The Programmable Self: Where Self-Improvement Meets Cybernetics


Why should marketers get to have all the fun manipulating our behavior?


What you can't see here are my awesome orange pants. (Heidi Moore/Instagram)

It is not every day that you get to tell a roomful of the world's most powerful people that they are going to be counting on their phones to provide them the willpower they no longer can muster. But that's what I did today.

In the opening ceremony of the Aspen Ideas Festival, I had two minutes to talk about what I see as the next step of the quantified self movement, which is the application of behavioral psychology to all this data people are collecting about themselves. It's applying data-driven decision making and mindhacks to create a better you (hopefully as defined by you yourself).

Here's what I said:

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

We're entering an age where you will program your own body by combining what we know about your brain with the data that your phone and its friends can generate about your health, wealth, and well-being.

Thanks to the glories of science, we now know many strange things about how human beings work. We know if you look at pictures of puppies and kittens, your small motor skills get better. We know that people drink more out of wide, short glasses than tall skinny ones. And we know that you're less likely to spend cash-money than card-money.

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.

Described in glorious detail in our June cover story by David Freedman, there's a new crop of apps that can help you exercise more and eat less. They are willpower aids that help guide you out of environments in which your monkey mind leads you to eating too many tortilla chips.

Farther afield, there are hundreds of people in the Bay Area who are exploring what they call "the quantified self," this idea that gathering data about yourself provides a truer picture of who and what you are than mere introspection and reasoning -- with all their built-in cognitive biases -- can provide.

Put these trends together and you've got what I call "the programmable self." The data mining techniques that WalMart has been using for years to figure out that people on the Gulf Coast buy mountains of Pop-Tarts in the days before a hurricane will be applied to your own personal data.

New sensors that constantly measure your heartrate 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. At least, that's the rather unnatural path we seem poised to take. 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 discovering the machine in the soul.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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