When self-monitoring becomes uncomfortably intimate…

‘Apple’s iPhone sales disappoint but profit beats targets,” said the headline. It turned out that Apple sold “only” 74.77m iPhones in the fiscal first quarter of 2016, which is less than a 1% increase on the same period a year ago. So what happens? The share price plummets and Alphabet (aka Google) overtakes Apple as the world’s most valuable company.

And right on cue, we get the usual kind of kindergarten “analysis” from the tech commentariat. Apple has run out of ideas. It needs a new “breakthrough” product along the lines of the iPhone. The iPad was supposed to be that product, but its sales are declining. And the Apple watch clearly isn’t going to take its place etc, etc…

The only one of those propositions with which I agree is the last. I bought an Apple watch a while back, on the principle that if you write about this stuff you should put your money where your keyboard is. Six months on, I find myself deeply underwhelmed by the device. Sure, it tells the time, but then so does a £25 Timex.

It links seamlessly with my iPhone, but you would expect that from a company famously good at linking together the products in its ecosystem. The watch vibrates when an email or a text comes in, which seemed useful at first (I could discreetly see who was emailing or texting while in meetings). But the charm quickly wore off: when you get as much inbound stuff as I do, the attractions of having a miniature wasp on your wrist soon pale.

When I confided my disappointment in the watch to some other users, however, they reacted badly, or at least sceptically. Could I not appreciate the health and fitness affordances of the device? It turned out that these guys – and they are all males, by the way – were entranced by the fact the watch enabled them to monitor their heart rates, fitness levels, activity profiles and so on. It even reminded them every hour that they should get up from their screens and move about.

And then it dawned on me – there are two kinds of people in the world: those who are obsessed with the datafication of their bodies and those who are not. I belong to the latter category: the only thing that interests me about my heart is that it is still beating. And when it isn’t I shall be past caring. But if the current craze for wearable devices such as fitness trackers is anything to go by, I may soon find myself a member of a despised minority, rather like cigarette smokers, whisky drinkers and followers of David Icke.

Illustration by Matt Murphy.

The fitness-tracker obsession started out as a wacky hobby of early adopters, but is beginning to acquire a harder edge. I’m told some firms are beginning to “incentivise” (ie coerce) employees – even senior executives – to wear Fitbit-type wristbands. In one case, it was so that companies, allegedly, could assess levels of employee stress, a touching example of digital paternalism, courtesy of the HR department.

And now it turns out that an outfit called Oral Roberts (which I had hitherto assumed was a brand of toothpaste, but is, in fact, an American private university) has stipulated that all its incoming freshmen must wear Fitbits to track their fitness levels. In the past, the unfortunate students of Oral Roberts were obliged to note down the amount of steps and exercise they had undertaken in a “fitness book”. Henceforth, this will be done by digital technology. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.

Since premarital sex is forbidden on the Oral Roberts campus, one would have thought the authorities would want to use students’ Fitbit data to make sure there was no hanky-panky. But apparently they are not going to go down that road, although the technology can do it. (It’s all to do with the rate of calorie burn, apparently.)

What is really astonishing about this obsession with datafication is how far it has already gone. I know this because I came upon an intriguing paper by a New York University scholar, Karen Levy, published in, of all places, the Idaho Law Review. The title – Intimate Surveillance – says it all. The nub of it is: whatever you’re in to, there is an app for datafying it. Truly, Heidegger was right when he defined technology as the art of arranging the world so that you don’t have to experience it. And he didn’t even have an Apple watch.

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