The Unexamined Life — Not for Long

I was walking down an unfamiliar downtown street at night with my wife. We were in search of a bar where we were going to meet friends. Rather than, as I used to do, glance at my iPhone to help me navigate, or as I did before that, use a map and a small flashlight, I relied on the haptic beats on my recently-purchased Apple Watch. A steady beat means turn right; an intermittent beat means turn left. A John Coltrane riff means you accidentally turned on the music app and you just walked into street traffic.

I like my new Apple gadget, but while wrist-sourced navigation feels far more natural to a pedestrian, it's not worth $400. The promise of the Apple Watch is how it can assist you towards a better lifestyle or even save your life. But I'm going to start with a cautionary tale.

Heath-related wearables, primarily in the form of smart watches, have been introduced during the last few years. Currently, the Apple Watch can do a few health-related mundane tasks such as count steps, record heart rate, and estimate calorie burn with various kinds of aerobic exercises. As the technology of these smart watches improves, they will acquire the ability to monitor more than what's currently done with sophisticated medical machines and more than with tests currently done in medical labs. For example, while not yet approved for use in the U.S., the Apple Watch band from Alive Cor tracks atrial fibrillations, which assists physicians in predicting the danger of a stroke. Imagine that: rather than go for a test annually, you're monitored for a major heart incident 24/7. That's the good news.

With most technology, once we focus on how a device serves us, we tend to disregard the drawbacks. Cars gave us independence and quick transport over distance. But they also contribute to pollution, a sedentary lifestyle, badly designed cities, and even wars over oil. Every year, U.S. traffic deaths exceed by an order of magnitude (upwards of ten times as many) the casualties from the terroist attack of September, 11, 2001.

The drawback of wearables

When Socrates informed us that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn't have Google, Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, the NSA, or Homeland Security in mind. He was referring to self-reflection not surveillance. He also did not have the Apple Watch in mind, which (along with its competitors) is going to be a conduit to a more invasive surveillance then we've yet seen.

We won't regard these health monitors, initially, as surveillance tools, we'll view them as health aids. Just like we don't think of Google as a surveillance tool, we regard it as a search tool. We don't think of Facebook as a surveillance tool, we regard it as the means to connect with friends and family. We don't think of AT&T Wireless as a surveillance tool, we regard it as our cell service. Nevertheless, even if we're paying just a little attention, we know that these tools are spying on us by either the corporations that serve us ads or by government agents for (supposedly) our own safety.

Pop quiz: Aetna Health Insurance recently decided to subsidize the purchase of Apple Watches for customers. They did this because

(a) they are interested in raising the level of health for their customers,

(b) they wish to get customers used to being surveilled for their health conditions and habits so they can charge accordingly.

If you answered (a), you're hopelessly naive. Health insurance companies don't care about your wellbeing. Too many stories, to believe that, about how hard they work to deny benefits, even to save a life. To determine rates, your auto insurance company uses general categories, such as age, sex, and location of residence; and to those they add specifics such as the value of your car and your tickets and accidents record. But your rates are also determined by something seemingly unrelated — your credit score. Insurance companies have determined a statistical correlation between credit rating and auto accidents.

Now imagine — which you won't have to do for long — your health insurance company having access to all the data that future smart watches can make available. And imagine — which you won't have to do for long — that they'll give you a free five-hundred dollar watch if you'll allow the company to access that data. We give away our personal data to Google for free email, search, and navigation. We give away our personal data to Facebook for free means of connecting to friends and family. We give away our personal data to Uber and AirBnB for the convenience of travel. Most of us have decided to give away our personal data for free or convenient services to lots of Internet companies. What are the chances that most of us will turn down a $500 piece of slick hardware in exchange for even our most intimate health data? And what do you think Aetna and other health insurance companies will do with that data? Whatever it is, it won't be for the sake of their customers.