AFRIEND returned from a holiday and declared, ‘‘ Guess what I got overseas?’’ It’s always tempting to answer ‘‘ malaria’’ to that question but you can bet it’s something bright, stylish and not available in downtown Perth or Brisbane.
It was a bracelet, a strap of rubbery material, flashing the word ‘‘ goal’’. It was flashing because she’d reached her goal that day: she’d taken the right number of steps, eaten the right number of calories and even might have eradicated malaria.
It’s easy to be underwhelmed by the latest fad of self-monitoring health devices, especially when you’re about to serve trifle to your guests. But they have arrived and we need to get to grips with these rubber bands.
The wrist is where the techie action is and the first technology to arrive on the wrist is the quantified self movement — and what a giveaway name that is. This movement is all about monitoring yourself. It has been around for a while but it’s suddenly chic because the devices look cool.
These monitoring bracelets are smart and cheap-ish but, best of all, they are obvious. Like a charity bracelet or a wrist strap from a cool bar, the bracelets let everyone know what you’ve been doing and what you care about. They flash your life before their lives.
Sure, the health devices are meant to give you information about your own life — how you exercised, ate and slept — but they are all about sharing. They download the information to your phone, computer and, soon, your Facebook page. They flash the results on your wrist with LED lights and they are designed to make people say: what the hell is that?
A geek who reviewed the health bands described monitoring bracelets as the gamification of fitness but I prefer to think of them as status anxiety on a strap.
Rubber straps are the new bling but, before you leap into the status race, you might pause to think what these envelopes of data will do to your life. First, let’s not pretend that they will solve the obesity crisis. The only people who buy these are already motivated. Nobody wants to buy a $130 bracelet that reminds them they’re losers — in flashing LED lights.
So, we have reasonably healthy people strapping these things to their wrists because they want motivation. They want to take charge of themselves, they want to challenge themselves but they have no idea how these devices can take charge of their lives.
There’s a good chance that to reach your LED-lit kilojoule-intake goal, you’ll stop eating at 2.10pm and have to sit out the dinner party. To meet your 10,000 steps a day target you might find yourself at a dinner party circling the table, just to get those last few steps on the band.
When you get to the end of the day, your mood will be written on your wrist. Sure, the band won’t flash the word ‘‘ loser’’ at you but that’s how you’ll feel when you lie down in bed and set the band to wake you in the morning. (Yes, some bands tell you when to wake up.)
So, you’re feeling a bit low. You’re thinking a diamond watch would make you feel better. You should have bought a fake one on the streets of Hong Kong while you were overseas. A bout of malaria begins to look attractive.
But worse is yet to come. If you let a wristwatch rule your day, you will begin to feel as if you are that person written on your wrist. If you are forever getting information on your physical state, that person becomes you.
You are little data. Everyone worries about how big data is reshaping how we think about the world but little data can do that too.
This is existentialist stuff but, beware, the quantified self can become the whole self. Remember that saying, ‘‘ what gets measured gets done’’?
And that brings us to the most frightening part of this. You will become a bore. These devices are so addictive, they describe so much about your day that you want to tell everyone what’s on it.
Data bores. It’s just occurred to me and, unsurprisingly, it’s not an expression that Google has anything to say about. So, if you want to avoid becoming a data bore, unstrap the bracelet, get stuck into the trifle and give us a slide show of your overseas trip on your smartphone.