Don’t unplug! Why the world’s most connected person argues for even more connectivity
Chris Dancy is not your average person. In fact, even he will tell you he’s more cyborg than human. And, watching him parse information at supercomputer speeds, the man known as the world’s most connected person may leave you just a little unsure about who has shown up for our interview on Zoom: the man or the machine. But let him speak, and you will know. The giveaway is in his humanity, in the capacity to track his data with a clear purpose of identifying what is most valuable to the human experience. And it is 5G that he believes will make us all more human.
Rising from the crashes
It was 2008, after losing his tech job with the global economic collapse, that Dancy made the foray into tracking his data. On the cusp of 40, physically unhealthy, bound to a grueling multi-decade routine of uppers and downers, and “angry all the time,” the epiphany hit.
“What would it be like if I knew as much about me as my internet browser history,” Dancy says from his home office in Houston. “That was an eyeopener, and I slowly just said: how do I make this real?”
He started with Google Calendar.
“I think if you wanted to understand someone's life, look at their calendar. Your calendar is the key to your soul for a lot of working folks.”
At that time, Calendar was relatively unique in allowing him to record everything he did, and he devised a coding system to automatically manage this record-keeping using RSS news alerts. Every time something happened to him online – someone reacted to a Facebook post, he received a work email, he posted a tweet, or he heard a song on Napster – his browser fed the information to his Calendar.
From there, new trackers happened organically: he brought in more sensors, trackers, apps, services – think 700 of them, like FitBit, Pebble watch, Google Glass, heart monitors – that would collect data as far-ranging as the environment, posture, sleeping patterns, and blood sugar.
And with Dancy, there’s always a system. “What are all the places that you express yourself digitally,” he explains, “and then what buckets would you put them in?” Eventually, he would settle on just two buckets: behavioral and biological.
Through a glass darkly
By early 2014, Dancy described himself as “disappearing.” The more information he captured, the more he saw that his habits were ingrained and repeating over very long stretches of time. “Who hasn't had a photo from Facebook show up that said: ‘One year ago you were doing this.’ You're like: ‘That's exactly what I'm doing today.’”
Calling that a time of ‘data PTSD,’ Dancy made a critical change to his approach. Citing the concept, “we don’t know how to measure what we care about, so we care about what we measure,” he began to reframe the conversation he was having with data -- moving away from the quantitative and toward the qualitative.
Dancy uses how we value a car to illustrate the change. Automobiles are measured by age and mileage, or even coolness factors, yet what we care about is that the tires and brakes are in good shape, and the gas tank is full. Still, the dashboard’s biggest visual is for speed.
He wants people to see technology through a similarly more mindful lens. “Because it's not impossible,” he said. “It just takes some effort.”
Finding Dancy in the data
Fast forward to 2020, and Dancy is gathering more data from fewer devices – when we speak, he’s hooked up to just an Apple Watch and iPhone, though many more are nearby.
“Being immersed in that much technology made me much more aware. And I think this is a real important disconnect that people have today. When they talk about technology, they automatically feel less connected to other people. What they are feeling is more connected to themselves, because it's so easy now to experience your day or your year just by using your devices.”
The Covid-19 pandemic offers another illustration of how technology can keep us connected, despite social distancing and sequestered living.
“I used to think that I was such an amazingly good cyborg, right?” Dancy says. “But what I found was, I became a really amazing human.”
He talks about putting people back into the technology, an idea he illustrates with his elevated commercial interactions.
“When I order food on an app and we’re in a world where we're socially distanced, I use the special instructions to thank people for making the food and to wish them well, not to ask for extra mayo. Now I use geo-fences not to tell me to eat better, but to remind me to talk to the cashier, who's behind a glass wall or partition.
“We're not missing an opportunity by using more technology,” he insists. “Technology gives us a way to exemplify and amplify that there should be a Moore's law on human thriving.”
Trail of humankind
All that tracking worked: over time, he lost 100 pounds, went off meds, and found a partner (whom he, yes, met through an app where he selected his desired biological, behavioral and education attributes and then just waited for Fernando to cross into his geo-fenced dating sphere).
He has also parlayed his personal journey into a career, with the Netflix show Dark Net and a busy speaking schedule.
His 2018 book Don’t Unplug: How technology saved my life and can save yours too was a deliberate response to a modern movement toward digital sabbaticals. Dancy wanted to show how his life from 1968 to 2018 had evolved and turned into one that was much more human-centered.
He also works with companies like Microsoft, Fitbit, Telia and others to develop apps that are both healthy and empowering. One was a fitness app for kids where increases in their data were tied to being active; the result was a marked decrease in aggressive behaviors and depression. Another involved controlling streetlights to curb speeding, which resulted in fewer traffic accidents. He’s also worked on a massive genealogy project mapping the Mormon Church’s ancestry – a project that has him thinking about what future generations will want to see from us.
“Genetics now unlock so much of who we were and where we've come from,” he says, “but our MAC (hardware) addresses will unlock so much of our future. Our MAC addresses and our behavior footprints are what our future ancestors want. They'll want to know what we did with our time, where did we migrate from, how did we migrate, and at what speed?”
Connections as life force
With a career that spans the world, Dancy has an awesome first-hand view into the fundamental need for continuous connection. “If there's one thing that I don't want ever to go away, it would be cellular connectivity.” He always travels with two phones, one connected to home and a second with a local SIM card so he’s never out of touch.
He’s only deliberately disconnected twice in the past dozen years. Once while on honeymoon and a second time when he joined a 10-day Buddhist retreat. Otherwise, he’s connected, and sometimes eerily so. After so many years of wearing sensors, he says he’s become one. He claims he can gauge someone else’s heart rate, blood pressure or blood oxygen, just by looking at them. Even if he is a cyborg, he still needs a good network connection.
“Can I have a first world problem?” he asks. “I wish Airbnb didn't have ratings for comfort, but ratings for speed of the network. Oftentimes I am so scheduled and so planned that having to wait just a few seconds to get one answer will put a kink in the plan.”
It’s not just the speed of network connections; it’s also how fast we configure devices on those networks. Adding Bluetooth, for example, or hooking into new location and search sensors, and other ultra-wideband sensors coming to market. “It's not easy. I speak to so many people on Zoom meetings, and they never know which headset to put in or which mic is turned on. We need to go a lot farther in helping people be in the moment.”
5G: Consciousness raised
And that’s where 5G comes in. Dancy believes that the “organic” nature of 5G will trigger new possibilities, well beyond what the “mechanics” of 4G connectivity made possible.
“If we think we're interconnected now, 5G will blow our minds,” he predicts.
He uses the autonomous car to describe this transition; technology that will self-configure, make assumptions, and decide for us in ways we cannot yet envision.
Coffee offers an even more tangible example.
Not long ago, you had to walk into a coffee shop and wait in line for a cashier. 4G made it possible to order and pay with an app on a phone, and have the drink waiting when you arrived. That vendor also tracked the supply chain, all the way from who’s growing beans in which weather conditions, shipment, processing and more. Redundancy, scale, security – they're all essential to keeping that 4G system well-oiled.
Think 5G, where the network is aware of itself to even the tiniest of components, and each serves an identifiable purpose. “Organic networks function as a species,” Dancy says. He imagines a world where we might not order a coffee; we would order a set of working conditions that align to our values.
“Maybe we want a cup of coffee from a grower who celebrated a wedding or birthday the day before a specific harvest. Or we want a grower who has been sleeping well or treats his help with particular care,” he says.
“We can start to understand our potential for love, our potential for support. If you want a more just, more equal world, you don't need fewer tools. You need better access. 5G is the promise of more humanity because the access is there.”
The advent of 5G ushers in more talk about the melding of human and machine. As Dancy says: “There’s a new generation of young people who don’t have anything implanted in them, but they may as well. They're so influenced by their devices and technology that it's hard to tell where the machine starts, and the person stops.”
He believes we need the conversation now about what those future networks and interfaces will look like. And if we get it right and everyone has access, then who will get priority – which promises to be another complex human equation that some may game better than others.
No surprise, Dancy is big on being understood. He would never use a technological term when an emotion could do the job so much better. When asked about the Internet of Things, he calls it an ugly term.
“Is my washing machine a thing? No, it cleans my clothes, so I don't get sick. Is my garage opener a thing? No, it lets me in the house, so I can see my spouse. We have to stop talking about technology like it's something foreign, in the distance. We’re in a world where one third of the population has become technology. Your kids aren't things, they aren't nodes. They're people who are augmented in this way. If we talked about the Internet of Things in a way that talked about the values connected to those things, it wouldn't be a thing.”
You are not alone
Dancy also refers to the Internet of Humanity, which he says is about being aware of our mutual interdependence.
“If a node on a network goes down, the interdependency is obvious. We have failover plans to fix all sorts of network issues. We haven't had failover plans for human behavior. Our failover plans look like wars or famine or abuse. But with a network in these new terms, 5G and beyond, we're going to start to see these things and have redundant systems around them. So, when I say Internet of Humanity, I literally mean the awareness that we haven't had, that we deserve, to need each other.”
Dancy is like a digital map to the Internet of Humanity. As our interview closes, he doesn’t just say thank you. He reaches out to anyone who might read this article or watch the video replay and want to connect.
“I'm just Chris Dancy on Twitter. You can Google ‘most connected.’ But more importantly, my phone number is literally on my website. If you're watching this video and you feel inspired or you're watching this video and you feel sad or you're watching this video and you just feel confused or worried about yourself or your kids, I answer the phone all day long from strangers all over the world. I don't know you, but I care about you. Please, please, please, don't hold it inside.”
A cyborg with a heart.
About Chris Dancy
Health and wellness pioneer, healthcare technology leader and entrepreneur, Christopher Dancy is frequently referred to as “the world’s most connected human.” Since the 1990s, when he was responsible for platform and technical development for the internet startup of WebMD, he has helped launch a number of successful startup companies in the technology and healthcare industries while serving in digital product development, senior management and leadership roles.
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