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I – a bunch of numbers?

Von Patrik Birkle

Better understanding our bodies will lead us to making better health choices and enjoying a higher quality of life. Whereas the idea of tracking one’s physical performance and health is not really new, smart watch and health tracking innovations take this a step further as they penetrate our privacy like never before in order to collect various data around the clock. Tracking is trend but it is it really a healthy one?

A fundamental prerequisite for humanism is the ability of each human to use a system of thought and reasoning based on human values, interests and feelings free from dogmas or superstition in the decision-making process. In other words, humanism requires a certain degree of free will within each human being that allows him or her to use and weigh the knowledge at their disposal in deciding or forming an opinion.
Interestingly enough, most economic theory assumes that all existing information is available when actors make decisions, and an idealistic view of free will is based on the same assumption.

Naturally, however, this is not the case. Most of the time, people actually make their decisions based on a limited amount of knowledge and insights. Worse, their knowledge is not only limited but can even be false. So, the solution seems obvious: We need more knowledge and we need to make it available to ever more people.

As I am writing this, a small wristband is collecting over 100 measurements a second on my heart rate, heart rate variability and movement. Ever since I have unpacked this device, it has not left my right wrist. I initially bought it to measure my resting heart rate and get a glimpse of the fitness tracker hype that has been around for some time. I was not only interested in it from a fitness point of view, but also a general well-being one as I had read several articles on how fitness trackers are being used in the workplace to improve your productivity.

The initial excitement about the device lasted for the first three days during which I had my sleep, exercise and recovery tracked. To begin with, I felt like the analysis I was getting out of the accompanying app was accurate. Heart rate measurements were within a reasonable range of my heart rate chest strap. I actually felt more energised on days which were preceded by nights with more deep sleep and vice versa. My recovery score was low, but that was what I had expected based on the amount of exercise. On the fourth morning, I woke up and checked my phone immediately for my sleep and recovery analysis. The days prior to this I had followed my standard morning routine of turning on my phone 30 minutes after waking up. The app told me that morning that my sleep had been the worst thus far and that I should cut back on exercise today as otherwise I would experience difficulties taking on strain. This confused me actually, because I had felt great waking up and had performed similar exercise sessions before without any problem. But later that day, I indeed found it hard to push myself during a bike session. This made me think: Was the app right in advising me to cut short on exercise today or did I let myself get influenced by it and that is why I lost motivation?

I remembered an article on how the Inuit had lost their sense of orientation once GPS had been introduced to their hunting equipment. This is when the following question popped up in my mind: Is it possible that the use of human data tracking devices can lead to the loss of sense for one’s own body? It is forecasted that the amount of data we collect on our bodies will increase dramatically over the next years. We have been collecting data on our bodies for a while now but with the body tracker trend and tracking devices now being included in every smart phone, this is reaching a new level. The desire for knowledge is penetrating into people’s private sphere on a much grander scale now.

High time to raise a couple of questions. We need to understand what this data can do, where it can help us and what it cannot and should not do.

Obviously, there are many beneficial uses for collecting data of our bodies. Devices and applications using and analyzing such data can help us make healthier choices, for instance regarding our nutrition, motivate us to do more exercise or stop us from doing too much. They can give us insights into sleeping patterns that otherwise are really difficult to obtain. Moreover, they can be an alert signal to doctors if something isn’t right with our bodies. This opens up various exciting possibilities regarding health care, electronic health records and other use cases.

The developers of such devices and applications argue in the same direction: They claim that the collection of this type of data aims to enhance the users` understanding of their bodies. This sounds similar to the old mission statement of Facebook, a company amidst the controversies surrounding electoral manipulation: “Give the people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” The developers’ argument is based on the premise that we, the users, are able to deal with the increased amount of available information and are able to weigh the various inputs differently. Whereas this might be true for some, I doubt whether this premise can be generalized. It remains a fact that even though the data is available, we will not necessarily be able to read it properly. Actually, working with body trackers in a useful way requires some previous knowledge about the body as such. It simply isn’t enough to just collect information. We also need the tools to actually process this information. So, for everything we invent, every set of data we collect and every piece of information we give out, we actually rely on people to already know how to use it or figure it out for themselves sooner or later.
But is this really the happening? How liable are we to trust putative objective data? How able are we to discern objective information from bias, insignificant from important one? And what is going to happen with all this data?

Why is this important? After all, let all those fitness fans like me happily track their body performance and obsess about their heart rate if they like, you don’t need to do it. Well, here is the thing: Once you get up after reading this, the smart phone in your pocket is most likely counting your steps and possibly other body functions. Now, imagine if this was directly connected to your electronic health card which you will probably have in a few years. And now let’s assume your health insurance is tying its fees and service quality to your general health performance. Even though you feel perfectly fine and you are actually healthy, the app thinks you are not and that is being reported. Worse, you might actually start to think there is something wrong with you and get medication that you don’t actually need. Eventually, we all might end up as crazy hypochondriacs obsessing about the slightest variances in our fitness levels.

Looking at current discussions about filter bubbles in Social Media, the manipulation of public opinion through them and the political consequences this has, it seems quite possible that we could lose sense and understanding of how our bodies feel based on the constant reporting of data such as heart rate and sleep duration and the subsequent analyses. Keeping up the analogy to Social Media, just as your Facebook feed reinforces and probably steers your opinions, health tracking analyses could become our feed for the perception of our physical well-being. If you are told that your body requires more sleep, would you feel more tired throughout the day? In a nutshell: Will the placebo effect also apply to health tracking apps? Unfortunately, there has not yet been much research conducted into that direction.

In order for a scenario in which we lose sense of ourselves not to happen, it is important to start the conversation about this issue now by connecting users, developers and regulators – the stakes are too high to wait like we did with Social Media. It would be short-sighted to try slowing down these innovations as they will unfold anyhow. The focus of such discussions should rather address how these types of data can be presented in a way that keep both private and corporate users from overvaluing, misinterpreting or abusing the analyses of health and body related data. At the end of the day, reliable information is all about trust. We need to ask ourselves how much we want to trust technical devices and whether technology has reached a threshold where it cannot further take certain premises for granted but rather has the responsibility to educate its user. And if the answer to that question is no, then we need to address the issue whose responsibility it is.

Patrik Birkle

von Patrik Birkle

humenta fellow