Any to oneself: the rise of reflexive technologies

Photo Christophe Deshayes & Jean-Baptiste Stuchlik / President & Director of R&D, Tech2Innovate / January 14th, 2015

In 2005, the web digitized a new and unexpected field: social relationships. By organizing our social life, the Web 2.0 and social networks have transformed our lives. At the dawn of 2015, digital technologies are about to enter another new and awaited field: our relationship with ourselves. This unlikely encounter between technology and psychology forebodes a radical transformation of our everyday life, a third phase of the digital revolution.

1995, 2005, 2015: the third digital revolution
Halfway through the 90s, the democratic power of the Internet burst to the surface. This non-hierarchical network previously used by academics and a few enthusiasts emerged from the shadows thanks to the invention of the web. The phenomenon revolutionized communication and information for everyone. Conventional unidirectional and hierarchical broadcast networks – i.e. “one to many” networks such as the TV or radio – were challenged by an alternative so-called “any to any” network where everybody could, at their own pace and according to their own criteria, organize their information.

In the mid-2000s, the democratic power of the Internet took a new leap forward with the arrival of Web 2.0, structured around Internet users and more specifically, the groups to which they belong: communities. This new type of network called “many to many” revolutionized, as everyone knows, the way we build trust (social recommendations), enrich and maintain our social relationships (social life)… with significant impact on the media (social media), advertisement (personalized targeting), business (customer relationship), politics (construction of public opinion, interaction between governors and governed), etc.

Ten years later, several quite different devices are emerging to provide the user with a new type of communication that could be described as “any to oneself.” These technologies eventually became known as reflexive and are only partially known to the general public. The most popular applications are no doubt the so-called connected objects (notably, activity bracelets) that enable a form of self-coaching thanks to a digital device, a common form of quantified self that helps change oneself by the knowledge of oneself.

Reflexive technologies: a new relationship to oneself?
Using both the calculation and storage capabilities of computers but also the accuracy of digital sensors to better understand ones own activity is anything but new. Military and top athletes know this. Such approaches have been used to perfect the movement of a military, a surgeon or a golfer. The novelty lies in the fact that these capabilities have come within everybody’s reach, as side effect of the spectacular growth of smartphones.

Aimed at the man on the street, these cheap sensors focused on monitoring such things as physical activity (number of steps) or sleep analysis (duration, depth) provide the user with objective data on his/her activity. What for? To help the user perceive the gap between his desires and the objective reality and trigger positive changes. By becoming aware for example that we only make 3,500 steps a day, instead of the 10,000 recommended by the World Health Organization to stay healthy, we understand the negative characteristics of our way of life: excessive physical inactivity is simply dangerous. Evidence and statistics backed by color diagrams can convince even the most reluctant skeptics.

These systems are typically worn as bracelets that capture activity data and send them through wireless communication protocols to our smartphone to create a feedback loop. The data encourages us to change our practices and therefore our behavior which in turn change the pattern of our activity and eventually shows in new measurements. This increasingly prevalent practice gives unparalleled visibility to a movement born in the margins: the quantified self, users who use data about their lives to improve their understanding of themselves and (possibly) change their own behaviours.

See ParisTech Review: Quantified self: a craze for measurement, an interview with Emmanuel Gadenne.

Connected objects are at the center of these systems. Connected glasses, bracelets and watches have already entered everyday lifestyles. Others seem more anecdotal but may be required in niche markets: the smart electronic fork, which literally guides users by vibrating when they eat too fast. Change in behavior is achieved in a more direct manner: technology detects unwanted behavior and alerts the user.

This example illustrates how the relation to behavior has evolved through the development of cognitive and behavioral psychology. During the twentieth century, when psychoanalysis dominated the field of psychology, it was considered (roughly) that a person who ate too much or too fast had an emotional void that his subconscious was trying to fill. Today, we consider that eating too quickly is the result of a set of unconscious automatic processes that we learn over time. It is therefore possible to unlearn these processes, by understanding how they work.

In the latter context, reflexive technologies are defined as tools of self-awareness, that help us regain control on automated processes over which we no longer have control. This is the challenge of measurement tools that offer a support to control our own activity. The foundations of behavioral psychology are resolutely optimistic: there is a decision maker in each one of us, capable of shaping our own destiny. This vision may seem naive, but it has the merit of being operational. The tools for self-awareness apply to situations that are easy to summarize: for example, a choice between what we want on the long-term (for example, weight loss) and what we want on the short term (for example, eating a cake).

Cognitive science goes one step further, showing that some of our thoughts can also be considered as automated sequences that affect our mood, emotions, but also our relationship with others, without us being aware. By gaining awareness of these mental automated sequences, we may become less pessimistic, less irritable, more open to others and even happier…

In this context, reflexive technologies can make sense. Several experiments involving mood logging have allowed people with bipolar disorders to better understand their depressive phases and situations and thus, reduce their severity.

Technology moves into the field of psychology in two directions. The first, by helping understand and use the factors that drive behavioral change in order to adopt different lifestyles. The second, by changing the psychology of individuals (mood, emotions, focus, attitude…).

Keep calm and enjoy technology
In a world increasingly overwhelmed by technology, where permanent connection is a significant source of stress, we see the appearance of new technologies that offer… disconnection! More broadly, we begin to develop technological devices to help people refocus on themselves, slow down, find a form of peace. A lab in Stanford University embarked on this adventure. Its program consists in studying the calming possibilities of technology, when it is designed for this purpose.

Several technologies used for their reflective properties have now entered in this new field.

Breathing. Breathing has a considerable impact on physiological and psychological wellbeing. Several applications such as “Let panic go”, based on the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), use breathing to fight anxiety attacks. Using the scientific results of the polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges at the University of Chigago, in June 2014, a California startup launched a connected object called Spire. Its aim is to help you focus on your breathing to relax in everyday life. By breathing slowly, one can actually manage to calm unconscious primary functions (heart, digestion…) but also some brain functions. This connected object worn on the belt is sold at a little over a hundred dollars and has met some success. It allows the user to be aware of his breathing and especially, of its impact on his relaxed state (feedback loop). This object therefore encourages the user to make pauses during the day and concentrate on breathing: it is a kind of breathing coach. More generally, the entire field of relaxation is now overrun by new technological devices.

Meditation. Focusing on ones thoughts to find calm, serenity, confidence, inner strength, is one of the goals of meditation. Many mobile applications already exist to help enthusiasts find and optimize a quiet time, conducive to mediation, in the middle of their busy day. More recently, applications offer calm and inspiring atmospheres, favoring meditation and advice. Known practitioners also offer meditation guides in the form of mobile applications, including exercises. In doing so, they merely perpetuate the tradition of meditation classes recorded on audio or videotape in the 80s: nothing new under the sun. However, in the case of meditation, sensors are rarely used. The first brain helmets aimed at the general public, such as Muse or Brainlink, provide cerebral feedback features on the level of concentration or depth of meditation, but this field is still in its infancy.

Diary. Holding a diary is a practice used by different schools to allow to remember the good times we tend to forget or underestimate and relativize the trials of life. This work of remembrance, traditionally performed with a pen and paper (what could be described as an archaic reflective technology) is now difficult to integrate into a fast-paced life where we are always on the move. There are a multitude of mobile applications for holding a diary, but experience shows that holding a diary on a smartphone is more tedious and time-consuming than with traditional methods, resulting in a high dropout rate. Conversely, the connected object Innerly was selected among 2000 startups in the Dublin Web Summit in November 2014. It offers to reinvent this practice by making it both easier (thanks to a connected pendant that records all memorable moments and their associated comments) and more interactive (viewing past events through different filters and sharing inspiring moments with close friends).

Interiority vs. exteriority
The triumph of social networks has resulted, for the millions of people that are connected on a daily basis, in establishing a new relationship to themselves and to others, with a genuine staging of themselves. Sociologists and psychologists discuss the alienating effects of these behaviors and the suffering that results from it (especially for teenagers). The interactions within these social networks continue to evolve, as the platforms change their rules and optimize the economic model that underpins their use. Meanwhile, other social networks emerge, with some success. Remarkably, they all share the same characteristics: they aim no only at bringing people together but more importantly, at intensifying their interaction. After the race to increasing the number of Facebook friends and/or Twitter followers… the time has come for discrete, ephemeral, intimate networks, indicating that the need for interiority is perhaps undermining the phenomenon of exacerbated externality.

evolution messaging

This change of regime in online social interactions opens a new phase in the digital revolution, marked on one side by a reorientation of the “social” web towards more restricted circles and on the other, by the development of reflexive technologies. Both can go hand in hand. The quantified self is based on self-concern and participation in group dynamics within communities where everyone shares with others their “performance” in a two-fold logic of emulation and support. Part of the data finishes up in the vast anonymous space of Big Data, where it feeds enormous statistical calculations. But the experience of individuals is redirected towards communities at more human scale.

This new phase of the digital revolution, if it is confirmed, could lead to significant changes in our lifestyles. Indeed, by reorienting us toward ourselves (breathing, memory, full awareness of ourselves), these technologies offer us an antidote to modern life in which the over-load and multitasking have become the norm to the point that they cause public health problems: the explosion of burn-outs, once the specificity of overworked top managers, is a good illustration of this. Well-being digital technologies, which we mentioned in ParisTech Review two years ago, confirm their breakthrough and define their challenge: they aren’t just a convenient Band-Aid to soothe the small pains of modern life, but a real shift in our lifestyles.

While science-fiction literature had accustomed us to the idea of the augmented human, with tenfold physical abilities or even calculation and memorization capabilities close to that of a computer (i.e. the human cyborg), the future of man, on a shorter term, is perhaps to regain control over his destiny by relearning to focus on himself, including on his own thoughts, emotions, attention and intentions.

Of course, under these conditions, respect for private life (what the user does) and intimacy (what the user is, feels, thinks, etc.) becomes a crucial issue. The digital industry has probably not yet taken into account the importance of this key element. Fortunately, new and more intimate social networks (more profound, involving more restricted circles) appear to have understood this need and are committed to meeting it.


Reflexive technologies received lots of attention during the last Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the largest exhibition of digital technologies in the world. Will it turn out to be a flash in the pan? A short-lived fashion? All the tools developed today will not find their place in the world to come, nor will the problems to which they are trying to bring solutions disappear anytime soon. Nobody ever saw social networking, the unlikely union of technology and sociology, coming. We could relive a similar phenomenon when technology meets psychology, with the same stunning results.

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