Our Lust for Control

2014 gave rise to technology that helps us seize control of our bodies, minds, space and time.

“At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face,” Albert Camus wrote in 1942. We’ve been struck in the face quite a bit this year, from disappearing planes to the kidnapping of hundreds of innocent schoolgirls to terrorist groups that aim to draw new borders with the help of YouTube and Twitter and freshly minted gold.

Absurd, yes. Novel, not really. Each year brings its own set of absurdities, from government shutdowns to horrible hurricanes to housing market implosions to companies with little to no revenue valued in the billions. And for the last several years, we’ve been able to watch these events unfold in real time in high definition video, sound and brain dumps of 140 characters.

These absurdities are daily reminders that, for better or worse, we have little control of how the world spins. Throughout history, though, we’ve tried to seize control and combat the chaos in dozens of ways: grassroots protest, political lobbying, investigative journalism, public demonstrations, internet exposes, studies, reports, dinner party debates. The aim of these efforts is often to publicly expose the root cause, igniting the massing through reason, empathy, and sometimes pain. This hasn’t stopped, and if anything, 2014 saw a surge of people taking control of the debate by taking to the streets for Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

While there hasn’t been a seismic change in how we try to control the macro, 2014 has been a year in which we’ve obsessed over taking control of the micro. How can we better control our health? How can we better plan our days? How can we make our homes smarter and thus our lives more efficient? How can we make tiny changes to products or services that will lead to exponential growth?

To answer these questions —and wrest control of our bodies, our minds, our space, our time—information has been the weapon of choice.

We’ve put a microscope on behaviors, both our own and those of others. According to Google Search 2014 rankings, wearable computers are on the rise, as more people are signing up to count their steps, measure their sleep, and track their diets. The category, which did not exist a few years ago, is set to have over 52 million devices shipped in 2014, and nearly 1 in 5 Americans are planning to buy a smart watch in 2015. The number 1 searched fitness app was Strava, which helps track your running or cycling performance with high precision to the mile

As the adage goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Our desire to grow, change, and get better is amplified by these devices and projected into the social sphere. “Quantified self” has entered our culture, with jewels for your Jawbone and cinematic depictions of quantified self in the extreme:

Vimeo series  High Maintenance // Qasim explores the dark depths of quantified self.

Our bodies the first frontier, space and time the next. Controlling the environment and energy used in our homes was once a Jetson dream, and now you can monitor your home’s temperature, lighting and security systems without ever leaving your bed. There’s even a device to help you monitor your dog while you’re away. Today, over 2 million US households have smart home systems installed, and that’s projected to grow to 15 million by 2019. Companies big and small, from Google to Apple to Little Bits, are entering the space and responding to a growing demand for more control over their homes and their wallets.

Controlling how we spend time, a relatively recent conundrum, is a discipline on the rise. “Life hacks” exploded into relevance in late 2013, as tools and tips for managing time and improving efficiency grew across the globe.

Google Search trends for time management and life hacks.

Google Search trends for time management and life hacks.

Our lust for control is not limited to devices, apps and tools. Popular business books from 2014 like Hooked and The Power of Habit extend behavioral psychology and economics research from into practical guides on how to influence individuals and groups. At their essence, they are guides on manipulation — an increasingly important insight given the constant deluge of choices inundating all of us.

So as the world around us remains absurd and untameable, we increasingly try to control that which is in front of us: our bodies, our minds, our space, our time. To gain control, we must relinquish control of our privacy, so that the technology which “frees us” can understand us better. We must provide both explicit, stated preferences and goals, as well as implicit data from tracking our locations and actions.

Information is incredibly liberating, particularly when technology helps separate the signal from the noise. Yet the more we want to control, the more we relinquish our privacy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but perhaps it’s time for a refreshed social contract between individuals and the companies who provide that tech. Or at least a nod of awareness from individuals that, well, freedom always has a cost.

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