Does nagging work? My mother would say so, and indeed her reminders to wear a helmet when cycling probably saved me a cracked skull a few years back. But what if the pokes and prods to do better and be better are coming not from someone who truly cares for your well being, but from a gadget programmed in Silicon Valley?
That’s the promise – and threat – of the internet of things, from wearable devices such as fitness bands to smart home gadgetry including connected scales and fridges. Here’s the idea: that fitness band will count your steps and inspire you to walk more. Or, in the future, your scales will tell your fridge you’re above your goal weight, and suggest a salad for dinner rather than pizza – even if the latter is exactly the mood-boosting treat you need after a stressful day.
It’s the “nudge” effect, a behavioural psychology idea that has some grounding in reality but also has its critics. (The government’s own Nudge Unit has claimed successes with a wide range of areas from tax collection to organ donations, though a House of Lords committee has raised doubts.)
One critic is professor Evan Selinger, of the department of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, who noted that “even when it comes to cases where health tools can do some good, serious questions need to be asked about literacy” when it comes to IoT nudges. “Specifically, how informed are consumers about how [these] products work and the meaning of the outputs they yield?”
While my own anecdotal data suggests an app’s going to have to do more than send me a daily notification to counter my laziness, there’s evidence that shows data-driven gadgets work for some people. A 2013 Indiana University study found pedometers did encourage office workers to go for a walk, helping them shed an average of 2.5 pounds. But while fitness bands may get you out of your chair, they may not be accurate: a study by Iowa State University found they were between 10% and 15% incorrect on calorie counts and daily activity measures.
Accuracy aside, why are we striving to hit these goals, anyway? Take the 10,000 step target: it’s an arbitrary figure created by a Japanese firm to sell its pedometer. There’s no real reason that specific number should be your target, rather than getting 150 minutes of exercise a week, as advised by the NHS.
We’ve long been marketed vibration plates and ab rollers and other fitness foolishness to help us slim down with less effort, and most are likely gathering dust, like the step machine I use as a footstool.
In the end, fitness bands and other connected gadgets may well not prove any different. “On the hype side of the equation, the consumer market has long been flooded with fitness products that folks expect way too much from: new gear, exercise videos, the latest supplement craze etc,” said Selinger. “Digital products are easy sources to project similar hopes and dreams – perhaps even easier, given the powerful hold of things associated with ‘innovation’.”
Even if they do work, for those with more discipline than me – is personal surveillance the best way to reach our goals, be they set by us, the NHS, or a Japanese tech firm?
For example, many fitness bands will report how well you slept – not only how long, but how deeply, based on how much you moved at night – a measurement which isn’t necessarily a symptom of sleep quality. A better judge that you’ve slept poorly is your own body. Feel tired? You didn’t sleep well.
Selinger suggested we’re simply looking for confirmation of our own experiences, rather than trusting our own bodily awareness. “In some instances, it would seem that a fetish for numbers is leading people to have insufficient [faith in] their own abilities to perceive and judge,” he said.
Of course, fitness isn’t the only self-optimisation that technology is willing to help us with. A Netatmo Welcome camera currently lives on a shelf in my flat. Its facial recognition lets me know who’s come home, without having to speak to them. Are such automated notifications any better than sending a message to your partner to say “honey, I’m home”?
“The crucial thing, here, is that beneath the veneer of convenience lies a desire to remove effort from social interaction,” said Selinger. “That’s a problematic goal precisely because, as I’ve argued, effort isn’t an interpersonal bug.”
We also need to address privacy. Data is always a Pandora’s box: once it’s out there, it’s out.
“While any particular app or gadget may be worth using, it’s worth thinking about the type of society we’re building if citizens are encouraged to put themselves under constant surveillance and respond to an ever-expanding array of tech-produced cues for what to do to meet goals and avoid doing putatively self-destructive things,” Selinger said.
“Once that can of worms is opened, issues of governance become salient that go beyond self-management and touch upon fears that activities which begin as opt-in choices become imposed upon us by employers and insurance companies.”
We need to carefully consider nudge tech, and we can’t until we as consumers understand how such gadgets work and why they’ve set the goals for us that they have. The downsides could well outweigh the benefits – even if they do help you weigh less.
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