Eat, sleep … share?

Image of Gillian Tett

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted a curious grey bracelet on the wrist of one of New York’s hottest media figures. It was a striking design, slick and neat. But it was not intended to be just a fashion statement, or a tribute to a worthy philanthropic cause. Instead, this particular person, whom I shall call Andy, recently started using this plastic device to track – constantly – the movements of his body, in terms of how much he exercises, eats and sleeps. Each day he not only peruses that data himself, but also uploads it on to a site where it can be monitored by all his friends.

“We can see the stats on each other,” Andy explained, as he pulled out a phone and showed me screens displaying the vital data on his circle of bracelet-wearing friends (a group of east and west coast hedge fund types, lawyers, entrepreneurs and so on). Apparently, this group of professionals are now obsessively watching what time they sleep, how many times they wake in the night, and how many hours of deep slumber each person enjoys.

“It’s the new thing,” Andy added, with a laugh. Wearing these badges – which are made by companies such as Nike and Jawbone – has become a token of pride among his peers.

Opinions among FT readers will undoubtedly be sharply divided about this trend. To many observers, the idea of wearing a gadget that tracks and transmits data on your biorhythms sounds horribly intrusive. We live in a world where the majority of us are already being constantly monitored during our waking hours. If machines can now track our sleep too, this creates new levels of potential surveillance – and doubly so, given the ability of companies and governments to monitor the internet.

But the bracelet-wearing tribe begs to differ. Wearing these monitors is voluntary, they argue. “No one is forced to share their information, it’s optional,” points out Joseph Teegardin, Nike spokesman. Moreover, there can be personal and social benefits: peer pressure can be a powerful motivational factor to encourage a healthier lifestyle – and some research suggests that people who start wearing these electronic bracelets apparently do 25 per cent more exercise than before.

“Those who do share find it helps them to stay motivated,” Teegarden adds. Indeed, the potential health benefits are so significant that some schools in America are starting to introduce them for children – and a few large companies are offering them to employees too. What smacks of George Orwell to some, in other words, looks like sound public policy to others – or, more accurately, a clever way to reduce healthcare costs.

However, what also fascinates me is the cultural irony here. Twenty years ago, before I became a journalist, I spent a great deal of time thinking (and fretting) about concepts of privacy. Back then I was working as a cultural anthropologist in communities in Tibet and Tajikistan, where attitudes to personal space were very different.

Most notably, when I was growing up as a child in England, I assumed that people would always prefer to sleep in private, unless they were with a romantic partner. To be sure, children would sometimes share bedrooms; but when somebody “grew up”, they would usually choose to sleep in their own bedroom and bed – if they had the economic means.

However, people in Tibet and Tajikistan had different assumptions. Each night, piles of people would all sleep in the same room, or tent. If somebody was not sleeping or eating well, it became a matter of wider knowledge and debate. Personally, I found that extremely intrusive. And until recently, I vaguely assumed that societies tended to shed this group pattern when they got richer and more technologically advanced. After all, the broad sweep of history suggests that most cultures have become more individualistic over time, as wealth gives people more freedom to break away from the group.

But the digital revolution could be shaking these assumptions. Never mind the fact that the younger generation today has an obsessive need to keep communicating via Twitter and Facebook, or post information online with scant concern for privacy. If young professionals in places such as San Francisco and New York now think it is “cool” to post their sleeping patterns to each other, then it would appear that the concept of cultural progress has come full circle. Suddenly we are all back in a giant electronic tent together – or at least Andy and some of his elite, wealthy friends are.

Of course, as the companies themselves keep stressing, there is one key difference: these bracelet-wearing fitness addicts – unlike Tajik villagers, say – have a choice about whether or not to remain exposed. But if nothing else, the spread of that Jawbone UP or Nike FuelBand is one more sign of the degree to which most of us want to remain inside a social group – even (or especially) in our disembodied cyber age, when sleep has become one of the most precious commodities of all.

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