While I'm sure that philosophers will long wrestle with the question of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there's no one there to hear it, today's pressing dilemmas are more social and digital in nature. Whether we like it or not, while that tree may be all alone in the forest we're almost never actually alone these days, and the advent of constant connectivity and two-way datafication is changing the ways in which we behave in surprising and unexpected ways.
We're connected to our friends and family, our co-workers and employers, a multitude of info-grabbing apps, and a whole host of other folks, businesses, and agencies that we hardly know or know much about. And because our "phones" (actually I’d call them digital trackers that happen to make phone calls) are transmitting our thoughts, actions, locations and activities--actively and passively, knowingly and not--all day long, the communication and surveillance loop is persistent, omnipresent, and unending.
Will You Go Willingly?
It's like we have a digital Jiminy Cricket strapped to our waists instead of sitting on our shoulder--but the end result is virtually the same. Your tracker may not be offering moral support (or judgments), but it's tracking your movements all the same and sharing them with the world. And, as we all know from Professor Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, we behave differently when we know we're being watched (and/or measured) and this is why we like to say that "what gets measured is what gets done."
Now, if all this surveillance and digital peer pressure results in more exercise or other positive activities and actions, I suppose that's a good thing. But there is definitely such a thing as too much of a good thing and I think we're getting pretty close to the tipping point. You may think that you're immune from these kinds of influences (and for the moment that may be true), but it's only a matter of time (and which poison you pick) because, in the end, they're gonna get us all and most of us will go along willingly.
As our technologies become more mobile and miniaturized it appears that the power of constant connectivity may be at least as enslaving and annoying as it is theoretically empowering. (As an aside, is it too damn much to ask the phone manufacturers to have a phone whose battery lasts at least through a reasonably long business day? I love the new kinetic battery guys (like MyPowr.me), but do we really need to be carrying yet another device with us just to have enough juice to make it home at night?)
In any case, I'm not just talking here about dedicated/obsessive users of any stripe: e-mail junkies, crackberry addicts, selfie sickies, or even Google glassholes. I’m talking about anyone wearing a Fitbit, Jawbone, heart-monitoring watch, or any other gizmo that charts and communicates athletic, calorie-burning, or other aspects of your physical activity.
Are You Addicted?
The fact is that these powerful little guys strapped to our waists can be constructive coaxers or demanding dictators. We're seeing new (non-chemical) kinds of addictions manufactured right before our eyes--in fact, manufactured by us for us--that are built on datafication systems driven in large part by peer and partner pressure. These programs are beginning to change our behaviors at scale. And it's equally clear that there are psychological changes accompanying the introduction and adoption of these kinds of systems.
If you don't believe this is a problem here and now, just see how you react when you discover midday that you forgot to sufficiently charge your device and it's no longer measuring your activity. We've all experienced the angst associated with our mobile phones dying, but this is even worse. And, if you really want to go "cold turkey" just see how hard it is to put your device on the bed stand one morning and try to "leave home without it." I don’t think you can do it.
Why is this so important for all of us and especially for the next several generations? It's not because I really care whether you're a few steps ahead or behind me in tonight's rankings, or that your place on the leader board is far above mine. These are just the measurements and outcomes of the disease. The disease is that our technology now connects us and lets us work as long and hard as we want. All the time if we like.
The seductive power of constant and ubiquitous connectivity is that we don't want to turn it off. We don't want to drop out or disconnect. But if each of us doesn't start to think about limits and boundaries and rules, there won't be any end to anyone's day, or anything meaningful left in our lives outside of work. The Fitbit anxiety is just the "canary in the coalmine," an early symptom of the bigger problem.
The bottom line for each and every one of us is very simple: There's always more work, but you've only got one family and one time to go around this crazy life. So I'd say that now's the time to start thinking about how to balance all the things that are really important in making a life (and not just in making a living) and try to get some sense of balance and proportion back in your life before it's too late.