The Long-Foretold Dark Side of Wearable Technology

The downsides of technological progress have been well documented in science fiction stories for more than a hundred years now. So why does it feel like we can’t recognize some of these prophesies, even as they stare us in the face?

That’s one of the questions being raised by the so-called Internet of Things and the emerging market for wearable technology: at what point does a particular technology stop being beneficial and become instead a distraction?

So let’s talk about the “dark side” of wearable fitness trackers—just the tip of the iceberg, really, when it comes to modern technology, but something that will become more and more important in the coming years. We’re looking for that mysterious spot between convenience and hindrance—and the good news is that we may already have found it.

“It’s a Part of Me”

There’s a good chance you don’t even think about that Fitbit (or Jawbone, or Apple Watch) strapped to your wrist. If that’s the case, know that you’re not alone. In a study conducted by io9, in which 200 women were asked about their relationship with their fitness wearable, 89% of respondents indicated that they wore the devices constantly, taking them off only to recharge the battery.

Even more telling, the survey indicated that wearing a Fitbit (or similar device) came to play an important role in daily life—everything from encouraging alternate routes in the name of step counts, making time for weekly exercise, and lasting changes in eating habits.

This all sounds like really good news, and it is. It reveals the potential that wearables have to positively change our lifestyles and habits.

So What’s the Problem?

Indeed; what’s the problem? Anything that lets people take back some measure of control over their active lives must be a great thing no matter what, right? Not so fast.

As with any relationship, the way we’ve come to rely on wearable technology could have a darker side if taken to extremes.

Since the 1930’s, writers, scientists, and philosophers have been thinking about the line between liberation and oppression, as it applies to emerging technologies. A philosopher named Lewis Mumford was one of the first to explore this dynamic, and now the conversation has been reignited.

In the same io9 survey from earlier, a significant portion—45%)—of those surveyed indicated feeling “naked” without their wearable of choice, or that physical activities were “wasted” unless they received credit for it (43%).

And then there’s this report, which observed in 1990 that, even when worn technology literally cut into the wearer’s skin, users were largely indifferent.

Whether this constitutes over-dependence or a lack of self-awareness is unclear, but things get worse when the conversation turns to the perceived pressure that this technology exerts over us. A full 79% of respondents indicated that they felt under pressure to hit their daily targets, while 59% felt “controlled.”

This is a far cry from the idyllic, motivation-centric image we’re sold in commercials. I don’t mean to imply any wrongdoing here; technology is inherently benign—it’s all in how we use it. Still, even the most innocuous wearable technology seems to exert a surprising amount of control over us.

And this is only going to become more pronounced as time goes on. We’d probably all agree that wearable technology is in its infancy. It won’t be long before we’re throwing away our watches and bands in favor of implantable technology, the power of which modern innovations are only beginning to be hinted at.

In other words, our cybernetic future isn’t looking that rosy. If you’re a slave to your Fitbit, how much free will could we possibly have when computers aren’t just on us, but in us, as well?

I realize that things took a bit of a turn here. I promised you a “darker side,” but it ended up sounding more like “nightmarish technological dystopia.” I don’t want to be a fear-monger, but it’s something to think about. Again, this is an issue that’s been in our collective unconscious for quite some time, and now that reality has caught up with fiction, we’re not sure what to do.

I’ll end with a very simple reminder: technology is a tool. It should make our lives safer, easier, and happier. Anything that fails this very simple test is not worth your time.

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