Throughout history, repeated technological advancements have undoubtedly enhanced what humans are capable of, but it is the age of the “Quantified Society” where every action is recorded, measured and judged that will have the greatest potential to alter us.
Technologies such as the Nike+ FuelBand, not only measure our behaviors, but they also make this information highly visible and actionable through the creation of feedback loops which shape us physically and mentally. These information feedback loops give us new ways of perceiving each other and ourselves, altering our views of reality and potentially influencing our morality.
In the Quantified Society different types of information will change us in different ways. For example, take the insurance industry, and the ability to create individual, rather than generic “Risk Scores.” These quantified versions of ourselves threaten to create a psychological disconnect between our (quantified) real self and our perceived notions of our ideal self. Knowing that you are inherently risky has the potential to create psychological discomfort and higher premiums, but also if you know you are inherently risky, do you have a moral obligation to refrain from certain activities? What happens when this information becomes visible to others? In the world of dating, does a visibly low “Risk Score” become a key attribute in attracting a partner?
More and more information is being created in our “blind spots,” that is to say information that other people are aware of that we ourselves are not. How should companies like insurers use this information? For example, are they morally responsible to make us aware of future health issues before they arise? Or indeed, commercially, should they be allowed to act on this to alter our health premiums? These “blind spots” will dramatically increase our potential to help or harm each other, creating more opportunities for our morality to be tested. Given that such technologies and their resulting insights are unlikely to be distributed equally across society, there is real potential for them to exaggerate the gap between the haves and have-nots.
We will also want more of the data being created to remain hidden from others. Not only does this threaten to create a society of paranoid people, seeking to hide their information trails, but it also asks fundamental questions about the ideas of self-responsibility and Libertarianism. For example, if patients systematically fail to take their medication and decide to hide this from their doctor, should the doctor then be allowed to access this information, and could this information justifiably be used to withhold the patients’ treatment?
Overall, these information feedback loops are likely to lead to a society that places a greater importance on empirical, rather than human, values. And our notions of personal identity will be challenged when our personal behavior, thoughts and feelings are directly shaped by other people’s data. What is certain is that “Quantified Society” will result in a permanent digital record of the human condition, and only then will we see how well our notions of what it means to be human really measure up.