The rise of the digital nanny state

If Michelle Obama’s calls for you to eat your fruits and vegetables lead you to decry the rise of the nanny state, then this will not come as a welcome assessment: There is another nanny state on the horizon — a digital one.

The Nike Plus FuelBand is displayed during a product release announcement on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in New York.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The Nike Plus FuelBand is displayed during a product release announcement on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

I recently purchased a Jawbone Up wristband. It’s not everyone’s first choice, and the company had a rough start, ceasing sales in 2011 over serious technical problems. But, after doing some poking around, I settled on it as the right wristband for me. Some people prefer Fitbit Flex (which is cheaper and bluetooth-enabled) or the Nike Fuelband (which is a bit more expensive, but feeds into Nike’s well-populated colony of fitness apps — one of which I use regularly). If you’re in the market for one, the Web is littered with wristband reviews. That being the case, you’re welcome to read through mine or, by all means, head on down the page.

I purchased the Up because I was less than pleased with my sleep patterns. Nike’s running app helped me get my workout routine in order. But I still wasn’t sleeping at night, which increased my risk for injuries and eroded my will to be more active. E-mails and other work I couldn’t fit into a normal workday, social obligations and general nervous energy were keeping me up at night. Rather than toss and turn in bed, I’d use the time to binge-watch Netflix. Yes, that’s a thing now.

Research shows that, when it comes to poor sleep habits, I’m not alone. Millions of Americans are performing under par when it comes to getting the recommended eight hours of sleep every night, with roughly 70 million reporting sleep-related problems. Shift workers, or those called on to work odd hours (welcome to journalism), are particularly susceptible to sleep difficulties, according to the National Sleep Foundation. And, according to a Harvard University study published in early 2010, sleep isn’t like homework — you can’t catch up on the hours you’ve missed.

The ramifications of losing sleep are not trivial. Sleep deprivation has been linked to productivity loss and chronic health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. It has also been a contributing factor in motor vehicle accidents and mental illness. So, there were more than a few incentives for me to change my behavior. But knowing that my inability to sleep was detrimental wasn’t enough. I needed a push — a reminder that the best use of my time for seven-to-eight hours every night was to spend it sleeping. So, I decided to see if diving into the wearable tech world would help.

I bought a wristband.

It’s often said that the anticipation of a thing is more enjoyable than the thing itself. That was manifest in my pre-band wearing behavior. Immediately, my mindset started to change. The night I purchased the band — mind you, it had yet to arrive — I went to bed a little earlier. I woke up, not surprisingly, feeling somewhat better than usual.

I started to walk at times when I would otherwise take a cab. And, since the Up offers a food diary feature, I started paying a bit more attention to what I was eating. I was still eating the occasional batch of french fries, and other goodies. But I was making these choices with greater awareness. I had even downloaded the mobile app in anticipation of the band’s arrival. Its little blue icon was a constant reminder that my personal tracker was coming.

So, when the band finally arrived, I had already started tackling my bad sleep habits. I slept over seven hours that night, calming my mind faster and using the act of switching the band’s mode from “awake” to “sleep”  as both permission to slumber and a barrier to thinking about or taking on other late-night activities.

I slipped every now and again in terms of both what I ate and how much I slept (note: seriously consider turning off the sharing features for sleep, mood and food should you choose to go with the Up). But, overall, the trend line was heading up (pun noted). I have fallen a bit more off the wagon as the band’s novelty has worn off. I still log my food diary, but I do it once-a-day, rather than with every meal. I’ve gone back to binge-watching Netflix and, worse, have discovered RedBox for the blockbusters Netflix can’t stream. And Up has not helped me with my workouts, which I do fewer of due in part to the heat but also because the UP lacks GPS and mileage reminders — both of which Nike provides. So, I still carry my phone with me when I run.

The wristband may not have totally changed my life, but there have been times when I reach out my hand, see the band and reconsider my actions.

And therein lies the emergent nanny state. Without the band — or some other form of constant reminder — I probably would have continued on with my poor sleeping habits, and my diet would likely have continued to deteriorate until a more expensive intervention became necessary. No doubt I would have tried to implement change on my own by sheer force of will. But, without a significant disruption, habits are almost impossible to break. The band, to be clear, is not a medical device, and it can’t stop me if I want to stay up all night watching obscure documentaries. The data it generates is about as accurate as a somewhere-in-the-ballpark guess as to my actual activity. But it’s a pair of digital eyes on my life nonetheless.

Granted, I went out and sought this particular nanny. It could easily be argued that the choice makes this type of technology less of a nanny than a coach. And, for now, it very much is. My social network around the wristband is thin, and manually plugging it in and logging my food diary is arduous. But wearable activity monitors are bumping up against the mainstream. For example, Fitbit products, not exclusively the Fitbit Flex wristband, are sold in 15,000 U.S. retail stores, according to a company spokesperson. And the Up wristband is Jawbone’s most popular product and not, they say, part of a digital-nanny-state rise.

“Ultimately, we are the ones making decisions as individuals,” said Travis Bogard, Vice President for Strategy and Product Management at Jawbone. The technology merely gives us a chance to bridge the gap between intention and action. After all, asks Bogard, ”how can you actually be better if you don’t know where you’re starting from and where you are?”

UP by Jawbone. (PRNewsFoto/Jawbone)

UP by Jawbone. (PRNewsFoto/Jawbone)

Health and wellness wristbands may not be nannies today. But what about down the line? Health insurance companies and employers are beginning to see the potential cost benefits of clients and employees mining their activity data.

Health insurance company Aetna launched CarePass – a fitness app it made available to consumers in June. The app can import data from Withings‘s Wi-Fi-enabled scales, Jawbone’s Up and Fitbit’s Flex. The app doesn’t replace your physician, but it can help you be a bit more honest about your habits between appointments.

“They realize that this is stuff that they’ve never had,” said Jawbone’s Bogard of health insurance companies, “they’re starting to realize there’s this whole aspect of observations of daily living that’s not necessarily something you’re making a diagnosis on.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco-based cloud technology company Appirio has distributed 200 Up bands to its employees as part of its internal wellness program, CloudFit. The company chose the Up band for a few reasons: Jawbone offered them a discount, and the API could be integrated into Appirio’s system. The wristband also had a sleek design, longer battery life and collected activity data and sleep data, steering the company away from the Nike Fuelband. The deal made even more dollars and sense, since Appirio also negotiated with its U.S. health-care provider to cover the first $20,000 in costs dedicated to creating the company wellness program, with the goal of negotiating deeper insurance discounts once enough data had been collected, according to a company representative.

Appirio employees are not required to wear the bands, and if they do, they don’t have to share their data with one another or with the company overall. The wellness program has led to “an uptick in collaboration of its virtual employees that now have more in common (by sharing their UP data). This collaboration translates to a positive and motivational workforce,” according to the company representative. 

More people will undoubtedly make the choice to collect and share this type of data. Companies, eager to find more ways to incentivize healthier lifestyles among their employees, are also bound to encourage their employees to make wearable technologies more a part of our lives than less. Soon, it may not be the first lady telling you “let’s move,” but your health-insurance-subsidized bracelet.

Speaking of which, my wristband just vibrated. Why? Because I haven’t moved in two hours. I should probably get up and go do something.

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