The online journal of Vermont filmmaker, Bill Simmon.

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Technology Will Save Us All

Posted on Jul 6, 2011 by billsimmon in Digital Culture, Emily, futurism, privacy, social media, technology, The Surveillance Society | 7 Comments

For Emily’s birthday, I got her a nifty little device that really tugs on my techno-utopian bone. It’s called a Fitbit, and it’s a little doo-hickey that you carry around that contains a 3-D motion tracking accelerometer (sort of like a Wii controller) that infers all sorts of things about your behavior, and then generates reports about how active and/or sedentary you’ve been. It can count steps (running or walking) and can even tell you how much you’ve slept vs. how much time you spent laying there staring at the ceiling. It’s cool and design-y, affordable, and it even has a social network aspect to it so you can share your data with other Fitbit users online for some  peer pressure fun.

It’s actually a lot like the stuff Dr. Tanzeem Choudhury was working on when I interviewed her for a Technology Review video back in 2008. In fact, when I first read about the Fitbit (thanks to friend-of-Candleblog, Robot Kasten), I assumed it monitored other sorts of telemetry too, like your heart-rate, skin temperature, the local barometric pressure, etc. As Dr. Choudhury showed me, with those additional data points and some clever software, you can learn all sorts of fascinating stuff about how you’re living your life day-to-day.

The implications for this sort of technology are pretty amazing. Yes, it can encourage us (through a combination of social-networked peer pressure and sheer geeky awesomeness) to live healthier lives, but it can also keep us honest with our doctors when they ask us how active we’ve been since our last visit. It can tell us other unintended interesting things, like how often we have sex and for how long. I can imagine Fitbit data being subpenaed in legal cases involving violent crimes or even car accidents. And this is just one data set involving an accelerometer. Imagine what these things will be like with microphones and video cameras gathering data and generating reports about our activities. Now imagine all that data searchable via an engine like Google (searchable by you — nobody is forcing you to publish this data, though there is a privacy can of worms here too, obviously) — how useful would that be?

What did I eat for dinner last week? click. What was that book the guy at the coffee shop recommended a few days ago? click. What was it my boss wanted me to do again? click. How many calories did I consume in 2012 compared to 2011? click. How many times did I ride the elevator last month vs. taking the stairs? click. What percentage of my life is spent sitting in front of a screen? I dare not click.

When we look back at the lives of our parents and grandparents, we see them through photographs, letters, maybe some home movies if we’re lucky. From here on out, the definition of what we mean by “history” changes. Future generations will have more data about the lives of their progenitors than they will know what to do with. What will your data stream say about you?



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  1. On July 6, 2011, Speed said:

    “What percentage of my life is spent sitting in front of a screen? I dare not click.” Ouch! Touché, sir, touché.

  2. Check out the Quantified Self blog and community:

    I’ve contributed a couple of doodads to the self-tracking movement myself:

  3. By the way, FitBits are very easy to lose. Make sure it’s fastened to a pocket or something that’ll catch it if the clip jostles free.

  4. On July 6, 2011, jeff said:

    record everything because everything is of import

  5. On July 11, 2011, Tim said:

    I wouldn’t want to know either!

    They’re putting accelerometer/gyros in everything nowadays. I would be surprised if there isn’t an app for iphone-like devices that could accomplish the same thing… and much more, like you mentioned- track everywhere you’ve been and record audio and video. It would be a little more cumbersome to wear your phone durning sex though, but i suppose they’ll get smaller!

  6. On July 13, 2011, Alex C said:

    Jawbone Will Sell a Health-Tracking Bracelet

    Jawbone, a company best known for its line of sleek, futuristic-looking Bluetooth headsets and music accessories, is taking a big leap away from the audio industry.

    On Wednesday, the company said it was developing a wristband that would use sensors to keep tabs on its wearer’s health. The news was delivered on stage at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh by the chief executive of Jawbone, Hosain Rahman.

    “The impetus here is for us to use our understanding about building hardware that is small, mobile, fashionable and well-designed and has a good user experience, and bring it to the health and wellness business,” Mr. Rahman said in a phone interview.

    The bracelet, called Up, will go on sale later this year; a price has not yet been set. The device will work similarly to a Fitbit and track sleep movements and patterns, activity and eating habits, among other things. The device will be designed to work in tandem with a user’s cellphone, storing data to be analyzed and viewed, as well as having social elements.

    The unveiling of the tracking bracelet comes after the news that the company raised $70 million from investors advised by J. P. Morgan. Just a few short months ago, the company took a $40 million round from Andreessen-Horowitz, bringing the company’s total funding to $170 million.

    Mr. Rahman said he was inspired to create the bracelet when thinking about how his own habits had deteriorated over the last year or so. He hopes that by gaining access to detailed information about how they eat, sleep and exercise, people will improve their overall health and cut down on the risks of developing diseases.

    “We want this to be accessible to anyone who is interested in living better,” he said.

  7. I’ve been wearing a Fitbit for six weeks now. It’s useful data to be sure, but — for me, anyway — I need to be keenly aware that data is *all* that it is. It would be far too easy to let it become another critic, another heckler bent on assuring me I’m not up to par. (I have enough of those in my head already, thanks.)

    I might note: I despair of Fitbit’s meal tracking; Loseit’s is much better, and the two sites now share integrate small amount of data between them.

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