The march of the quantified elves

I’m Nag — an engineer entrepreneur. In a past life I invented and built lifesaving medical devices. I’m relatively new to the whole wearable/ digital health tech scene.

I was a light mobile/digital health tech user up until a year ago — until I started to build apps and devices for myself and those around me. But I hadn’t realized just how much the world had changed around me until I started to design for myself and for it.

After a year or so of doing this, I’m beginning to realize just how much needs to change about the current wave of wearable/ mobile health technology . All those pesky pedometers and dumb-watches are turning us into turning us into conscientious little quantified elves — scurrying about logging our data — haranguing each other over points — buzzing each others wrists with silly hearts (when did a hug or a call become too much damn effort?) — out-bro-ing each other over miles run, steps walked, stairs taken, minutes meditated, candies crushed, birds flapped, posts liked, tweets tweeted, chats snapped, followers reaped… Okay the last few aren’t really health tech — but you get the drift. We’re inherently counting and measuring our lives like there’s no tomorrow. Happiness is +1, an upvote, and mindfulness is a mindless meme.

Somewhere deep inside you — every time you count and digitize — soma and soul is being replaced by silicon stats and biometric bits — and you won’t even notice it — until one day you wake up and you’re nothing but a container for your health stats and consumption data — one long convoluted (living?) breathing Medical Record + Consumer Profile.

It’s the stuff of my nightmares. To paraphrase Joseph Heller in the age of mobile — You’ll have a psychologist for your psyche, a pathologist for your pathos, and a big-data scientist for your body and soul — cooing probability numbers and expected outcomes gently in your ear as you go about (your?) life. Makes me want to run screaming back to a reassuringly analog, paper-textured, sapphire glass-free world, where a walk was just a walk, and not an anxious rush to meet a daily step count.

Maybe this digitization is inevitable. Our bodies and minds are being increasingly shaped by relentlessly optimum-seeking, data-driven feedback loops designed by our machines. But what is the objective function, the end-point, that is driving this optimization?

And does it have to be this way? Can we change the way we approach design for wearables/ mobile health tech?

How do we make it more about amplifying our humanity? How do we avoid becoming indistinguishable from the tools that we use to measure ourselves and our health?

If the tools and tech became less about the numbers and more about intuition and insight — how would that impact the shape and soul of technology? What if they became less about measurement and more about motivation? What if the emphasis was less on quantity and performance and more on quality and experience? How do we as engineers and designers focus on building less for data and more for delight? Most importantly — how do we rethink our devices as a means to connect people to each other?

Whats the one thing you would want to change about your favorite wearable/ mobile health app that would enable this?