Editor’s Note:For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
Health has remained atop a proverbial list of human priorities since the dawn of time, but when push comes to shove, we tend to care more about life and death than a daily system of checks and balances. Improving one’s health takes more than concerted efforts; it takes a commitment to make concerted efforts over an indefinite period of time. That’s daunting, no matter how you slice it.
In years past, methods for tackling the “get healthy” challenge varied wildly and the task of tracking progress was akin to a dark art. Today, we’ve seen remarkable efforts from Google, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Fitbit and countless others in a bid to both track vitals and provide insights necessary to properly shape one’s pathway to peak health. Caring for your wellbeing is hardly the sole impetus, though; in an era where personal data is the new currency, health information is solid gold.
Caring for your wellbeing is hardly the sole impetus; in an era where personal data is the new currency, health information is solid gold.
Why health? In a digital age, nothing is more valuable than consumer data. This is why retail stores ask for your ZIP code when you checkout. This is why Google wants to understand what you’re searching for, and why. This is why advertising agencies purchase spots on television programs where the viewer demographic is well defined. There’s a certain aura of creepiness to it, but telling Google where home is definitely makes using Google Maps a lot easier. Telling Netflix what kind of genres you prefer makes those recommendations more germane. And allowing Spotify to track what kind of music you listen to and what kind of music you skip sure makes its radio stations a lot more enjoyable.
There’s a fine line between enhanced convenience and an invasion of privacy, but consumers at large seemingly have yet to put up a unified front to stop the collection of data. It simply makes our lives too easy to opt out en masse. Health is the next frontier in all of this, and its collection has been made possible only recently by the consumerization of sensors and tracking apparatuses. Motion, fitness and sleep trackers can now be found for well under $100, and the free apps associated with them remove the complications of tracking vitals manually. Whenever a new sector of data becomes available, marketers immediately search for ways to monetize it — hence health being so incredibly en vogue. Now that everyday smartphones, fitness wearables and smartwatches can collect movement data with next to no effort on behalf of the owner, marketing firms are eager to use that data to better understand you as a customer. If your health data can somehow allow them to serve you a more targeted ad, they want that data.
There’s a fine line between enhanced convenience and an invasion of privacy, but consumers at large seemingly have yet to put up a unified front to stop the collection of data.
Why now? The economics of health tracking have finally made it possible for vast quantities of information to be collected from the masses with minimal effort. Prior to the likes of Fitbit, Jawbone, and Nike crafting simplistic wearables that monitor and record a variety of statistics, it took a substantial amount of energy just to keep up with how much energy you were consuming. Said another way, only fitness junkies would even bother. Now, sensors are cheap enough, small enough, and disposable enough to be slid into everything from your next iPhone (read: the M-series Motion Coprocessor) to your next bracelet. The masses are curious enough about improving their health that millions of people will fork over $50 or so to keep tabs on their day-to-day jaunts. Plus — and this is one you won’t hear mentioned very often — simply owning one of these things makes us feel like we’re doing something to improve our health, even if we don’t change a thing about our lifestyle.
What’s also happening is a simultaneous explosion in the software realm. Just as sensor prices were declining to a point where mere mortals could track their vitals 24/7 without spending a small fortune, smartphone ecosystems were advancing to a point where all of this data could be continuously ingested and analyzed with minimal oversight from humans. Tracking data is only half of the equation; it’s the newfound simplicity of seeing a free app swallow that data and report back with customized exercise and diet recommendations that really sells.
A physical band that’s constantly on one’s wrist acts as a constant reminder that your health matters. Every calorie matters. Every step matters. Just having that on one’s person is apt to improve things.
So what’s next? I see the future of connected health going in two possible directions. I’d rather it just go one, but my gut says it’ll end up touching both. The first is a pathway to better health for everyone involved. A physical band that’s constantly on one’s wrist acts as a constant reminder that your health matters. Every calorie matters. Every step matters. Just having that on one’s person is apt to improve things, even if by only introducing a pause before someone makes a decision that’ll throw their daily caloric intake into the red. It also foreshadows a future where our doctors and physicians are able to diagnose ailments more easily and make more customized recommendations. With a daily archive of one’s health patterns, medical professionals can do a lot less guessing and a lot more helping. On a grander scale, assuming millions of data points are anonymized and exported for scientific research, we could see labs making all sorts of new discoveries based on proven patterns across entire regions and countries. Put simply, having access to all of this data could enable a lot of good to be done.
That said, the for-profit enterprises that are devoting resources to health databases (Samsung’s SAMI and Microsoft’s Health cloud come to mind) and fitness trackers aren’t doing it solely to make humanity healthier. They’re doing it because money is waiting to be made. Even anonymized health data is a marketer’s wet dream. People have long since paid a premium for products that make them feel safer, more valued, or more in control. The emotion of parting ways with money is not a myth, and humans care very deeply about health.
Those in the business of selling health-related products and services are going to want to target those who are wearing fitness trackers and engaging via these newfangled health portals. Rest assured, they’ll do just that. Of course, targeted advertising is hardly a bad thing; any sane person would rather see an ad that’s at least somewhat relevant to their interests versus one that has no implication on their life. Still, connected health is as personal as connected living gets. Society as a whole is still figuring out where lines need to be drawn, and where crossing them makes sense.