When self-monitoring becomes uncomfortably intimate …

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The fitness tracker craze has taken a paternalistic turn with a US university asking students to wear wristbands. Has datafication gone too far?

Apples iPhone marketings disappoint but profit beats targets, said the headline. It turned out that Apple sold only 74.77 m iPhones in the fiscal first one-quarter of 2016, which is less than a 1% increase on the same period a year ago. So “whats happened”? The share price plummets and Alphabet( aka Google) overtakes Apple as the worlds most valuable company.

And right on cue, we get the usual various kinds of kindergarten analysis from the tech commentariat. Apple has run out of notions. It needs a new breakthrough product along the lines of the iPhone. The iPad was supposed to be that product, but its sales are declining. And the Apple watch clearly isnt going to take its place etc, etc…

The only one of those propositions with which I agree is the latest. I bought an Apple watch a while back, on the principle that if you write about this stuff you should put your money where your keyboard is. Six months on, I find myself profoundly underwhelmed by the device. Sure, it tells the time, but then so does a PS25 Timex.

It links seamlessly with my iPhone, but you would expect that from a company famously good at connecting together the products in its ecosystem. The watch vibrates when an email or a text be coming back, which seemed useful at first( I could discreetly watch who was emailing or texting while in sessions ). But the charm rapidly wore off: when you get as much inbound stuff as I do, the attractions of having a miniature wasp on your wrist soon pale.

When I confided my letdown in the watch to some other users, however, they reacted seriously, or at the least sceptically. Could I not appreciate the health and fitness affordances of the device? It turned out that these guys and they are all males, by the way were entranced by the fact the watch enabled them to monitor their heart rates, fitness levels, activity profiles and so on. It even reminded them every hour that they should get up from their screens and move about.

And then it dawned on me there are two various kinds of people in the world: those who are obsessed with the datafication of their bodies and those who are not. I belong to the latter category: the one thing that interests me about my heart is that it is still beating. And when it isnt I shall be past caring. But if the present furor for wearable devices such as fitness trackers is anything to go by, I may soon find myself a member of a scorned minority, instead like cigarette smokers, whisky drinkers and followers of David Icke.


Illustration by Matt Murphy.

The fitness-tracker obsession started out as a wacky pastime of early adopters, but is beginning to acquire a harder edge. Im told some firms are beginning to incentivise( ie coerce) employees even senior executives to wear Fitbit-type wristbands. In one case, it was so that companies, allegedly, could assess high levels of employee stress, a touching instance of digital paternalism, courtesy of the HR department.

And now it turns out that an attire called Oral Roberts( which I had hitherto presumed was a brand of toothpaste, but is, in fact, an American private university) has stipulated that all its incoming freshmen must wear Fitbits to track their fitness levels. In the past, the unfortunate students of Oral Roberts were obliged to note down the amount of steps and exert they had been carried out in a fitness volume. Henceforth, this is likely to be done by digital technology. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.

Since premarital sex is forbidden on the Oral Roberts campus, one would have thought the authorities would want to use students Fitbit data to make sure there was no hanky-panky. But apparently they are not going to go down that road, although the technology can do it.( Its all to do with the rate of calorie burn, apparently .)

What is truly astonishing about this preoccupation with datafication is how far it has already gone. I know this because I came upon an intriguing newspaper by a New York University scholar, Karen Levy, published in, of all places, the Idaho Law Review . The title Intimate Surveillance says it all. The nub of it is: whatever youre in to, there is an app for datafying it. Truly, Heidegger was right where reference is defined technology as the art of arranging the world so that you dont have to experience it. And he didnt even have an Apple watch.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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