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Quantified Self and Transhumanism – A Means to an End
Thomas Damberger   Aug 17, 2015   Ethical Technology  

“Quantified Self” means self-knowledge in numbers. A goal of the Quantified Self is to capture as much data as possible about oneself and save it in digital form. This may be someone’ s weight, but also their finances, calories they burn per day, kilometers they jog, sent or received emails, pulse rate, sleep patterns, number of sexual partners or even the quality of sexual intercourse. Data are registered with special gadgets, such as fitness bracelets or smartphone applications. The digitally recorded data can then be assessed.

Most of the data could certainly be gathered without gadgets or apps. In order to measure weight, we only need a scale. However, by using new, digital technologies it is possible to also measure what otherwise escapes our clutches. This includes, for example, sleep behavior (our deep sleep or our REM phase). Digital technologies enable us so to capture things that were hidden from us previously.

fitness Increasing self-control is a significant aspect of the Quantified Self and Self-Tracking. Another aspect is self-optimization. As a rule, it is not enough for us just to collect data about ourselves. Processing this data is often about assessment according to norms. These may be social norms (in the case of weight e.g. the body mass index), but the norm is an individual one. Assessing data is therefore a matter of whether we meet the self-imposed standards, whether we are satisfied or we still see room for improvement. By using Self-Tracking, we can make the improvement visible and optimize our next step. Self-control, self-knowledge and self-optimization can be understood as expressions of autonomy. Thus, the ” Quantified Self” potentially leads to more autonomy.

Joseph Coughlin is director of the AgeLab at MIT. He notes that elderly people rarely use systems to monitor and manage their health. In his view, this has to do with the increasing physical fragility of the elderly. No one looks with pleasure in a digital mirror, only to see their physical decay. In fact, studies point out that it is young and middle-aged people who engage in the quantified self, and mainly for self-optimization.

Senior people, as opposed to younger ones, are not really apt to pursue optimization. They rather have to contend with the fact that the physical aging is often accompanied by a loss of autonomy. The term autonomy has at least three dimensions: independence, self-determination and self-responsibility. Independence is the ability to care for oneself and to be as little as possible dependent on the help of others. Self-determination means being able to live one’ s life on one’s own terms.  Self-responsibility requires older people to take precautions for the fact that they are not able to enjoy an independent and self-determined life. This can take, for example, the form of an advance health care directive.

carepredictThere are now a growing number of examples of quantified self wearables for seniors seeking more independence, self-determination and self-responsibility. The US company CarePredict now offers seniors “Tempo”, which looks like a wristwatch, connected to beacons and a hub. “Tempo” is worn on the wrist and detects the senior’s motion profile for about seven days. The data is forwarded to a server and evaluated. After seven days, a complete reference profile is available. Now, if significant deviations in the motion patterns are detected, e.g. if the senior lingers exceptionally longer than usually at the stairs, a message is sent to a predetermined person. CarePredict advertises the product with the slogan “empowering independent living for seniors”. For the purposes of self-responsibility “Tempo” could actually be seen as an autonomy enhancement technology for the elderly.

carepredictThe self-optimization, however, does not go beyond the normal level. Therefore, “Tempo” is not about human enhancement or not even about a curative intervention. “Tempo” can rather be understood as a warning, a warning about the ticking down of life’s “tempus” (“time”) towards death. The product “Tempo” may help us to cope better with the pressure of time and the loss of autonomy, but “Tempo” does not prevent this loss. This fact points out that the Quantified Self appeals to optimization, but this optimization is accomplished only within certain limits. To overcome these limitations, self-tracking applications technologies are needed which enable true self-optimization beyond current limits, which enable optimization beyond the limits. Quantified Self can therefore be seen as an eventual means to an ends of the transhumanist project.

Thomas Damberger is visiting professor for digital media at Goethe University Frankfurt (Germany). His research interests are education & digitalization, human enhancement & transhumanism, media education & philosophy of education.

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