Will your new techno BFF tell you more than you care to know about yourself ?
would you invite a stranger into bed with you? One who tracked every toss and turn, every moment spent awake and pretty much everything else in your life? Thought not. But I have.
For the past month, I have been wearing the UP By Jawbone, a slim black band that, should I lose it, would tell anyone who cared that I: had a bad day last Tuesday and downed five glasses of red wine; didn’t get a single wink of sleep last Wednesday because of a looming work deadline; and suffer from an extreme and as yet unchecked obsession with Maltesers. In fact, the UP By Jawbone knows more about me than my friends, my colleagues or my mother. It knows more about me than me—tracking every step I take, every morsel I put into my mouth and every mood swing. I wear it 24-7, and it uses this inside knowledge to encourage, cajole and heckle me into being a fitter, better-rested— hell, just overall better—version of myself.
A demon hybrid of Big Brother and a personal trainer, it has a sensor that logs my every movement. These findings are then downloaded via a jack that plugs directly into my phone. (I type in my food, booze and mood diary manually.) It can also gossip with other apps and gadgets, including, terrifyingly, a Wi-Fi-enabled bathroom scale. That’s right—I might be able to lie about scoffing half a packet of cookies, but my hips can’t (with apologies to Shakira).
This unobtrusive band marks me out as part of a new tribe—a body hacker, gathering data on myself every second of every day and analyzing it each night. Like Madonna’s frayed red Kabbalah string was in the noughties, my much subtler, albeit more expensive (the h
latest version, UP24 By Jawbone, commands $159.95), black band is 2014’s hottest accessory to flash. There are rival tribes: Many praise the Fitbit, which can also clip onto your belt and pumps out slogans ranging from the motivational “You go girl” to the downright weird “Hug me.” What both have in common is that they give an unparalleled awareness of what is happening in your own body. What’s not yet clear is whether this constant selfanalysis is a brave new world—or the dystopian end of it.
Of course, my Jawbone isn’t that clever—I have to feed it my facts before it can start making charts and graphs. I’m 33 years old, five feet one inch tall. I live in Manhattan. Ah, yes, then there’s my weight. Because that’s why we really buy these things, isn’t it?
For the first few days of using the Jawbone, my homepage stats (which I check constantly on my iPhone) make the cause and effect of my lifestyle stark: I get stressed, I eat; I drink, I feel tired; I can’t sleep, I get stressed and even grumpier. The Jawbone does slowly reform my bad habits, of which there are many—I now spot the candies and piles of cheese before I absent-mindedly shove them in my mouth. It also alerts me to the fact that I average five hours of sleep a night—and because it tracks whether it’s light or deep sleep, I know it’s not the restorative kind I really need.
I find myself making decisions—walking the extra three blocks instead of hailing a cab, turning down dessert—based on whether the Jawbone will approve. (It rarely does, rudely sending the mean “Idle Alert” if I sit down for too long. Chill out! I’m working!) It’s akin to placating a nagging mother who does, annoyingly, always know best. So I start doing what I used to with my actual mother—I lie. Just little white ones. A few less chips logged here, a smiley, happy mood reported there (when I’ve actually been in the sort of rage that would have Naomi Campbell cowering behind the sofa). Which all slightly defeats the point.
This tendency to fib can be circumnavigated by an app called Emotion Sense. Created by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., it doesn’t rely solely on self-reporting—which, because we’re all human, is flawed. (It’s often not until I’m mid-rant, or have slammed a door for the third time, that I realize quite what a thunderous mood I’m in.) Emotion Sense tracks your use of other apps, messaging and your phone’s GPS, gleaning information from these, as well as asking for reports on how you feel. It knows if I’ve been calling or tweeting friends, walked home in the sunshine or—incredibly— been in a noisy room and uses this information to record what drives emotional highs and lows. Surprisingly—as I think of myself as a party girl—I find out I’m happiest on my own or just after I’ve been on the move.
The huge appeal of this technology is that it offers a way to wrestle back control. By regularly checking in, it keeps us on the right path when we’re in danger of careering off it. I can’t afford a therapist, personal trainer or nutritionist, but I can download an app or strap a gadget around my wrist that does a remarkably similar job.
But there is a darker side—when it’s an enabler for the body-obsessed. These gadgets are discreet: You don’t have to stand hunched in a supermarket aisle to calculate calories; you can scan the bar code into your phone and the app will do that for you. One friend, already very close to a size 2, says she gets a little thrill when her caloriecounting app admonishes her for being dangerously below her recommended intake. And she tries to go a little lower every day.
Potentially even worse is that this technology allows us to connect with fellow life hackers. Thanks to social media, we are comfortable sharing everything with everyone—from breakups to what we ate for dinner—so directly disseminating the ups and downs of diet struggles and fitness regimens is the logical next step. Our online network can be updated after every meal, sleep and fitness class. This is meant to foster support—but, used badly, publicly puts us in the stocks for having a sandwich. It would be all too easy to slip into unhealthy eating patterns.
Personally, my logged life makes it apparent that I get a kick out of the optimism and excitement of downloading the apps and using the bands. I imagine the fitter, more svelte, better-rested me. I like the bright-eyed version of myself who sets her alarm for a 7 a.m. run before work and doesn’t eat cake for breakfast. But for the same reason I use an old-school Reebok step to reach the high shelf in my kitchen, my enthusiasm swiftly wanes. The promise of who this technology could turn me into is appealing, but, ultimately, it doesn’t entirely deliver.
While all this self-knowledge may be fascinating—to me, at least—the hardest thing is to work out what to do with the information. I already knew I needed more and better sleep—the Jawbone merely confirmed it. I don’t need a gadget to tell me that I have stuffed myself with carbs and cheese and done little more exercise than walk up the stairs to my fifth-floor apartment—my trousers will get snug. And then rip when I sit down. But isn’t continuous selfanalysis a bit dull? I’ve always found constant self-critique unnecessary: I am (fairly) successful, not (really) overweight and (generally) happy. After a few weeks of use, the Jawbone makes me feel like an app-wielding Woody Allen—navel-gazingly self-obsessed and prone to telling everyone about it. Maybe, for me at least, in the long term, all this knowledge might not really convert to power. n