Are Wearables the Modern Path to Self-Awareness?

Above the entrance of the Oracle of Delphi there was a famous inscription that translated as "Know Thyself." Introspection and the examination of the contents of one's thoughts became central in much of ancient Greek philosophy. Our modern word "dialectics" originates from Socrates' idea of "dialogue"; a conversation with one's inner self and beliefs, often facilitated by an outsider philosopher. The idea of striving for self-awareness has been at the core of much of oriental philosophy too: Buddhism is all about understanding one's self and thus becoming free of delusions. Socratic dialectics and eastern philosophy were two of the main influences of the psychoanalytic movement of early 20th century. The self-questioning and self-doubting heroes in Woody Allen's films are both funny and dear because they represent our often-failing collective quest to discover who we truly are, and why others see us differently.

So I was naturally intrigued a few years ago when I first heard of the "Quantified Self" movement. Having worked with data from intensive care units, where patients are monitored for a wide range of vital signs, I was quite familiar with instrumentation and measurement of human body variables. Could the Quantify Self movement be the next logical step in the evolution of body measurement, the democratization of body data? Nevertheless, several meet-ups later I came to realize that what moved people who experimented with monitoring data about themselves went beyond the practical, or the curious. After all, in an intensive care unit there is a specific goal for body data and measurement, namely the medical stabilization of seriously affected body systems in a patient. But when it comes to healthy individuals, what is the point of keeping track of one's physical activity, or other body data?

This question is central to the future of wearable devices with the capability for measuring things about our body. This year, around 33 million wearables were sold, and the number is expected to increase by 35 percent annual rate, and reach 148 million devices by 2019. Apple Watch is expected to dominate this growth, with Google and other manufacturers following in hot pursuit. And yet, industry experts are anxious that the main obstacle in the wider consumer adoption of wearables is that people do not yet understand what is the core benefit from having them. What is missing is the "killer app" of wearables that will shift their market position from niche "nice to have" to centerpiece "must-have" gadgets.

Perhaps, innovators for killer wearable apps should look beyond the data and into the human need for self-understanding. Perhaps engineers should revisit old Buddhist texts, Freud, and Plato, and weave a narrative around wearables that opens a modern path to self-awareness. In an increasingly secular and materialistic world, data and numbers can still connect us psychologically with the abstract concepts of selfhood and consciousness. "Quantify Thyself" could thus become a new, data-driven quest for that ever-elusive unknown: our own self.