Head-bangingly boring techno-narcissistic step-counting
The worst thing about these wrist-wearing devices is that in the long term, they probably have no effect at all
Taking part in a workout outside the New York Stock Exchange after Fitbit’s IPO in New York earlier this month. “It is a dismal sort of status symbol that says ‘I am up to date, I am fit’ and is an invitation to people with bare wrists to feel out of date and out of shape.” Photograph: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg
During a long meeting the other day, I found my eyes straying to the wrists of the people sitting around the table. On the lightly tanned arm of the woman next to me was a band of red rubber. Next to her was a man wearing an Apple Watch, while his neighbour had a grey plastic bracelet sticking out from under his cuff. As I surveyed the arms of 15 senior business people, I counted nine Fitbits, Jawbones and other gadgets that faithfully record every step taken by their owners.
At the end of the meeting I sidled up to two people whose retro wrists were unadorned. A relief, I said, to find I was not the only one with no interest in monitoring how many steps I take during the day. One replied that he had every interest – he had an app on his phone that did just that. The other assured me that she wore her Fitbit in her underpants – or used to until she got tired of rummaging around to fish it out every time she went through airport security.
Of all the executive crazes I have come across, step-counting is the most baffling. I know when I am active and when I am not. I know if I have spent the entire day sitting on my bottom eating custard creams and do not need a plastic strap to remind me. Yet the wearables craze is unstoppable. There are now special socks that record how you are running, while last week the news broke that the craze has spread to cows, the most fashionable of which wear bands on their necks and legs.
One fellow FT columnist, a man with a first class degree from an ancient university, is an enthusiastic step-counter. He insists that the app helps him form new habits – whenever he feels like getting into a taxi, it encourages him to walk instead. Then, when he has met his 10,000 step daily target, he goes to bed feeling thoroughly pleased with himself.
I pointed out he was perfectly fit anyway. He is a thin man who plays a good deal of tennis and, if he wanted to feel virtuous at the end of the day, wouldn’t it be better to have an app that counted how many times he helped old ladies cross the road or how many interesting things he had read? He looked momentarily crestfallen, but then walked off swinging his arms vigorously.
A woman I know who runs a small business has gone one step further. She provides subsidised Fitbits to her 30-strong team and invites them to share their step counts and compete to see who takes the most every week.
Terrible! I said. Sinister! Divisive! She protested that no one was being forced to take part. All she was doing was helping her staff be healthy and appealing to their playful, competitive instincts at the same time. What was wrong with that?
What was wrong with that, I replied, was she ought not to be thrusting techno- narcissism on her employees. There is nothing morally superior about walking a lot. An office in which one person who has walked 11,000 steps feels able to lord it over one who has done only 4,500 is not one where I would want to work.
We stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Thinking about it further, I’ve found six more things wrong with the craze. First, it is head-bangingly boring. The number of steps someone has walked in a day is devoid of any interest at all.
Second, the quality of the data is poor and it encourages cheating. The wrist- worn devices respond to arm swinging, so if you spend an hour strumming the guitar it will think you have walked for miles. Third, it is a dismal sort of status symbol that says ‘I am up to date, I am fit’ and is an invitation to people with bare wrists to feel out of date and out of shape.
Still worse, it makes wearers behave in nutty ways. I know of someone who nips outside at 11.30 in the evenings on days when he has missed his target and marches up and down the road in his fancy neighbourhood in Silicon Valley – where he meets a lot of other lunatics doing the same thing.
Being with someone with a Fitbit is like being with a drug addict in need of a fix. A few weeks ago I was with a man whose device had run out of battery and as we walked along the street he seemed to be in pain. The fact he was walking meant nothing to him: if it wasn’t improving his stats there was no point to it.
The worst thing about these devices is that in the long term, they probably have no effect at all. A recent scientific study showed scant sign that they actually change behaviour.
I asked my acquaintance whether the winner of her office competition was a recent convert to walking as a result of wearing the gadget. No, she said, it was someone with a greyhound. So here is the answer. If you want to walk more, forget the Fitbit and get a dog. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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