This is the second in our two-part series of practical philosophy essays.  For a more thorough description of how this came to be, and to read the first installment, please see the post from a few months ago: Revising Memories.  Whereas that essay focused on the implications of a technology that is still far from being ready for routine application, this one revolves around a technology that has become pervasive in our lives and is being implemented every day: fitness tracking technology.  More specifically, this is intended as an examination of the use of fitness tracking technology in the context of health insurance.

It might be more accurate to say that this is an examination of the data-driven life that was prompted by interaction with insurance-based fitness tracking and reporting technologies.  Thanks to technology, we increasingly surround ourselves with data.  Maybe the earliest example of this was the records kept in cuneiform by the Sumerians in order to administer the earliest human city-states (read: to tax the population of said city-states).  In more recent history, time-keeping might be an example of data coming to drive our lives.  As timepieces became more common and standardized, largely in relation to the railroads, we started regulating our lives according to a common understanding of the passage of minutes and hours.

Even more recently, especially in the past fifty years or so, the advent of ubiquitous personal computers and cheap, mass-scale digital technologies has allowed us to surround ourselves with data-generating devices.  We have reached a point where we can take in data about veritably every aspect of our lives, compile that data, and analyze that data.  Scientists, actuaries, and data scientists have studied these data, and are growing closer to optimization of the human existence.  This volume of individualized data, combined with an increasingly advanced understanding of genetics, means that we are approaching an understanding of how to ‘perfect’ humanity.

Such detailed, tailored, data-driven approaches to human existence are already commonplace in competitive athletics.  Techniques are recorded and broken down on the scale of milliseconds, whether it’s swinging a bat or a runner’s stride.  On the personal level, just five hundred dollars will acquire for you a watch-sized sensor suite capable of tracking your location, altitude, the barometric pressure, calculated recovery time, VO2 max, heart rate, estimated stress level, sleep characteristics, personal energy level, oxygen absorption, fitness minutes, and hydration.

These technologies, and the understanding of human physiology to utilize them, will only continue to improve.  Imagine a future in which we can wear devices that will also track and record our brain activity, our biochemical balances, our mitochondrial efficiencies, our rate of genetic decay, the lengths of our telomeres, a dozen other data points.  With such a profusion of data, and the understanding of physiology to accompany it, our devices could guide us through life so that we can ‘perfect’ ourselves, optimizing our stress levels, when we rest, when we’re active, how much we exercise and in what manner, how much and what we eat, even when we do our best thinking.  It could extend healthy lifespans, improve health outcomes, and enable more productive, fulfilling lives.

The obvious flaw in this data-driven utopia is security, but this is not an essay about security.  If you don’t see all the ways such pervasive tracking and data collection could go wrong, please obtain and read a copy of 1984 with all possible haste.  No, for this essay I will choose to assume that, somehow, security and exploitation of these data is not a concern.  Instead, I want to focus on the desirability and morality of pursuing such a perfected life.  In this way the question becomes far more challenging, for how does one argue against optimization?  If this technology can enable us to be more productive, healthier, and more fulfilled, what possible argument can be made for why implementing it would be detrimental?

Since I’m writing this essay, you’ve probably gathered that I have a suitable argument.  At its core is a simple concept: human fulfillment and happiness is derived more from intrinsic determination than from the achievement of objectives or any type of purported perfection.  This is the basis of my argument, and an assertion that will doubtless elicit controversy in certain circles, especially those that argue against the existence of free will.  Deterministic philosophies are fundamentally incompatible with my argument, and indeed bring into question the need for this conversation at all, but that is an entirely different topic for another post that I doubt I will ever write.  To return to the topic at hand, I assert that while the scale, scope, and effectiveness of the technology enabling this idea of a ‘perfected life’ is new, the concept is familiar, and is not embraced precisely because fulfillment and happiness cannot be attained by directive.

Without the aid of any devices or sensors, I know all manner of changes I could make to objectively improve my wellbeing.  Though I exercise regularly, I should incorporate more strength training, and activities other than running.  Though I maintain a healthy diet most of the time, there are indulgences I should consume less often.  Though I read consistently, I could read more, and focus more on scholarly pieces.  Though I write routinely, I don’t always make as much progress as I could during my writing time.  All of these are areas in which I know I can improve without consulting sensors and technology, and I could continue listing my inadequacies.

I do make efforts to improve myself in some of these areas, so do not mistake this for an argument against self-improvement.  Rather, it is an argument against perfection by diktat or external compulsion.  The optimized individual who achieves that state not through internally generated exertion of will but by the compulsion of some external minder, be it authoritative or technological, is no more or less than any engineered thing, and indeed is surely a miserable creature, devoid of the fulfillment ostensibly derived by that state of being, for in this matter causation has been mistakenly identified in what is only a correlation between optimization and fulfillment.  On the contrary, the person who is not optimized, but strives to achieve a state consistent with their own desires and satisfaction, is assuredly more fulfilled even when the goal remains unachieved.

It is therefore not the technology that is flawed, but its implementation, since gathering such data can be useful to inform one’s own efforts.  It is the harnessing of that data to compel or manipulate one into achieving an optimized state that is troublesome.  Optimization of the individual in this manner mistakes correlation and causation, for the “perfected” person is healthy as a byproduct of their fulfillment, not as a cause.  An effort at perfection through external influence ignores the internal prioritization.  Optimizing myself, according to the models employed by such devices, might require exercising in specific ways for a specific amount of time per week, but my own priorities in life may be different.  A fulfilling life may not be the product of achieving a state of physical perfection and longevity, which is not acknowledged by these optimization models.

Gamification, financial incentives, social influence, legal diktat, threats, rewards: these psychological tools of manipulation are external motivators, and they may be successful in driving individuals to achieve the optimized state predicted by the best models of human existence.  Even the most individualized models, though will fall short of providing fulfillment when approached in these fashions, for in this way achievement of the goal is no longer self-actualization, but other-actualization, and will be concomitantly less personally fulfilling and impactful on individual happiness and contentment.

One day, we might achieve such a complete understanding of humanity, such mastery of technology, such capacity for data and computing, that we can produce individualized optimization plans for everyone, replete with incentives and immersive nudges, that would enable everyone to live a “perfected” life, long, free from health problems, and saturated with objective measures of happiness.  Such an existence would be utter misery, empty and unfulfilling, for there would be no room for freedom, for variety, for decision and thought, these things most fundamental to human fulfillment.  It is better to be imperfect and striving than to be optimized and empty, for it is in challenge and change, dynamism and decision that the meaning of the human experience lies.

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