To say that death of privacy is “actually an ideal outcome” is a controversial statement at the best of times, but no more so than in a talk about the future of health. Tim Chang of Mayfield investment fund is a brave man, however, and on stage at Pioneers Festival in Vienna is prepared to denounce privacy in favour of creating better data feedback loops and ultimately encouraging more empathy between humans.
Heightening the privacy debate is the increasing growth in the amount of personal data floating around, which is, in part, a result of our growing obsession with measuring and quantifying our behaviour — our sleep, our steps, our calories… the list goes on. It’s a trend that has been growing since the early days of body hacking by bodybuilders, after which it was adopted by tinkering Silicon Valley early adopters obsessed with quantitative one-upmanship, and now to the general public.
“The real question we never really stopped to ask is why,” says Chang. But, he adds, it is actually a perfectly natural human urge to want to better understand ourselves. “When you look back in history, you realise that this is nothing new. We’ve always looked for frameworks to explain our behaviours.”
Before the internet, before sensors, we had the self-help industry. It is a $10 billion industry, says Chang, “but what does it actually result in? So far it’s been books and seminar and DVDs with no feedback loop.” This makes no sense, he insists. “You can only control that which you can measure.”
Sensors are changing this; they are the number one point in the feedback loop, due to the fact that they collect the precious data. We are now working at improving the analysis of the data and next we will learn how to feed back into it and control it, completing the loop. “Once we have that loop we can optimise it,” says Chang.
The combination of sensors plus social data and social mechanics means that we are in fact moving beyond using data purely for health and fitness. “We’re in an age of understanding our minds better,” says Chang. “In some ways, I wonder if mindfulness and meditation will become a new form of spirituality. Can we even achieve technology-enhanced spirituality?”
He points out that adding a feedback loop into the equation could change our perception of ancient practices like meditation. “Technology adds immediate gratification and feedback to old wisdom and practices.” Tech also brings data and maths to activities that were once viewed with suspicion and considered “voodoo-like”, giving people a common language through which to communicate.
“The root of all of this data is the story behind it all,” says Chang. “With this quantified self I wonder if really what we’re doing is capturing our stories in a way that makes it more interrelated and connectable to others.” He believes that if people cross-connect all of their digital personas, what they will realise is that despite coming from different places, their stories are similar. It is this that leads him to describe privacy as “the barrier to empathy”.
“As we get more measured and interconnected we may realise that privacy itself is actually an illusion,” he says. “Privacy is actually a battle of control and access. Privacy is a battle of who has rights to data and who doesn’t.”