My friend Rich was 25 years old when he buried his 20-year old father. His dad, a green beret, was classified as missing in action for years until his remains were finally returned to a son who longed to honor his hero. The son never experienced the joy of sharing a father’s day with the man he venerates. Yet, there exists a tangible fragment of history: a cassette tape that captures this young serviceman’s sentiments recorded to honor his dad for Father’s Day. The tape is a treasure; it delivers an audible vestige of what seemed like a loving father-son relationship between Rich’s dad and grandfather.
Perhaps in such scenarios, a son like Rich may wish for far more than a low-quality cassette recorded at one point in time. We could imagine a child might yearn for an extensive digital autobiography to better know the life of his progenitor. Technologies like lifelogging and quantified self (QS) can brilliantly inform progeny about what their ancestors did, with whom, and where. Before long, offspring may better understand emotional sentiments of their wearing and bearing predecessors as researchers are developing quantification of emotions through such technology as biosensors.
When listening to the tape, one is not only moved by the affection of the young serviceman, but also disturbed by what sounds like emotional angst. The tape had a portentous quality; the serviceman’s last words eerily presaged his demise. If we had quantified his physiological indicators, we might’ve seen data cataloguing extremely intense psychological anguish. If QS data from biosensors were available to capture such emotions, could a recorded treasure, with these wonderfully shared sentiments, be turned into a curse for a family? Might the pain be excessively injurious for a parent’s psyche? Research shows that peering into another’s life through far more innocuous tools such as social media can have a negative psychological effect on observers ; how much more so if algorithms unlock piercingly weighty data? The threshold of sufferance or exploration varies greatly for various personalities. Perhaps some data may bring pleasure; yet some data may be far too heavy burden to bear.
Christine Perakslis is Associate Professor in the MBA Program, College of Management, Johnson & Wales University, Providence, RI. Email: christine.Perakslis@jwu.edu.