Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor for The Atlantic , writes in the September 2012 edition of that magazine about the upcoming wonders of the “quantified self.” To quote:
Thanks to the glories of science, we now know many strange things about how human beings work . . . And yet, all this knowledge about how to improve our bank accounts and bodies is locked away in scientific journals or deployed by marketers and advertisers. I contend that a change is sneaking up on us that’s going to allow us to take control of how we prime ourselves to live better lives . . . what I call “the programmable self” . . . New sensors that constantly measure your heart rate and skin conductance within your environment will be able to tell you that your sense of well-being is correlated with your living room but not your dining room, your kitchen but not your den. All the thoughts we’ve had about ourselves, all our intuitions, will be subject to the rigors of data-driven decision-making . . . Self-improvement meets cybernetics; behavioral psychology meets machine learning; the soft, warm body meets cold, hard data. If the 20th century was spent looking for the soul in the machine, the 21st might be [spent] discovering the machine in the soul.
This proposed future sounds more like a reductionist nightmare than a cybernetic utopia to me. Do we really want to put our bodies (and elusive souls) on par with our bank accounts?
“Behaviorial psyhology meets machine learning; the soft, warm body meets cold, hard data.” This is the reincarnation of B. F . Skinner and his 1971 proposal to move Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Skinner believed consciousness, the mind, and all mental life are merely “collateral products” of a person’s genetic and environmental structures and history. In this view the “programmable self” becomes the whole self, with no remainder—and no real soul.
And speaking of the soul . . . I’m afraid the 20th century was spent not so much looking for—and finding—the soul in the machine as it was noticing that soul had gone missing from the machine. Maybe, before we entirely give ourselves over as “programmable selves,” we need to spend some more time on the quest for the soul, especially if we now presume it is nothing more than a machine.