Coffee with a Cyborg
If you watch many media accounts of Chris Dancy, the “most connected man on Earth”, you could be forgiven for imagining him as a pathological organizer who places the latest IT gadgets and sensors on himself and around his home in an effort to quantify everything. While Chris is certainly eccentric, when we met this morning at a local coffee shop, I found out just how intentional he was with his technology. Throughout our entire conversation, only once was he visibly distracted and that was because his phone was alerting him that it was time to think of one thing he was grateful for. Compare that with what you generally think of as “connected”. I usually think about a group of teens eating dinner together where never more than two or three of them are talking (audible mouth talking that is) to one another. The rest are on their devices. Sherry Turkle has described this situation succinctly; “When friends are together, they fall into inattention and feel comfortable retreating into their own worlds.” (4) Dancy suggests there is another path, a middle way as he calls it.
When he talks about data, privacy does not come up often. From his perspective privacy is over.* Rather than try to thwart the corporations monetizing your data, he suggests you use your own data to take a hard look through your data exhaust and find ways to rebuild your environment. He is not alone in this endeavor. The idea of quantifying and digitizing personal information in order to find correlations and make behavioral changes is the mission of a movement Dancy is a part of called “The Quantified Self”. He provided an example to illustrate: by collecting all of his Facebook activity, he was able to see which links he was clicking and eventually came to the conclusion that many of the most-clicked links did not align with his values. This is the forced reflection that Dancy considers important personal work. "Sometimes it is ugly,“ he explains, but without examining this deep into his data he would never have made the many discoveries that monitoring so much of his life has allowed. He fiercely believes that technology should be making your life better. That message can be hard to stomach, given how many people we encounter bent over their smartphone screens doing nothing in particular. His experiments add nuance to the conversation society is having about technology. He refuses to accept the false dichotomy of being pro- or anti-technology. He manages to live a calm life, coexisting in the real and digital worlds. He values data-driven reflection as a catalyst for personal growth.
From a societal perspective, the central rift he points to is that capitalist companies require efficiencies and speed to compete - we live in the "age of accelerations” as Thomas Friedman puts it - while human biology has built in speed limits (2). Dancy sees the abuse of technology as cultivating an unhealthy set of expectations for our environment. People begin to treat each other like Google. They want an answer and they want it now. Treating human relationships in strictly transactional terms weakens our bonds to one another and erodes the connections between us. Today, he prefers the term “mindful cyborg” to “most connected man” and I understand why. It conveys more of his values and tells you more about his motivations. Having made a career out of being entirely modern, it makes me smile that his central tenet seems to come straight from Ancient Greece’s Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (3)
*Dancy views privacy as a concept that we need to get over and represents a fetish of the middle class, with the top and bottom classes not caring and not having the resources to care, respectively. When talking about privacy you get a sense that he does not see any merit in trying to put the genie back in the bottle. (1)
C. Dancy (personal communication, June 28, 2017)
Friedman, T. (2016). Opinion | Beware: Exploding Politics. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 29 June 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/02/opinion/beware-exploding-politics.html
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation : the power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin Press.