May 2, 2014

The Coming Lifestyle Revolution

It appears quite likely that the next 5 years will see the beginnings of a major lifestyle revolution in the developed world. The drivers are the usual ones: science, technology, and computing.

It is rapidly becoming feasible to measure biomarkers (which reflect physiological processes) in real time through noninvasive means similar to the wearing of a nicotine patch. The technology will be able to show blood sugar, heart rate, etc. From these and other markers much information can be inferred.

Many if not most of the early adopters of this technology will be tech-savvy Quantified Self practitioners — people who quantify certain aspects of their day-to-day functioning for self-improvement purposes. The technology will give them continual access to data they normally would receive only every few weeks or months through bloodwork, etc., allowing them to measure the physiological effects of specific actions and situations.

It will soon become apparent that many practices embedded by our modern lifestyle compromise our health and performance not just in the abstract "long term," but on an hour-to-hour timescale. Poor eating practicies, poor sleep, sitting and hunched-over poses, stresses from travel and other sources, etc. will prove to compromise optimal functioning in quantifiable ways.

Many people know these things already, but having numbers to look at in real time will vastly speed up the process of discovery and experimentation. Many of the numbers will confirm our intuitions, helping us to tune in more to our inner sensations. But there will also be many surprises, as is always the case.

Self-Quantifiers will generally be in a position to modify their lifestyles to optimize the signals they're receiving from the devices. A tweak here, a tweak there — and now you've got higher-quality sleep and the improved metabolic and hormonal function that comes with it. Some creative new poses and regimens for using the computer — and now you've gotten rid of 80% of its negative effects. Integrate walking and movement into normally stationary, sedentary activities — and now you're feeling measurably sharper throughout the day.

The numbers will provide the justification. People will grow bolder, even militant about optimizing their wellness in the face of societal pressures. It will start with the QS crowd and soon begin leaking into other segments of the population.

Software will be developed to integrate with the hardware and interpret and track the results for users. One day you may be sitting at the computer for a while, and your smartphone sends you an alert: "Your X has deteriorated Y%. Are you by chance doing ___ or ___?" You tap the screen to answer, and the software gives you some recommendations to alleviate the situation. Or, after you download the software, your smartphone may repeatedly ask how you're feeling in order to calibrate its calculations to your individual personality and physiology. The software will quickly learn what is your own personal optimum.

At first lifestyle optimization will be a hobby of the modern urban individualists — intelligent, fitness conscious, and tech-savvy young and middle-aged people. But it will inevitably bleed over into public life. First, elite schools will introduce radical changes in practices to keep kids functioning at the highest levels. Movement, standing, and walking will be integrated into learning activities, and sitting at desks will be reserved for writing tasks only. The kids' health and performance indicators will jump measurably, prompting other schools to follow suit.

Eventually changes will bleed over into healthcare, urban planning, commerce, and the workplace. The new health findings will be increasingly embraced by the wealthy, successful, and entrepreneurial, and markets will shift direction accordingly. Naturally, many backwaters will be slow to adopt the new practices, but eventually governments may begin to systematically extend the benefits to all communities as improved well-being comes to be seen as a kind of basic human right.

Health-tracking technology will affect human relationships as well. People will more clearly see the pros and cons of their various relationships and start optimizing them for improved well-being. This will likely hasten the ongoing breakdown of traditional relationship forms, which are ill-suited to the lifestyle of hyper-connected, individualistic urbanites. Partners and friends will focus more on doing things that improve their sense of well-being together in the moment. People will increasingly make relationship decisions based on concern for their health. The range of possibilities will be much wider than "to be together or not."

Again, the numbers will provide the justification. People will be looking for ways to improve their numbers, which are closely calibrated to their mood and sense of well-being. Relationships will become more flexible to allow people to take breaks from each other, share activities and experiences in new ways, and otherwise maximize relationship benefits while minimizing stress.

Not that long ago it seemed that technology was leading us towards a Matrix-esque future, where devitalized blobs of human bodies would sit motionless at their computers, immersed in a virtual reality more titillating than the real world. But surprisingly, technology will actually begin to enhance human physicality rather than suppress it. We will soon be well on our way towards an intermeshing of organic life and computation.

In as little as a decade, the image of a person hunched over in front of a computer screen into the wee hours of the morning may seem as archaic as images from the 1950s of young, radiant housewives in knee-length dresses and aprons exhuberantly washing the dishes.