Me, My Data and I

Body hackers can get all sorts of information about their personal health.
Body hackers can get all sorts of information about their personal health. Image courtesy of Flickr user juhansonin

To treat almost any injury, I heard my father say “Rub dirt on it” often enough that, against all logic, I still believe in the healing power of soil. As for preventative medicine, in my family, it meant avoiding lepers and trying not to eat a whole cake by yourself.

Let’s just say we weren’t exactly forward-thinkers when it came to taking care of ourselves.

So I’m fascinated by those intensely self-involved geeks known as “self-quantifiers.” Put simply, they want to know everything about themselves, at least everything that can be expressed in data readouts.

They walk around wired, tracking the obvious stuff—weight, heart rate, blood pressure, footsteps. But some wear headbands every night to keep tabs on how much REM sleep they get. Or they take photos of each meal and the caloric content is automatically logged into a file. Others capture info related to their attention spans, caffeine intake, sweat output, even sexual habits. People truly committed to their “Inner Me” talk of the day when we will be able to routinely take readings of our urine to alert us to vitamin deficiencies.

Too much information? Not at all, says Tim Chang, a Silicon Valley investor quoted recently in the Financial Times. He sees “body hacking” as a leap forward in understanding what’s really going on inside us—which is why he’s putting money behind some self-tracking devices.

That said, there’s often a wide chasm between what’s possible and what’s convenient. Most of us are in no hurry to get wired up and read a bunch of printouts. But as the technology becomes less of an imposition—say, when the bathroom mirror is able to take our pulse or sensors in our clothes let us know when we need a checkup (just two of the digital medicine innovations that the physician-scientist-inventor Daniel Kraft recently postulated) — would we really want to know everything our bodies are up to?

Why not? It has to be a good thing to know our digital vitals, right? How can we become finely-tuned machines unless we know what to tune? Or more realistically, isn’t this the kind of intelligence we need to make us realize that preventative medicine means more than using handi-wipes.

And yet.

I think about how many years we’ve known about the nastiness of tobacco, but the FDA still feels it needs to slap hideous images of dead bodies and charred lungs on cigarette packs to get people to stop smoking. The ugly truth isn’t enough; you need to show the ugly.

Seems there’s a lesson here to carry with us into a future of personal quantification. For most of us, data won’t be enough. We’ll need visual jolts.

So here’s my idea. Let’s say that electronic magical mirror is refined to the point where it can gather all your key data through just a touch. Why not display the results in one of two modes, “Show” or “Tell”?

“Tell” would give it to you straight—a simple, numbers-happy printout.

But “Show” would ratchet up the drama. If your numbers are good, you’d see a different you in the mirror, one who’s 10 years younger. But if the news is grim, you’d be face-to-face with a version of yourself  that’s, well, a little bit dead.

In that future, mirrors would lie a little. But they’d still be brutally honest.

What say you?  Would you want to hack your body? And would that motivate you to take better care of yourself?

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