Where’s my parcel? How far have I run? Where have I been? The desire to track and trace everything is booming. But have we become slaves to these apps and devices – and do they really deliver on their promises?
In his book Calypso, David Sedaris confesses to an obsession with counting his steps. After buying a Fitbit, which he refers to as his “master”, the author graduates from leisurely strolls to nine-hour walkathons across the English countryside, all in a bid to increase his numbers. “At the end of my first 60,oo0-step day, I staggered home with my flashlight knowing that I’d advance to 65,000, and that there will be no end to it until my feet snap off at the ankles,” he writes. When his mystified boyfriend asks him why he needs to go for yet another walk, Sedaris responds, “Because… my Fitbit thinks I can do better.”
In recent months the topic of tracking has been thrust into the limelight, with debates about the validity and ethics of track-and-trace apps to surveil the spread of coronavirus. Now more than ever, where we’ve been and who we’ve seen matters; our every move is being put under a microscope. But the desire to curb Covid-19 has come up against logistical complications – there are question marks over the effectiveness of track-and-trace apps – and fears about curtailing people’s privacy. The fact that it’s such a fraught subject is in some ways strange because tracking has long been part of our lives. Via apps and websites, smartphones and wristbands, we keep tabs on our friends, the weather, our takeaway orders and our parcels with military-like precision.
And we monitor ourselves. Sedaris captures the fanaticism that such behaviour can inspire. The self-tracking industry – apps and devices that enable us to record details about our bodies in order to reflect on ourselves – is heaving. Some refer to the concept of reducing people to statistics as “the quantified self”, while others speak of the “fetishisation of data” (which proves that nothing is too unsexy to be the subject of a fetish).
Counting steps is just the start. We can trace our blood pressure, mood, sleep patterns, calorie and alcohol consumption, menstrual cycles and even fashion choices. This app-based economy lives inside our smartphones, buttressed by sales of dinging watches, rings and heart-rate monitors. Research firm Statista predicts that there will be more than 1.1 billion connected wearable devices worldwide by 2022. If you want to see yourself as a number, percentage or graph, you needn’t look far.
The point of tracking things, generally, is to enable us to run our lives in an informed, efficient way. In theory, that doesn’t sound bad. With self-tracking, the dangling carrot is the promise of personal improvement. While we bristle at the thought of being surveilled by governments, we’re quite happy to give over our bodies for companies to analyse in the name of self-optimisation.
But having spent much of 2020 overwhelmed with coronavirus statistics and talk of tracking, could this be when we realise that lots of stuff we’re checking about ourselves is just not worth knowing?
The ancestors of self-tracking apps are the mirror and the weighing scale, according to Martin Berg, associate professor of sociology and media technology at Malmö University. Berg calls the scale, which has ancient origins and was arguably the first device to reduce humans to a number, the most “ubiquitous” type of self-tracking technology. More recently, in the 1970s, the “wearables” industry was born with mood rings. Though the accuracy of this new technology was dubious, its popularity highlighted a desire to see ourselves projected onto something else.
We’re happy to give over our bodies for companies to analyse in the name of self-optimisation
While it is human nature to reflect, today’s consumers are more infatuated with self-improvement than previous generations. The wellness industry, raking in $4.5trn (€3.8trn) a year, instructs us to strive to be the very best version of ourselves. Self-trackers sit neatly alongside goji berries and barre classes. “These devices are often marketed in terms of: you can find your best self,” says Berg. “There’s this idea that there’s something wrong with people and that they need data to fix themselves.”
Health and fitness players are leading the charge. There’s a dazzle of devices to record everything from fertility days to blood-sugar levels (handy for diabetics). Experts predict that the self-tracking industry will move further in the “medical” direction. Such services, when accurate, would make vital personal information readily accessible to consumers. Yet any industry movements must be regulated in order to avoid Silicon Valley playing doctor; as Berg notes, alliances between technology firms such as Apple and public healthcare providers could become uncomfortable.
Fitness seems less controversial. There are now more than 320,000 exercise and weight-loss apps – by far the most of any category – and in 2019 the global “activity wearables” market (health and fitness-trackers) amassed $91.6bn (€78bn). The Apple Watch is king, followed by Fitbit – recently acquired by Google for $2.1bn (€1.8bn) – and the likes of Garmin, Withings and MyFitnessPal. By encouraging home workouts, the pandemic has accelerated the push towards “connected” digital fitness models; Peloton has made a fortune from its data-fuelled bikes, while in June, Lululemon bought interactive firm Mirror.
Dr Carolyn Plateau, a psychology lecturer within the school of sport, exercise and health sciences at the UK’s Loughborough University, says that behaviour theories dictate that the first step towards making a positive change in our lives is “self-monitoring as a way to orientate people to what their current behaviours are”. Often, she says, “we have quite warped perceptions of what we’re actually doing; sometimes these [fitness trackers] can be quite grounding in helping people understand when they’re active and to prompt some changes as a result.”
Daniel Shellard is co-founder of Fiit, a London start-up dubbed the “Netflix of fitness” for its suite of 600-plus online classes. Monthly subscriptions cost £10 and customers can synchronise the app with trackers from Apple, Polar and F45 – or buy Fiit’s own monitor. A key selling point is the possibility for clients to study their heart rate and calories burnt. Everything is gamified: you’re driven to beat your personal best and encouraged to compete with other living-room athletes via interactive leader boards. Shellard, a former Google analyst, says that tracking helps us get into the habit of exercising. “In every workout you’re trying to beat your personal best,” he says. “The more moments you can give somebody that are rewarding and satisfying, the more they’re likely to come back. With fitness, the best way to do that is to use tracking data.”
According to Fiit’s findings, participants who use tracking devices burn 20 per cent more calories during workouts than those who don’t, because, says Shellard, “they can see the numbers on the screen in real time and it pushes them further. The evidence shows that using this stuff does help you reach your fitness goals.”
Despite its promise, the self-tracking industry is built on shaky foundations. The app-based business model is not lucrative for the vast majority of brands, as Minna Ruckenstein, an associate professor at the Consumer Society Research Centre and the Helsinki Centre for Digital Humanities, points out. Some apps charge subscription fees but many are free and depend on advertising to make money, which usually yields meagre returns. Funds also come from selling data to other companies so that they can target customers with their advertising (a murky practice more heavily regulated in Europe than other places, such as the US), or from bundling self-tracking services into a broader healthcare package that’s sold to workplaces and life-insurance firms. Ruckenstein expects the market to consolidate in the coming years, with a handful of brands becoming the sleep app, the fertility tracker or the mood monitor of choice. (Apple has already claimed this mantle for fitness.) The few companies that survive and achieve economies of scale will be better placed to make money – and, with more data, the accuracy of their services will improve.
Yet consolidation won’t fix those issues that go to the heart of what self-tracking does for, or to, consumers. When embraced frenetically, certain services can trigger worrying behaviour. Charlotte Jee, a reporter for MIT Technology Review, has written of her attempt to overcome insomnia using apps. “Sleep-tracking is a disaster if you have insomnia because it makes you become completely obsessed with stressing over sleep,” she says. There’s also a concern that fitness and weight trackers could be linked to eating disorders. “We do know that self-monitoring – watching what you eat or tracking how many calories you’re consuming – is a fundamental part of the pathology of eating disorders,” says Loughborough University’s Plateau. “Via these devices, it’s possible we might be perpetuating that in people who are already vulnerable to these problems.”
Arguably a bigger issue for the industry comes from the large pool of consumers who tire of self-trackers within a few months. For every Sedaris step junkie there are many more who stop charging their Apple Watch or delete their sleep app. “Newness and curiosity drive [these services] but then they don’t become a sustainable everyday practice,” says Ruckenstein. This comes down to what these products are – or aren’t – giving us. Self-trackers are mirrors, reflecting what we’ve done. They won’t improve us; if there is to be any personal transformation, we need to do the work ourselves.
But even if we are prepared to do the work, what does this data even tell us? What purpose is served by knowing the precise number of calories we’ve consumed, decibels we’ve been exposed to or hours of REM sleep we’ve enjoyed? Sure they’re titillating titbits but we already know that we should eat less and sleep more. The industry is powered by technology entrepreneurs who create things and then convince us that we need them. Just because we now have access to this information, it doesn’t mean that it will improve our lives. Indifference might well be the appropriate response.
Perhaps a communal platform in which users share results with one another would make us care. Until now, most services have treated consumers as islands, our individual results parcelled out. But information sharing could form the basis for promising apps, says Ruckenstein, such as one tracking air quality in cities (so you know where to go jogging) or another that highlights dangerous streets. Both would be driven by users submitting data in real time. This model suggests the expansion of the self-tracking app beyond something that solely serves the individual – and the results would be useful. Wouldn’t it be fitting if the way forward for this industry of self-reflection was to look to others?
2019 revenues for the “activity wearables” market (health and fitness-tracking devices): $91.6bn (€77bn)
In 2019, Apple sold more watches (30.7 million) than the entire Swiss watch-making industry (21.1 million)
Most active countries in 2019 according to Fitbit: Hong Kong, Spain and Ireland
Biggest demographic for health-tracking apps: 30 to 39-year-olds
“Orthosomnia”: term coined by academics to describe consumers who develop insomnia as a result of obsessing over their sleep-tracking devices
Health and fitness: 320,000
Fertility: more than 400
Percentage of fertility apps that accurately predict users’ ovulation dates: 42.7