One off the wrist for health fanatics

A new fitness app - a data-generating wristband to be worn 24/7 - claims to help you to ‘live better’. Far from it.

Patrick Hayes

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Topics Politics

Socrates said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’. It’s unlikely, however, that he would have been excited by the newly released Jawbone Up gadget, whose marketers claim will help you ‘know yourself [and] live better’.

The trend over the past decade has been to wear a wristband to show you have a righteous heart. Now, it seems that wristbands will be worn to keep your heart healthy. And this is where the Jawbone Up wristband, launched in the UK last week, comes in. Through tracking micro-movements of the wrist, it allows you to monitor your heart’s activity to an unprecedented degree, using a sophisticated app on your smartphone.

Health-tracking devices are hardly new. The Nike+ system has been around for several years, allowing runners to monitor their distance and pace, and even playing music of a particular tempo at strategic times to ensure you keep on track. But the Jawbone Up takes this technology to a different level. It’s the first product ‘designed to live with you full-time’. The slick-looking wristband is meant to be worn permanently, removed only when its battery is being recharged, monitoring your every activity, or inactivity. It even monitors your sleep patterns.

As a result, huge amounts of data are collected about the minutiae of everyday life and all of it appears as graphs on your phone. But this isn’t just about data collection; the wristband nudges you to engage in the ‘right’ activity, too. Should you sit still for more than half an hour at a time, the wristband chides you by beginning to vibrate, an ‘idle alert’, which ‘reminds you to move when you’ve been inactive for too long’. It also sets targets, and monitors every step you take, measuring their intensity and comparing it to the average amount other people walk.

It doesn’t stop there. The Up gadget also encourages you to log your mood throughout the day, and upload photos of everything you eat so that calories can be monitored. It will even monitor your sleep patterns and wake you when it deems it best for your health. All of which can be shared on social media, so you can track your progress and lifestyle habits against your peers, to establish – as one reviewer put it – ‘a friendly rivalry or at least guilt’. Once a sufficient amount of data is gathered, the app will then point you towards articles and research to study, all with a view to making you healthier.

The Up has been eagerly awaited by celebrities and media-types alike. Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher tweeted a link to the promotional video to his 14million followers exclaiming ‘I want this thing so freaking bad!! #cantwait #up’. And to the extent it has received criticism from reviewers, it’s that it doesn’t monitor enough – perspiration levels, skin temperature, blood flow and so on. (Despair not, devices that do all that – such as Basis – are in the pipeline.)

A Daily Mail reviewer said that one of its positives is that ‘It’s like having a nagging personal trainer who never goes away, and never shuts up’. The Up’s designers have big expansion plans – saying they want to target employers, schools and insurers. And the market for such devices is growing – according to one research company in 2012, 30million wearable health devices were sold. This is predicted to grow to 170million by 2017. The aim, it seems, is to normalise the wearing of the band, giving everyone greater knowledge of their activities and trends over time so they can know themselves and live better.

Surely greater knowledge to give us power over how we live our lives is a good thing? In the case of Up, far from it. The obsessive collection of data about day-to-day activities is intended to usurp common sense. The New York Times claims that Up is based on ‘the well-researched premise that when monitoring your activity you move more, and if you’re recording your food you eat less’. But this assumes that more activity and eating less are in themselves virtuous, and that lives should be structured around continually making us aware of these goals. The app points you towards research to tell you how to live fitter, healthier lives and alerts you to when you are acting unhealthily. It replaces the sage doctor’s maxim ‘listen to your body’ with ‘listen to the band’. And in pointing users to research and advice tailored to their activity, Up invites the intrusion of ‘experts’ who can interpret the data and offer ‘research-based’ advice about how you can live your life supposedly better than you could do alone.

The Up prioritises health over all else – the pleasure of eating a nice meal with friends, taking a countryside stroll or even making love – is reduced to inputs (food) and outputs (activity). In the name of our health, the Up even breaks our concentration in the cinema or when reading a book as you have been ‘idle’ for too long. Wearing an Up encourages the tendency to revolve one’s life around a healthy lifestyle as the Great Good.

Furthermore, as the Jawbone makers rightly say, by monitoring our movements, you can indeed find out a lot about yourself. Equally, it also means people can find out a lot about you. It almost goes without saying that the consequences of employers, insurers, doctors and the like getting hold of the data of our every activity – knowing how long we slept, when we exercised, what we ate, doubtless even when we made love, and the further bits of information future models could collect (think the SCRAM devices in the US that monitor alcoholics’ drinking) – is chilling. A situation where health insurance isn’t paid out, schoolchildren are disciplined or employees are penalised for living a demonstrably unhealthy, inactive lifestyle can easily be imagined. Our freedom to live our private lives as we see fit away from the prying eyes of authorities could be further eroded.

Just because data of the minutiae of everyday life is available doesn’t mean that it should be enthusiastically exposed. The obsession with measuring our every activity in a bid to live more healthily is in fact a deeply unhealthy one. Rather than giving your wrist the Up, we should all instead give the UP the finger.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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