MONTHLY BAROMETER – WELLNESS EDITION
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff makes the case that customers are being reinvented as data sources. This produces anti-democratic asymmetries of knowledge that in turn transform our economies and societies. Her argument will gain traction in 2019, exacerbating the tech backlash and putting the issue of privacy firmly at the core of new laws, regulation and collective action. The recent ruling of the French regulators against Google is the first salvo. Others will follow. Ultimately, the argument about surveillance begs the question of whether Big Tech risks becoming Big Brother. George Soros thinks so: He declared in Davos that the new Chinese social credit system constitutes a “mortal threat” to open societies.
This begs the question of what tracking our wellness (or unwell) habits does to us. Does the quantification of our own behavior constitute a source of wellbeing or does it do just the opposite? This is a legitimate question: In the three years to 2017, health and fitness app usage increased by 330 percent, and last year, 120 million wearable sensors were sold around the world.
There is no definite conclusion in the academic literature that health tracking improves our behavior and our state of wellbeing. In fact, the evidence is mixed: It can lead to a virtuous cycle of improvement by helping us to better understand ourselves, but it can also backfire: For people who struggle with mild (let alone severe) mental disorders, such as compulsivity, the constant quantification of everything can rapidly become obsessive and, as such, unhealthy and a source of unwellness.
Then there is the issue of privacy and who owns this data. If we know how many steps we’ve walked, how many hours we’ve slept, how many units of alcohol we’ve drunk, etc., then so does somebody else. Does this knowledge amount to better control of our lives or is it us who are being controlled by the companies that collect and use our data?