Quantify me: The hidden risks of a wearable future

Wearable technology has sparked a growing trend to quantify ourselves, but does the data we gather help us or cause more problems than it solves? We dig into the darker side of the phenomenon

It started with fitness monitors such as Jawbone, Fitbit and Misfit, and from there the range of wearables has steadily expanded to include everything from sleep monitors to pregnancy-specific devices.

But is the data we collect about our movement, exercise and health purely beneficial to us, or does it pose problems?

upmove-highres-023_editThere have been many suggestions that health-focused wearables and other monitors can be positive as a tool to change behaviours and improve health – helping us to monitor everything from heartbeat to blood sugar levels – but is this level of monitoring psychologically safe?

“As far as I can see, wearing this stuff is a fast way to feeling terrible about yourself,” says Dr Charlotte Cooper, a London-based integrative psychotherapist.

Many of Cooper’s clients are people who monitor their lives, “mainly in terms of what they eat and how much exercise they do”. Self-quantifying may serve as tool in some cases, but it is equally as likely to become another way for people to scrutinize their bodies.

Scrutinise me

If the widespread rise of wearables does prove to be harmful, therapists are poorly prepared to deal with the consequences, says Cooper. “The therapy industry in the UK has barely got to grips with the most rudimentary aspects of online technology. It is viewed with some suspicion, to put it mildly. Nobody is talking about this stuff as far as I can see, and it is worrying because it affects how people think of themselves and it is not going to go away.”

Therapy research is still in its infancy in the UK, she adds, and information takes a long time to emerge. “It’s hard to imagine anyone having sophisticated conversations within the industry about the social implications of self-monitoring and technology at the moment; perhaps this will start to happen when we begin to see clients struggling with these things. Poor clients, it would be better if we were prepared for them.”

Cooper isn’t the only health professional concerned about the implications of self-monitoring with wearables. Scottish GP Des Spence spoke out on the potentially harmful effects of wearables in a recent BMJ article. “The truth is that these apps and devices are untested and unscientific, and they will open the door of uncertainty,” he said. “Make no mistake: diagnostic uncertainty ignites extreme anxiety in people.”

But collecting information about ourselves isn’t necessarily a problem, says Cooper. “Data is fine – it’s the interpretation that becomes problematic because, as anyone who has ever stepped on a scale knows, this is always infused with morality and judgment. It is ridiculous that a 9,000 step day would be a failure but a 10,000 step day would be virtuous, for example. It’s a mentality that is very familiar to dieters.”

Analyse me

Research shows that almost three quarters of wearables users share their collected data with others, with the majority prepared to pay to have the information analysed by a professional. With growing interest in professional feedback, it’s only a matter of time before companies begin capitalising on this demand by offering subscription-based services.

Major players in the fitness tracker world, such as Fitbit and Misfit, could even provide a package as part of their associated apps. This should appeal to companies in terms of profits, since a service like this would ensure ongoing charges to the customer long after they’ve purchased a tracker.

The quantified self is an improved self, according to Jawbone

Jawbone, a San Francisco based brand, says the social aspect of wearables is key to its products. “We know that the social aspect of our platform is really important for maintained engagement – and this is coming through in the data.”

Producers such as Jawbone are selling us the idea of self-improvement. The tagline on the brand’s website exclaims: “There’s a better version of you out there. Get and find it.”

The quantified self is an improved self, according to Jawbone, which promises: “By putting sensors on the body, we can help people make more informed decisions. UP® gives you a total picture of yourself based on your sleep, movement and meals. At the heart of our system is ‘track, understand and act’. Our job is to help people make sense of the data they are tracking – to understand it, to know what to do with it and how they can change their lives – and not to put pressure on them.”

Control me

Cooper has serious reservations about this profit-driven trend. “I am bothered by how people are placing their bodies and trust into corporations,” she says. “Wearable tech is about privacy, of course, and the encroaching corporate intrusion into our most intimate lives.

“But it’s also about relinquishing control of ourselves to a corporation that is perceived as more expert than we are about our own bodies. People’s experiences of embodiment are very nuanced, and this one-size-fits-all approach flattens that out and transforms it into something marketable. I hope that activists will become organised against this – it is a form of corporate colonisation.”

Giving your intimate bodily health details to Samsung through their health app is far in excess of even Orwell’s dystopic nightmares

Micha Cárdenas, an activist, theorist and academic who works in digital media, performance and social practice, shares these concerns. “In the past few years, it has been made very apparent that not only are governments and corporations colluding to monitor populations, but corporations like Facebook are going so far as to unwillingly experiment on us,” she points out.

“Giving every address of your friends and family and the places you frequent to Google by using their maps application is bad enough, but giving your intimate bodily health details such as heart rate, amount of exercise and caloric intake to Samsung through their health app is far in excess of even Orwell’s dystopic nightmares. Imagine the kind of control over populations that may result from a widespread adoption of these technologies? People are carelessly handing over that power to private entities who have no promise of or track record of ethical behaviour.”

Disconnect me

Cárdenas and Cooper are also concerned about the question of security and privacy when it comes to wearable monitors, and how these devices can be used against us, with or without our consent and knowledge – by both hackers and big data miners.

While both encourage a healthy scepticism of wearables, Cárdenas is actively involved using tech to liberationist ends. “So many of us today are disconnected from our bodies, whether from trauma or stress, that any moment taken to think about the state of one’s body, I think, is an opportunity to reconnect with it,” she says. “But the method of quantifying our bodies also contains the danger of abstracting our bodies away, so that instead of actually connecting through breath, stillness and movement, we are further disconnected by imagining that numbers and icons are our bodies.”

The method of quantifying our bodies also contains the danger of abstracting our bodies away

“To even think that there is a single self that can be quantified is a deeply problematic relic of Western enlightenment thinking that needs to be done away with,” says Cárdenas. “Why would you think you’re the same self sitting in traffic as the self who makes love to your partner? We are all in constant transition – of age, health, accomplishment, in our ideas – and pinning that down to a single self is tragically reductive. The most important things in life are unquantifiable: love, healing, justice, joy.”

Persuade me

Our relationship with wearables is still emerging. Long-term trends indicate consumers are enthusiastic about wearables, but are quick to grow bored with these gadgets – with up to one third of consumers abandoning their devices.


Inline images courtesy of Jawbone.

Six months after their launch, hundreds of Galaxy Gear smart watches were listed on eBay.

So why aren’t wearables taking off quite as tech giants had anticipated? “[It has] yet to filter into my client groups, largely because most of the people I see don’t have a disposable income to spend on gadgets,” says Cooper.

“Also, in general, a keen interest in self-quantifying remains something locked into people’s heads rather than something shared through a wristband or an internet-connected object.

“Apps and phones play a central role in people’s lives, but the wearable stuff is still kind of dorky.”

Despite this, wearables are set to enjoy a serious boom.

Market researcher Kantar says the health and fitness wearable tech market in Britain is set to explode, predicting the UK market will jump to 13.1m users by 2015.

issue11If that’s the case, and producers find a way to keep users engaged with these devices after purchase – through feedback subscription services, a social element, or some other hook – it is likely that wearables will become an integrated part of our lives.

Should we resist? Absolutely, says Cárdenas. “We need to take our lives and our bodies back from corporations, instead of inviting them into more and more intimate forms of power over us.”

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