The Connected Self: How Will Wearable Tech Shape Humanity?

In early summer 2018, I ran over hill and glen through Scotland’s northwest Highlands, wearing two smart devices I’d been asked to review – a pair of headphones helping to regulate your breathing through biometric sensors, and a smartwatch which tells you how fit you aren’t. A question occurred to me as I ran: when or how did smart technology get to occupy our personal space so completely, becoming a part of us almost without our noticing? 

So I decided to sift through findings from the world’s great minds, to try and explore a question which could have a multi-strand narrative of answers: what happens when technology knows more about us than we do?

FROM ‘A’ TO BODY

At the turn of the last century, telephones and trains significantly bridged the cargo and communication gap, traversing space and time to carry our messages and our bodies from A to B, to C and beyond. Within only the last two decades, digital devices have transitioned from our surroundings – as our containers and our carriers; onto and into our bodies as extensions of us. We are now synonymous with our smartphones, our watches and our virtual headsets, which enhance our capabilities beyond our wildest pre-1900 dreams. Our language has changed to reflect this: when we’re happy, we’re wired, and when we’re stressed, we don’t have enough bandwidth or we need to disconnect.

Today we are one with our pacemakers, our implants, our bionic limbs. Last year these biomarker breathalysers which fit into your smartphone became possible to detect diseases. In February 2018, a team from the University of Tokyo unveiled a device which can read your body’s vital signs, and display them on a thin plastic material laid over your skin. And in the following month, researchers created a sensor which sits on your tooth to track your diet in real-time; monitoring your intake of alcohol, glucose and sodium – then wirelessly transmitting the data to your phone or to your doctor.

Cyborgs, part-human part-machine, have been a mainstay of Sci-Fi stories for the last century. It’s almost as if these ‘fictional or hypothetical’ people became our own current reality, whilst we weren’t paying attention:

Now, our physical abilities extend beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body. We are cyborgs: some of us part-time, some full-time.

Our closer relationship with technology is both wonderful and terrifying. On the one side; this intimacy in our day-to-day adoption and advancement of tech allow us to stride towards a more progressive and healthy future, fuelled by complicit data transparency, hyper self-awareness and collective improvement.

On the other side, a dystopia awaits where the magic of self-discovery is seen as nothing but a quaint relic; giving way to societal issues ranging in their seriousness – from data-driven point-scoring and paranoid self-loathing; to poverty, population control and digital dictatorships.

Considering the above, I don’t think these seemingly Sci-Fiesque projections are so silly. But I do believe we can find a balance. As long as we continue the conversation about what we truly want from it, I believe there is a way that technology can permeate us beneficially; helping us in many ways, from identifying and preventing complex mental health issues; to caring more deeply for one another.

DEFINING DATA FOR GOOD

Let’s consider the machines which are not physically attached to us and yet already augment our lives so completely, such as video streaming platforms (like Netflix) and the technologies at the helm of driving digital marketing campaigns on behalf of businesses (Google, Facebook, etc). Whether we like it or not, we are sharing parts of our inner lives with companies who pay billions to know more about us emotionally for marketing purposes; for example whether you’d prefer the ad banner of the boy or the girl – or whether the scene in that movie made you sad, or bored.

This information about you is behaviour-based: it’s something that happens all around you, something that happens to you, and you still enjoy the illusion that you control your secret inner arena, whilst outsiders could never really understand what is happening inside you and how you make decisions.

You want to share, of course; because there is clear value in sharing your personal data – aka your preferences and your online footprints: your video streaming algorithm recommends only movies you will like, and the ads on your preferred news platform are so relevant to you that they don’t even feel like ads anymore.

On a more fundamental and life-changing level, though, wearable tech which taps into bodily functions like your heart rate mean you no longer have to ‘go with your gut’ when it comes to recognising illness or wellness – nor even rely on the predictions of well-informed medical professionals.

Within decades at most, our connected selves will be augmented with a consistent stream of biometric data monitoring our health 24/7, even by way of smartwatches like FitBit, or via headphones which not only help you stay in shape but report on your general health. These wearables could help design entire health programmes around not only our unique genetic makeup and life events up until right now, but based on our preferences, personalities, and behaviours. They could catch diseases like cancer through advanced cellular detection before they even have a chance to take hold.

The magnitude of removing this problem – ousting diseases and illnesses at their root – is, of course, huge. It doesn’t only save lives, it totally shifts the goalposts of what great health means, upending the barometer by which we resolve ‘I’m feeling good’ or ‘I’m not feeling good.’

There is of course the sinister side to having our healthcare administered by a centralised system, a side which it is crucial for us to think carefully about and address. The key question we must ask ourselves is, what are the goals of those who have access to this data? To what extent can they control where it goes, and how it is used?

Consider the implications of China’s bold experiment to help people build nationwide trust through a ‘social credit score’, and how an aggregated profile of an individual’s health and self-care records could contribute to a wider domino effect of data and character speculations. How well do they look after themselves? What kind of risks are they taking, and what kinds of healthcare do they deserve on this basis? This chain of events could negatively affect their insurance premiums, their eligibility for a loan, their career and their relationships (hear NPR’s Planet Money podcast for real stories and examples).

In our pursuit of improvements to our wellbeing, what will our next big challenge be? Will we finally step even further into our own minds, allowing technologies to touch and ‘take over’ our feelings and inner worlds completely?

Perhaps more importantly, how can we make sure we give our immediate and near-future technologies goals which match up with and help our mental health, rather than hindering or hacking it?

TECHNOLOGY WHICH TEACHES US HOW TO FEEL

What we thrive on as humans is the illusion or semblance of free will. But we sit at an awkward intersection between what we feel is good for us, and what technology knows is good for us, through understanding our bodies and minds better than we do ourselves.

We have already identified that people are vulnerable when it comes to personal data-sharing. Take Strava’s 2018 data leak as a real-world example of the network effects biometric data can have today: it shows how we will share data which presents a clear value exchange, like understanding our own body better and getting fitter, at the expense of individual – or international – privacy.

But is technology’s next step into our minds – into these unique perceptual realities that we each have – such a strange thing? Can the next leap in wearables help us become better in a way we can’t quite grasp yet; helping us to feel more, to connect more with one another?

I return to my run in the Scottish highlands, with my Jabra headphones and my FitBit uploading my body’s critical movements. I run past a nervous dog that day – and taking him by surprise as I jog by, he lunges to bite my leg. For him, I am a danger in that split second: for him, this is an impulsive fight or flight response.

From this fleeting reaction as he tenses and reflexes take him towards me, I am able to see into this animal’s mental experiences through how he responds to the external world around him. He is wearing his internal state on his furry sleeve. He is frightened, and when he realises I am not a threat, his fear ebbs away.

Are us humans really as different as we like to think we are?

Perhaps not. Our bodies are constantly giving off signals through our physiology and behaviour –  and although this may sound scary, technology which helps us to interpret one another’s inner experiences may not be such a stretch when we consider it carefully.

Infrared thermal imaging can measure a range of emotional states as patterns across our face, manifesting on-screen as a colourful interplay of warm reds and cool blues in various formations to indicate joy, sadness and many layers of feeling in between.

In a social setting, this could form a new part of how we connect with people, via our own wearable barometers to interpret their authenticity, or through a map radiating their stories and how they match up with our own. This technology can closely observe how our bodies respond to one another, helping us relate to those around us.

And it’s not only how we look beneath the surface, but the nuances of how we sound.

So where faint heat on our cheeks and our tone of voice is a probable hint to someone sitting across the table from us of how engaged we are in a conversation – to today’s and tomorrow’s technology, it will be like a palpable and dynamic signature of how hard our brain is working, whether we’re paying attention, and our depth of interpersonal interest.

EXTENDING OUR SENSES

By becoming closer to our tech, we are becoming extrasensory not only by seeing emotional connection in patterns. As early as 2012 Neil Harbisson, who was born colour-blind, became the world’s first legally recognised Cyborg – and with a device attached to his head he now constantly hears colour, with each shade attuned to a different note.

After art galleries became hours-long symphonies, supermarket aisles turned into nightclubs and beautiful faces were perceived as his favourite harmonies, the software attached to his head began to merge more completely with his mind. In Neil’s TED Talk, he tells of how he not only heard paintings, but in reverse, began to perceive sound as colour in a way which added unexpected shades to conversations, music and day-to-day noise. More recently he worked with scientists to extend his perception of colour beyond the capabilities of the naked human eye – seeing ultraviolet, as well as infrared – his favourite colour – which he hears as a long, low baritone.  

Of his relationship with wearables, he says,

‘I’m not using technology, I’m not wearing technology, I am technology.’

And if you’re not convinced by this seeming outlier in extrasensory augmentation – just consider your day-to-day cyborg superpower; the ability to navigate almost anywhere in the world within a millisecond via your very own external hard-drive – Google Maps.

PLACING OUR CONNECTED SELVES IN THE RIGHT HANDS

For better or for worse, technology will know how we’re feeling and to a certain degree – what we’re thinking. In the coming years, we will know more about each other than we ever have.

But we do need to understand that the implications of extending the connected self are, and could be, much more serious than simply giving away a poker bluff.

This means we need to talk about this more, and make sure we validate our own goals as a part of validating those of the technologies we build – to above all else, become technological empaths. Validation means creating aids to augment not control our own senses, shaping new ways of connecting with people emotionally or socially, and engaging in richer experiences to enjoy fuller and healthier lives.

We also need to protect ourselves, in the knowledge that we have a hard time with the idea of sharing certain kinds of data. When we choose or talk to someone, look at someone or look away – we are already sharing data which helps us to make decisions about our own lives, as well as assessments of other people. What changes is that data sharing methods and instruments continue to shapeshift and evolve – and we should become more aware of who we are sharing our information with, and how it’s being used. It follows that education, transparency and effective regulation are central to building trust around these technologies which surround us, and are becoming extensions of us.

Determining how we bridge the divide between our devices, our data and ourselves starts now. Do they help us to be closer to each other and more authentic? Do they help us understand someone’s feelings or health, insofar as we ought to pay attention or act? If we can ask these kinds of questions of ourselves, then the benefits that these technologies bring into our lives are worth solving the problems which make us uncomfortable.

And if we can’t, there are many opportunities to explore new frontiers and be better versions of ourselves that we are going to miss out on.

Alex Durham

This post was sponsored by Fitbit.