The Measure of a Man in the Digital Age

I contemplate the tracks of my peers as technology and personhood become more intertwined. 

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do you want your life to be measured?  By what will be written on your tombstone?  Whether or not your kids return your phone calls?  Your high score on Angry Birds?

From a moral, religious, or ethical standpoint, how men are valued comes in a myriad of ways.  Gender roles and cultural mores shape these things, but trying to find a common metric of comparison (besides, say, not murdering people) is impossible.  In one sense, it should be—who am I to tell another guy how he should live his life and what he should find of value?

The emergence of digital technology like Quantified Self (QS), the Internet of Things (IOT), and Augmented Reality (AR) is changing this basic and long-held autonomy of disparate values.  (In short: Quantified Self means apps measure behavior via feedback loops and optimize your life; the Internet of Things means objects are connected to the Internet/us; and, Augmented Reality is a technology that overlays virtual/digital data on top of your phone’s camera screen).  In short: we’re being tracked.  Give it a less dystopian name, but in an average man’s day, here’s how our actions are being measured via quantified and digital means:

  • Drive to work – EZ Pass deducts money when you drive through the turnstile on the highway (location + monetary data)
  • GPS – monitors where you walk/travel (note: many feature phones versus smart phones can track location unless you remove the battery like you’re in a spy movie)
  • Social channels – Facebook and Google know more about you than most lovers.  Nielsen and other tracking methodologies that gauge personalization and preference data have some of the most advanced algorithms on the planet.
  • Cultural habits – How often have you seen friends say something like the following in two tweets: (Tweet #1) STOKED to get my new widescreen TV! #imawesome (Tweet #2) STOKED to go to Paris for two weeks with the family #pleaserobmenow
  • Google/Searches – Read Eli Parser’s excellent book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You.  We all know that naughty sites get tracked, cookie-removal or no. Parser’s book talks about the dangers of hyper-personalization where two people sitting next to each other could do searches with identical keywords and get completely different results.  We blame millenials for only being focused on themselves, but like Clockwork Orange technology steers their homogenized online experiences via the established paradigms of search.

Keep in mind—this stuff is all happening now. Here’s how things are moving via QS, IOT, and AR:

  • Hyper monitoring – As QS/IOT sensors become cheaper, the pills we swallow can have chips to measure the contents of our body.  Think, The Fantastic Voyage meets Pepto Bismol.
  • Hyper tagging – The new IPv6  version of the Internet is on the way.  This means we’re moving towards IOT on steroids.  For the geeks out there, IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, allowing for 2128, or approximately 3.4×1038 URL addresses—more than 7.9×1028 times as many as IPv4.  In layman’s terms, a shit-ton of new URL’s will be available very soon, so for instance, we could literally tag all of the bacteria in every global individual’s body around the globe.  Head to GoDaddy to claim “myHpylori.com” NOW.
  • Smart Objects – This is essentially the IOT, but instead of just having a light bulb at home you can turn on/off remotely from the office, smart thermostats will learn how you heat your house and when.  Cars are also getting smarter by the minute, as WIRED recently noted in their article, Forget the Internet of Things, here comes the Internet of Cars.  Accelerators can be easily outfitted with sensors to see who’s a lead foot so your insurance rates will go up.  Or teens can be monitored and automatically texted when they’re out of a certain physical range as noted by their parents (which will inspire a whole new level of hormone-induced-angst-hacking).
  • Virtual Currency – You may not give a rat’s ass about gaming, but the BILLION dollar industry’s killer secret is not about cloaking yourself as a pregnant gargoyle to slay at will.  It’s the idea of paying actual money/specie to have you buy virtual stuff.  Who cares, you say?  Think about this—a great deal of the money spent in these environments is by people buying characters grown/created by expert players who then sell them to newbies.  This means they are selling TIME SAVED.  And I don’t need to use twelve metaphors to tell you how lucrative that is—and this notion is moving beyond gaming environments.  Think about sites like Quora where your expert advice gets you higher peer ratings.  Now you’ll also get paid.

I could go on like this, but the sum total of all of these trends and techs is something I call Accountability Based Influence, or ABI.  All that means is that there are hundreds of digital environments where people gauge who you are, your measure, on what you do versus what you say.  Are you a thieving racist?  I don’t give a squat on eBay if you’ve got a killer seller rating and I get my Furbie UNSCATHED.  Are you abusive to Starbucks baristas?  No me importa, amigo IF the Starship vinyl you sent is unscratched so I can meditate to, “We Built This City.”

Getting the picture?

Take the car examples I gave above a few clicks further.  M2M (Machine to Machine) or V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle) protocols are improving and coupled with simple camera tech, if you’re a lead foot I can take your license’s picture and this can be mapped on a database.  You may be rich and good looking but on my “Who’s a Dick” driving app you’re a two out of ten and avoided at dinner parties.

Now picture Every Man’s Battle with pornography on a hyper-digital level.  Stare at MAXIM too long on the rack?  The eye-tracking technology mounted on cameras in the store could register your preference and start sending you dirty emails.  Does you gaze linger too long on your colleague at work?  She doesn’t need to notice – your wristwatch monitor is registering increased heart rate signals to the smart-office enhanced sensors in your walls.  HR is waiting for you at your desk with the security guard.

Here’s one last fun one—smart carpets embedded with sensors can learn an aging parent’s habits so if his/her patterns change a child can be alerted to potential medical mishaps.  So get ready for an oriental rug to text you in the near future asking, “why haven’t you called your mother?”

I’m a big believer in the idea from Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  I want to test and optimize, fail and learn.  I want my kids to see a man who is willing to scrutinize the unpleasant to achieve the improved.  Like my man Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then (in heaven) face to face.  Now I know in part; but then I know even as also I am known.”

The veil is being lifted.  Our actions are becoming visible.  Happy to chat about ethics, but your data’s hanging out and it ain’t always pretty.  We’re at a time of challenge and controversy, and as MLK says, it’s time to take a stand.  So ask yourself in the crossroads of this new digital environment we’re standing in right now:

What’s the measure of your life? 

 

Photo credit: Flickr / ssoosay

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About John C. Havens

John C. Havens is Founder of the H(app)athon Project, an initiative that utilizes emerging technology to improve human-well being and drive positive social change. He’s also a contributing writer for Mashable and author of, H(app)y – The Value of Well-Being in a Digital Economy (Tarcher/Penguin, 2014).

Comments

  1. Wow! What a great and challenging piece. Loved the way you ended it. Great question to ask ourselves.
    There is so much I don’t know about all this tech stuff, but I’m open to learning. You’ve give me some excellent starting points. Much appreciated. Cheers!
    Bruce

  2. My pleasure, Bruce. Glad you enjoyed it!

    JCH

  3. Well, I expected a different article than what I found. It seems to be more about how the Corporatocracy is continuing to violate basic human rights and our inability to stop them…except to stop buying their crap. I will never again carry a smart phone (or even own one, for that matter). I don’t shop in dept. stores anymore b/c I won’t support slave labor. I don’t announce over insecure networks my activities and thoughts and would love to encrypt EVERYTHING I do online except that my friends aren’t up to speed YET.
    But my question is, accountable to whom? And why should I be accountable to ANYone except for a few specific people with whom I share contracts with? Are you saying that I should be technologically shamed into compliance with religiously dictated standards about viewing nude peoples’ pics? I’m not quite clear about what you are saying.

    • Hi Clark,

      Thanks for the comments. And no, I would never want you to feel shamed. To your point, the intimacy of accountability is up to you or any individual – meaning, those people who you want to share it with. What freaks me out is how things like google maps or other technologies don’t give me the option to decide how or when I’d like to be measured, tracked, observed or whatever. For instance, my house (and I’m sure yours) is easily viewable on google maps. Me or my kids may not be in the picture, but it feels like an invasion of privacy. So one big part of what I meant to do with this article was not to frustrate you or anyone else but point out how prevalent these types of tracking behaviors have gone, whether you or I carry a smart phone or even go online (eg Google Maps).

      To that extent, I did intend the piece to be a caveat of sorts to say that if people (mainly who use social networks a lot to build their influence by things like comments on twitter, etc) think their influence or appeal is just about their words in this framework of technology, that’s not really true anymore. GPS, etc, can ‘betray’ where you’ve gone even if you’ve said you went somewhere else. In this sense, I’m not trying to judge/direct you or anyone else – it’s simply a fact. Just like in real life, we could say we’re calling someone from work but we’re actually at the movies. But the tech will make it harder for those types of behaviors to work anymore. So the cultural craziness we’re going to face will be huge.

      Lastly then, what I was trying to say is within this framework, a guy can choose to recognize the (potentially inevitable) ubiquity of technology and use it as a tool when he (as an individual) chooses to track or optimize his behavior. That’s what the whole Quantified Self movement is about. Right now people are optimizing mainly be exercising, eating better, etc, which is great. Soon I think it will evolve to things like the driving example I mentioned above. While I wouldn’t hold you or any other guy accountable for personal choices about what you watch, do, who you marry/date, etc, I would certainly be pissed if I could automatically see by an app that you/anyone else frequently drove recklessly and endangered people’s lives.

      Anyway, really long answer and I hope I helped. But I appreciate your reading the piece and leaving a comment. Very helpful as I continue to think on these subjects.

      Cheers,
      JCH

  4. Hamid Farzaneh says:

    John,

    Very thoughtful piece. Thank you! Privacy and personal freedom are at risk of continued erosion, mainly because we surrender bit by bit in exchange for the convenience we enjoy from technology. Given the sneaky nature of technology progress, how do we effectively avoid the “slowly boiling frog” syndrom? I don’t have an answer to that but while I am pessimistic about the natural laziness of human being, history shows us many examples of successful resistance that at first was viewed as hopeless and futile. In sum, I am pessimistically optimistic…

  5. It seems to me that the real issue is who does the measuring. We’re not measuring each other or ourselves with invasive technologies — though the door might be open to such a thing at some point, surely. As of this moment, as I see it, “man is [still] the measure of all things,” with respect to interpersonal skills and personal reflection. What is really revealed here is the growing power differential between corporations and persons — a differential that continues to frighten me.

    At the same time, tracking people’s interests is nothing particularly new, conceptually. We see innovations that allow for more targeted information gathering and dissemination, but it’s still, fundamentally, marketing that is at issue. (And given that, the relationship between aggregated data and individuals is complicated, and increasing in its complication as technology marches forward. But that’s another topic entirely….)

    Provocative post. Well done.

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