Wearable tech could change our relationship with... ourselves

Our gadgets could impact our identity, memory and privacy - not just motivation
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Sure, most really useful wearables are interested in turning mushy bodies into hard ones. But we're also interested in the effects all this new connected self tech is having on our minds and what that means for how we interact with other gadgets as a result.

We've already considered new issues surrounding virtual reality, in particular, including sexual harassment and abuse, and the cognitive development of children and teens.

We've also explored in depth the big topic of how health and fitness wearables are tapping into models of behavioural change, mindsets and habit making to help us improve our motivation. And for fun we've predicted how our relationships with the AIs around us will shift from frustration to acceptance to trust.

Here are a few lesser discussed considerations for anyone wearing or making wearable tech. There's not exactly a wealth of studies into the psychological effects of wearable tech yet but that doesn't mean we can't take existing research and see how it applies to these new day-to-day interactions. After all, the connected self is the result of how we've adapted to the tech that came before it.

We're less and less bothered about privacy

Wearable tech could change our relationship with... ourselves

It's worth taking a step back and acknowledging that millions of people around the world are telling tech companies what they eat, how fast their heart is beating, how they feel, what time they go to sleep and when they last stood up. It's not just health and fitness, either. The Snap Spectacles are already gaining ground where Google Glass failed to make constant recording acceptable. And last year WeVibe inadvertently started the conversation around sex toy data collection.

We've dug into the terms and conditions of all the big wearable tech makers and most of them promise they won't share or sell personally identifiable information with/to other companies. If you want to win, we suggest a compartmentalised approach, as we did with smart home speakers: give one company your health data and another your contextual life data.

The steady rise of health and fitness wearables and our increasing reliance on Google and Apple services could explain how easily we've jumped onboard with Alexa and other in-home, always listening (kind of) assistants. Each time you make a decision to give up some of your personal info, it makes the next time more likely. Millenials are, in general, social media and sharing happy and a recent study has shown that while younger millennials (now 18 to 24) might be more cautious of sharing all their data, they're less likely to take action to safeguard its security and privacy.

There are benefits to keeping some stats, thoughts and information private, though, which is worth bearing in mind if you track everything in your day and tweet the rest. These include, according to Hannah Ahrendt's classic The Human Condition, fixing identity (more on that in a minute), establishing boundaries and preserving sacred and mysterious spaces in our lives. Carl Schneider later wrote that privacy around activities like sex, eating, pain, bodily functions and so on can also give us dignity and stop us feeling shame. As tech nudges us to seek out others who are similar to us, though, perhaps the list of things we keep to ourselves will dwindle to zero.

We're letting tech into our identity

Wearable tech could change our relationship with... ourselves

Let's face it, when you see an Apple Watch on someone's wrist - tech journo dandies excluded - you make assumptions. You know at a glance that they have a certain amount of money to spend, that they're either busy and important (or they think they are) and you know that they own an iPhone which leads to... more assumptions.

The same goes for a Fitbit (they're trying to get fit) or a Garmin (they are fit) or a Tag Heuer Connected (they have too much disposable cash). I saw someone on the tube wearing an original Samsung Gear smartwatch recently and I knew in an instant they'd be loyal and perseverant.

Wearable tech signals just as much about what a person is aspiring to or aiming for as what they are now. And we let it. Bringing this back to the privacy point, that's part of the same shift which sees Spotify users broadcasting what they're listening to.

In China, in particular, this identity capital has been reported as a big factor in the Apple Watch's success. Customisable and designer accessories, hardware and watch faces from Vera Wang, Hermés and Michael Kors help us to embrace tech as a fashion, and even personality, statement. The difference is that wearables are not yet cheap enough to be fast fashion.

With wearables becoming invisible and/or disguised as regular accessories or clothing, this direct impact of technology on how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world may also be temporary. Then again, if implantables and biohacking really does take off, these pursuits could take on the role of tattoos in signalling what our priorities and interests are over longer periods of time.

We're outsourcing our memory

Wearable tech could change our relationship with... ourselves

It's still a controversial topic the idea of the internet and smartphones destroying our memory, attention span and intelligence. But even the concept of automatic fitness tracking could change our relationship with what we're doing day to day and how we remember it.

On the one hand, the quantified self asks us to engage more with what we're doing - walking, running, sleeping, eating, menstruating - by entering data, viewing graphs, acting on insights. But on the other hand, the Zeigarnik Effect on the brain means that we remember unfinished items more than completed ones. Once we manually input or check that a meal/swim/nap has been tracked, could this make us less likely to recall it? There's no research on this yet but we'd be very interested to see the results.

Everything from calendar alerts on your Apple Watch before meetings - so we don't need to remember them ourselves - to new, niche wearables like the Senstone charm which records audio - so we don't need to remember or take notes from conversations -

Voice notes, exciting and convenient as it is, could have an impact on our memory too if it means you abandon scribbling things down on paper. So, the journal Psychological Science found that students who take notes longhand, with pen and paper, had both better factual recall and conceptual learning than those typing on laptops: "There is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information and instead to process and reframe information in their own words."

It's not all doom and gloom, though. One extreme example of how useful this trend could ultimately be is a Microsoft Research study which found that a patient with amnesia who wore a wearable camera, and then reviewed the images every couple of days, was able to remember 80% of key facts from her activities a fortnight later. Without any help, she remembered under a third of events, with a written diary only around 50%. The study was replicated with Alzheimer's patients with a similar success rate and the researchers involved believed the images were helping participants to retrieve stored but inaccessible memories.

This example gets to the challenge and the promise: connecting ourselves to technology comes with drawbacks but the overall potential is to make us better/faster/stronger/smarter.

If the tech industry can do this with one eye on what we stand to lose or transform, all the better.

Is the biggest shift in how we change our habits? Or how we feel towards our own privacy? Let us know in the comments.

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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