Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fitbit to Be Tied

Yesterday I walked more than 12,500 steps. How do I know this? My smartphone told me so. That phone knows a lot about me, maybe even more than I want it to know. But I’m not upset that it knows how many steps I took yesterday, and I even graciously accepted the “virtual” medal that was posted in an email to my phone, congratulating me on having more than met my steps goal for the day.

No, I didn’t actually establish that goal. A small computer snapped into a band on my wrist set the goal, which was 10,000 steps. If I meet the goal, the computer gives me a tingle on my wrist that is both a little shocking and a little satisfying. I’m happy to know that at least something on my body is tingling these days.

On many days, however, the wrist computer is more ambitious than I am. Many days, I come up short of my goal. In that case, I don’t receive a virtual medal or a tingle, but luckily I don’t receive a shocking rebuke either. At midnight, the computer just begins counting all over again. If I happen to walk in my sleep (perhaps making a small jaunt to the bathroom, for instance), I might find that I have taken 50 or more steps even before I consciously begin a new day. The step total that appears on an app on my smartphone is a sign that I am being tracked by an outside force occupying my wrist. That idea doesn’t always make me tingle.  

There is no great mystery here. The small computer is part of the present I received from my children for Father’s Day. It’s called a Fitbit. It’s an exercise monitor that fits into a band on your wrist. My Fitbit looks sort of like that Lance Armstrong Livestrong band that is now out of favor. But mine is black instead of yellow. Other people wear colored wrist bands that have other meanings and signify other causes. Mine is just there to keep track of my efforts to be more fit, which is a pretty noble cause in itself.

More than a quarter of the way toward today's goal. Am I going to tingle?
Now, things were going fine between my Fitbit and me for several days. It encouraged me to walk more and sit a little less. And I was pretty happy to see that walking on the treadmill, even at a moderate pace, caused my step total to go up quickly, as long as my wrist stayed in motion. So I walked just a little longer. (Then I noted that by just swinging my wrist, even without taking an actual step, the numbers would go up. I logged that information into my memory bank for future reference.)

Then, something strange happened.

On my fifth day of wearing the Fitbit, I received a very disturbing email. The email read:

“Hi Michael G.,

Your Flex battery level is low. Charge your battery as soon as possible.”

The message went on to describe how I could charge my battery, and ended with the cheerful closing: “Happy Stepping!”

The message was friendly enough, but I didn’t feel really happy. It dawned on me that I had truly and voluntarily stepped into the world of “Big Brother” 10,000 steps at a time. I was being tracked by a machine that could not only give me tingles and virtual medals but also make me feel bad about not treating it properly. I had let down my Fitbit. That thought caused me more anguish than it should have. Suddenly, I began to worry that my Fitbit might start communicating with other machines in my life, sharing possible shortcomings or even (shudder!) secrets. What if, for example, my Fitbit and the bathroom scale began conversing with each other. What if both of them told my “Weight Watchers” app that I had understated my actual poundage on weigh-in day this week,  just so I could get an encouraging message urging me to “keep up the good work.”

An old poem many of us memorized in high school goes,

“I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.”

Sadly that message doesn’t really ring true for those of us living in the age when our tools and toys can talk to each other about us.