QS & The Macroscope

I am working on a book whose working title is The Quantified Self. For a long time I thought it would be a section of a larger book, called The Macroscope, but this “section” has absorbed more and more of my attention, and I’ve finally admitted that it will be a book of its own.

I’ve been reporting on this topic for several years, with the help and inspiration of a group I founded with Kevin Kelly, also called The Quantified Self. A year ago I published a short essay for Wired that gave a high level overview of how data is changing our sense of ourselves. (It is online here.) I’m currently working on a long piece for the New York Times magazine about pioneering self-trackers and what we can learn from them.

Although I’m most interested in new forms of self knowledge, at the personal level, this is only piece of a larger story about a new instrument of knowledge. That’s the macroscope. The macroscope is simply data-gathering in nature, plus computing. There are many things that it can do besides change our view of ourselves. A sensor network placed in the tops of redwood trees to sample the environment is a type of macroscope. So are pedometer readings uploaded to a web site for visualization and analysis.

The notion of the macroscope is not new. The founding members of the Royal Society (see this book) were overtaken by macroscopic enthusiasm. They took local weather measurements, and preserved and shared them in the hope that they would be useful to science. But with computing and cheap, ubiquitous sensors, sampling data in nature is easier and more powerful. The effects of these new capacities are just beginning to be felt. They will be as important as the effects of the invention of the microscope and the telescope.

I did not coin the word. Piers Anthony published a novel called Macroscope in 1969, where the word was the name of a machine to view anything anywhere. In 1971, the ecologist H.T. Odum discussed the value of using an analytical graph of energy flows in a complex ecological system, and he called such a graph a macroscope. In 1979 the French theorist of technology, Joël de Rosnay, called upon the word again for a book title. For de Rosnay, the macroscope was the ultimate cybernetic instrument, a kind of dashboard for the technocratic control of everything. And just a few years ago, the design impresario John Thackara tried again to put this word into circulation, defining it as anything that helps us calibrate our small actions in light of the big picture. None of these four meanings have much to do with the way I am using the word, except in the most general sense that each use in some way evokes the pathos of the individual analyst confronting an important but complex aggregation of facts.

But a few years ago, Gilman Tolle, a doctoral student at University of California, Berkeley, and some colleagues, installed a sensor network in a forest, using the data to monitor the micro-climate and gather data that could do dense temporal and spacial monitoring. The paper these researchers published was called A Macroscope in the Redwoods [PDF]. This is the earliest reference I could find for the word as I want to use it. For Tolle, a macroscope refers to a technological system that radically increases our ability to gather data in nature, and to analyze it for meaning. I myself first encountered the word used in this way in a talk by climate scientist Jesse Ausubel called Telescopes, Microscopes, Macroscopes, and DNA Barcodes. [PDF]  Ausubel beautifully described the increasing use of macroscopic techniques in a number of different sciences, before turning to his subject, which was entomologist Paul Hebert’s pioneering use of short sequences of DNA to identify animals.

My reporting on Hebert’s invention (plus an update here) which was recently awarded the Kavli Prize given by the American Academy for Advancing Science, led me deep into the question of how cheap and easy data-gathering techniques are changing our understanding of the world. At the moment, I’m paying close attention to the affect of the macroscope on traditional concepts of the self.