Exercise, eat, sleep . . . and share?

Now you can get bracelets that allow you to track your biorhythms – and share the data online

Nike FuelBand: “To many observers, the idea of wearing a gadget that tracks and transmits data on your biorhythms sounds horribly intrusive.”

Nike FuelBand: “To many observers, the idea of wearing a gadget that tracks and transmits data on your biorhythms sounds horribly intrusive.”

Wed, Oct 23, 2013, 16:52

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted a curious grey bracelet on the wrist of one of New York’s hottest media figures.

It was a striking design, slick and neat. But it was not intended to be just a fashion statement or a tribute to a worthy philanthropic cause.

Instead, this particular person, whom I shall call Andy, recently started using this plastic device to track – constantly – the movements of his body, in terms of how much he exercises, eats and sleeps. Each day, he not only peruses that data himself but uploads it on to a website, where it can be monitored by all his friends.

“We can see the stats on each other,” Andy explained, as he pulled out a smartphone and showed me screens displaying the vital data on his circle of bracelet-wearing friends (a group of hedge-fund types, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on).

Apparently, these professionals are obsessively watching what time they sleep, how many times they wake in the night and how many hours of deep slumber each person enjoys. “It’s the new thing,” Andy added, with a laugh.

Wearing these badges – which are made by companies such as Nike and Jawbone – has become a token of pride among his peers.

Opinions will undoubtedly be sharply divided about this trend. To many observers, the idea of wearing a gadget that tracks and transmits data on your biorhythms sounds horribly intrusive.


Constantly monitored
We live in a world where the majority of us are already being constantly monitored during our waking hours. If machines can now track our sleep too, this creates new levels of potential surveillance – and doubly so, given the ability of companies and governments to monitor the internet.

But the bracelet-wearing tribe beg to differ. “No one is forced to share their information, it’s optional,” says Nike spokesman Joseph Teegardin. Moreover, there can be personal and social benefits: peer pressure can be a powerful motivational factor to encourage a healthier lifestyle – and some research suggests that people who start wearing these electronic bracelets apparently do 25 per cent more exercise than before.

However, what also fascinates me is the cultural irony here. Twenty years ago, before I became a journalist, I spent a great deal of time thinking (and fretting) about concepts of privacy. Back then, I was working as a cultural anthropologist in communities in Tibet and Tajikistan, where attitudes to personal space were very different.

Each night, piles of people would all sleep in the same room, or tent. If somebody was not sleeping or eating well, it became a matter of wider knowledge and debate. Personally, I found that extremely intrusive. And, until recently, I vaguely assumed that societies tended to shed this group pattern when they got richer.

After all, the broad sweep of history suggests that most cultures have become more individualistic over time, as wealth gives people more freedom to break away from the group.

But the digital revolution could be shaking these assumptions. Never mind the fact that the younger generation today has an obsessive need to keep communicating through Twitter and Facebook, or post information online with scant concern for privacy.

Cultural progress
If young professionals now think it is “cool” to post their sleeping patterns to each other, then it would appear that the concept of cultural progress has come full circle. Suddenly we are all back in a giant electronic tent together – or at least Andy and some of his elite, wealthy friends are.

Of course, as the companies themselves keep stressing, there is one key difference: these bracelet-wearing fitness addicts have a choice about whether or not to remain exposed.

But the spread of the Jawbone UP or Nike FuelBand is one more sign of the degree to which most of us want to remain inside a social group – even (or especially) in our disembodied cyber age, when sleep has become one of the most precious commodities of all. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)