How to Read Your Own Body With Data

We are very good at generating data. We are just learning how to utilize it, but the mobile health revolution is one of the most promising applications we have seen in this field.

How effective are fitness-tracking devices and apps? The first time I used one I felt transformed into a machine. Not only was I tracking my own bike ride but I had synced up the app to all the social media platforms I use. There would be absolutely no letting up. I pushed myself to not only maintain a faster pace but also ride 24 miles instead of the usual 20. 


The whole world could be tracking my ride, and conscience, after all, is the knwoledge that someone is watching. It is therefore hard to convey the sense of disappointment I felt at the end of the ride when I realized the app had crashed. 

What's the Big Idea?

Your body is a data-dispensing machine, constantly giving off signals about your health. A baby's digital presence often begins before birth, starting with a sonogram. Parents may also choose to learn what genes they will be passing on to the child. Then very shortly after birth, the baby's presence is all over Facebook. Man, are we good at generating data -- 1.8 zettabytes of it, in fact, was produced in 2011, according to the firm IDC.

We are just learning how to utilize all of this data. 

The quantified self-movement aims to change this, and not only transform the way we use data to monitor ourselves but also to have some fun in the process. The photographer Rick Smolan chronicles the data revolution in his book, The Human Face of Big Data, and Smolan points to the mobile health revolution as one of the most promising applications we have seen in this field.

Smolan shared two examples of this in a recent interview with Big Think. We see on the one hand how technology can leverage data to provide the kind of "motivational hacks" that I experienced on my bike ride. On the other hand, "surreptitious technologies" can also be utilized to monitor aging patients, enabling them to live at home longer and more safely. 

The "Magic Carpet"

Smolan told us his mother is ninety years old and his father died five years ago. "My mother wanted to stay in the house where she and my farther lived together all these years," Smolan told us, "and then she started falling about three years ago."

Smolan and his siblings had a number of options. One option was to have his mother move in with him, or his brother and sister. His mother declined. So they tried live-in help. "She had complete strangers sleeping on her couch," Smolan says, "which she hated." 

Then Smolan learned about a joint venture between General Electric and Intel that is aimed at helping people remain at home longer as they get older. One "aging in place" device developed by the Intel-GE Car Innovations Lab is a prototype for the so-called Magic Carpet, a carpet with sensors that you install in the home of a loved one. Smolan tells us how it works:

It looks at my mom for the first week, for example, and it would say this is how Rick’s mom walks and moves in her normal life.  So this is how fast Rick’s mom walks, this is her balance, this is the time of day she touches the carpet.  On a day where all of a sudden my mom’s balance is off, or she’s moving more slowly or it's eleven o'clock in the morning and she hasn’t touched the carpet, which means she’s still in her bedroom, which is not normal for her, the system notifies me.

The Magic Carpet has not been released and will probably be quite expensive. To learn more about this and other "surreptitious technologies" that measure movement and behavior to help care for aging patients, we recommend Eric Dishman's TEDMED talk, here

Jawbone Up Band

As mentioned previously, fitness-tracking devices can serve as "motivational hacks" to push yourself harder to literally go the extra mile. 

Smolan shared his experience with using the Jawbone Up device that is similar to Magic Carpet in that it measures a radius of travel. "Rick normally walks ten thousand steps in the coarse of the day," it tells Smolan. "It actually shows me in my sleep when I wear this little band," he adds. "And it actually shows you when you go to bed, enter your deep sleep, your light sleep, how many times you wake up, and it turns it into sort of the gamification of health." 

Since it's a game, Smolan says, it's not surprising that "my ten year-old and twelve year-old fight over who gets to wear this band at night." 

What does this data tell us?

Smolan can see whether his children got a good night's sleep or not. "Or my ten-year-old, Jessie says, 'Dad, did you walk your ten thousand steps today?'" Smolan says. "So instead of it being something for older or infirm people, it actually makes sort of monitoring your own health something you would do with a sense of fun to it."

What's the Significance?

These are just a few examples of how data and technology can help us monitor our own health. This is significant because "Americans are spending 18 percent of our GDP on health care," Smolan says. "And as we all know, every month we get a bill that shows our cost going up and our coverage going down."

The quantified self movement is a way of taking control of our own health. This is accomplished through self-monitoring, but not in "an obsessive navel-gazing way," Smolan says. The quantified self movement is really the recognition that we need to start paying attention "to what our body is telling us, giving us signs and information way before we've come down with some of these serious illnesses."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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