Big data raises, and rightfully so, data privacy concerns. We fear big data will expose our secrets to the world. But even if big data remained private, it could still expose our secrets to ourselves. In addition to its impact on our privacy, we should be concerned about how big data will impact our self-awareness.
As Scott Berkun blogged about the self-awareness paradox, “To become more self-aware you have to be self-aware enough to realize how self-aware you are not. Unless something happens that forces you to realize how inaccurate your view of yourself is, you can go through life never even knowing who you are.”
Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He was stressing the need for introspection, taking time from our busy lives to examine what we are so busy doing with our lives. In the past we could claim we were too busy for such self-examination. Now that it’s automated by apps and wearables, we no longer have that excuse. The quantified self movement puts that Socrates saying on steroids and measures how many calories it burns during its workouts. I don’t think most of us are ready for that kind of self-awareness. Is more self-awareness even what we really want? Would being more self-aware make us happier?
A lack of self-awareness, what I call self-not-so-aware-ness, is a blessing at times since it makes us blissfully blind. Happiness, according to some psychologists, is largely about self-delusion. As David McRaney explained in his book You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself, “You believe that your abilities are sound, your memories perfect, your thoughts rational and wholly conscious, the story of your life true and accurate, and your personality stable and stellar. The truth is that your brain lies to you. Inside your skull is a vast and far-reaching personal conspiracy to keep you from uncovering the facts about who you actually are, how capable you tend to be, and how confident you deserve you feel.” Since research has shown, however, people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities, maybe it’s not such a bad thing that, as McRaney explained, “you are unaware of how unaware you are.”
That is until you start tracking yourself. Fitness trackers will make you aware of how little you exercise. Calorie trackers will make you aware of how much you overeat. Financial trackers will make you aware of how foolishly you spend money. Time trackers will make you aware of how many hours you waste binge-watching television shows and movies. Location-based apps will make you aware of how predictable your daily travels are and how your world rarely expands beyond the small geographic area that surrounds your home and work. And with health trackers advancing with the goal of providing real-time monitoring of your vital signs, the quantified self may turn you into a quantified hypochondriac.
“It’s funny,” Berkun joked, “how sci-fi movies like the Terminator make a big deal about a computer becoming self-aware. It’d be bigger news if most people became self-aware.”
Artificially intelligent computers taking over the world by force will remain science fiction for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, computers forcing people to become artificially self-aware is a future becoming nearer every day. My concern is that big data and quantified self-awareness might prove to be more self-harm than self-help.