." 

The Quantified Self now has 21,567 members in 103 cities in 34 countries. It does indeed appear at first blush to have a whiff of "rampant narcissism" to it. But it also seems to work (though clearly there is a large element of self-selection involved to date). It was the invention of Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, and Gary Wolf, a contributing editor to the same magazine. (Wolf discusses QS in a TED talk on Youtube here.) But this New-Agey-Meets-Tech-Nerd hypernarcissistic movement of self-absorbed affluent people may be the harbinger of something far more widespread.

Increasingly the QS people are not recording their personal data manually, by data entry, or even consciously. They are using automated gizmos to keep track of their weight, blood pressure, food intake, blood chemistry, and even their sleep patterns. 

Now let's imagine that some QS people connect their medical data to their physicians' computers, and some of them start to have their lives saved by interventions that would never have taken place if they had not been automatically recording all these numbers. 

Now let us imagine that health insurers (including the government) get wind of this.

And now let's imagine that the automatic data recorders get smaller, cheaper, faster, and less obtrusive every year. Moore's Law of Automated Narcissism. 

It's not hard to imagine a future in which this stuff becoms as universal as cable TV, the Internet, and cell phones (and part of the same networks as these). Further, I would posit that once it becomes widespread, unobtrusive and automated, it might become something like compulsory.

Opting out of Quantifying our Selves might be expensive in the future, because it will cost the rest of the insurance pool cash dollars if you fall off the wagon and start pounding cheeseburgers and milkshakes and speed-smoking Camel Wides. 

As for so many other trends, I would look to parents and children to see the future. If parents start hooking up their kids to these gizmos (as they have stuck GPS locators on them and have otherwise generally monitored them with the missionary zeal of a Scientologist with an Amway franchise), then we may soon reach a tipping point where the Quantified Self becomes the norm rather than a narcissistic cult. 

The unexamined life may be worth living. But it might not be worth insuring.