Mind-tracking and the new transparent self
Have you ever wanted to monitor your steps, heart rate, sleep, or body temperature? Nowadays, we can choose from an incredible variety of wearable devices. If you aim to move beyond tracking the physical to tracking the mind, you should probably check out the new generation of wearables: headsets with electrodes. By using Electroencephalography (EEG), these wearables work by detecting your brain waves. What does this mean for our personal thoughts and fantasies? Will they become trackable and therefore transparent? These and other ethical issues come up when thinking about the advent of such technologies.
Mind-tracking is currently gaining momentum and seems to be the ultimate form of tracking that makes the brain (and the mind?) transparent. Tracking of parameters that correlate best with various mental processes can bring about a profound change in our understanding of productivity: empowering the individual and toppling over the top-down solutions of modern corporations. In our work, we’d like to ask what will be the future of mind-tracking in the era of sharing economy. Will cooperative individualism, as a cultural basis of P2P economy, prevail and can we imagine mind-tracking playing a role in this process?
Today, we are on the brink of a new digital paradigm, where the abilities of our technology are beginning to exceed our own. Computers are deciding which products to stock on shelves, performing legal discovery and even winning game shows. They will soon be driving our cars and making medical diagnoses. Wearable tech is at the center of this flux and we have observed several trends that are driving it all, such as the Quantified Self, neuromarketing, and, last but certainly not least, affective computing. What kind of devices can we expect and what affordances will they offer?
We certainly already notice the potential of various new wearable devices that track way more than wristbands, smartwatches and smartphones. What kind of usage will we make out of them? Are they the next wave of coercive technologies or will they liberate us through making transparent our own activities that we obscure to us before? Surely, advent of wearable technologies opens up new questions concerning mediated materiality, links between the biological self and the organization as well as issues related to public/private, productivity, visibility and transparency. In my work I would like to focus on mind-trackers, a particular type of wearable technologies designed to measure mental activity of their users. Adopting a broad definition of mindtracking, we can view mindtrackers as devices that enable tracking of parameters that correlate best with various mental processes (EEG, EMG, EOG, GSR, pulse, HRV, breathing).
My working hypothesis is that tracking of parameters that correlate best with various mental processes, and the evolution of context-aware systems, can bring about a profound change in our understanding of mental transparency. One can argue that mind-tracking can be understood as a decentralizing mechanism that empowers individuals and allows for applying distributed responsibility. In the light of such interpretations, mind tracking could support extended mind hypothesis and even open up the possibility of hive-mind, often foretold by singularity enthusiasts.
However, I would like to put in question its potential as a channel for “transparency revolution”. I would also like to discuss whether mind-tracking can indeed fuel cooperative individualism or will it rather inform a new Big Brother like form of quasi-corporate collectivism? Apart from organizational considerations, a whole realm of ethical issues opens up with advent of such technologies. Let us not forget that tracking technologies allow for a high degree of surveillance and expose sensitive personal data that can be misused. Moreover, they put in questions issues of agency and responsibility as tracking devices gradually take over the roles of experts and contribute to deprofessionalization of knowledge workers.
- Clark, A., Chalmers, E. (2010): “Chapter 2. The extended mind”. In: Menary, R. (ed.): The Extended Mind, The MIT Press, pp. 27–42.
- Dow Schull, N. (2016): Keeping Track. Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation and the Data-Driven Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Heidegger, M. (1967): The question concerning technology, trans. W. Lovitt. New York: Garland.
- McLuhan, M. (I964): Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Aleksandra Przegalińska is a member of the New Research on Digital Societies (NeRDS) group at Kozminski University in Warsaw and holds an PhD from the Department of Philosophy of Culture. She wrote her thesis on the ‘Phenomenology of Virtual Beings’. As a William J. Fulbright Scholar, she majored in Sociology at The New School for Social Research in New York, where she participated in research on identity in virtual reality.
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