Would you like to give your friends and loved ones the gift of surveillance this holiday season? Your options abound. The market for “smart” devices is booming: There are smart toothbrushes that monitor your dental hygiene, smart beds that measure how you sleep, and smart forks that watch your every bite. This intimate data can be helpful, steering you toward a healthier and more productive life. But it is also deeply interesting to others listening in.
In the digital economy, we are urged to outsource all manner of once routine mental activities. Critics have complained, for example, that reliance on navigational apps has sapped our native sense of orientation. We no longer have to pay attention to our bearings or geographical markers since Waze or Google Maps will do it for us. Now, an ambitious new smart product takes this trend a frightening step further.
Amazon’s Halo fitness tracker not only measures your heart rate and exercise routines but also your moods; it records your voice, analyzes your tone, and issues detailed reports of your emotional states throughout the day. New York Times media critic Kara Swisher recently tried it out: “That first day a vexed emoji told me I was ‘stern’ or ‘discouraged’ for 16 percent of the day. ‘You had one phrase that sounded restrained and sad’ for 1.6 seconds at 12:30 p.m. … But 8 percent of the day, including for 14.4 seconds at exactly 11:41:41 a.m., I was ‘satisfied’… Later, for 1.2 seconds at 7:18:30 p.m., I was ‘afraid, panicked or overwhelmed.’”
Have we really become so oblivious in the digital era, so dependent on apps and devices to guide our behavior, that we need a smart bracelet to understand how we’re feeling? This is the opposite of self-awareness. We are becoming automatons in service of Silicon Valley, handing over our lives to digital spies, to be pulled and prodded at their command—and then monetized.
The ancient Stoics argue that knowledge of one’s self is necessary to achieve tranquility. But we must principally understand our nature, our strengths and weaknesses, in order to recognize our duties and be of service to the world. The key, then, is to divert attention from the self; we find happiness when we are divested of self-concern.
The Buddha recommends practicing greater mindfulness throughout our waking day. The ultimate insight, however, is that when we peer within and try to gauge or pin down the elusive ego, there is nothing there. As Zen master D. T. Suzuki put it, the fruit of concerted and disciplined meditation is to see the “I” flapping like a loose door in the wind, coming off its hinges with each breath.
Halo, by contrast, promises to deliver only narcissism and self-obsession. The device doesn’t offer real insight into your inner states but reports on how you seem to other people. As Amazon’s medical officer Maulik Majmudar explains, “People are relatively unaware of how they sound to others and the impact that may have on their personal and professional relationships.” If you sound irritated, angry, restrained, or overbearing, you can adjust your tone and delivery to seem otherwise.
Doesn’t this invite you to second-guess every utterance and interaction and fret over how you look in the eyes of judging peers? This is the least helpful kind of self-knowledge since it is wholly insecure, constantly shifting, eternally uncertain. I can and never will know how others assess me—this is beyond my control. Trying to grasp this, or influence it with any consistency or certainty, is a futile chase and a recipe for madness. It evokes the anxiety that therapists attribute to social media use.
But if Halo is of little use to me, who is it principally for? Amazon has vowed that it will not pillage the data collected; Halo spies only for you. For now. But it establishes an important precedent and inures us to constant surveillance. Thus, it opens the door for hungry marketers. Surveillance is at the heart of the digital economy; it’s what makes, or promises to make, digital services superior. The more we divulge, the more precisely, efficiently, and effectively these services help us. They can tell you what you want before you know you want it. On the promise of personalized service and greater convenience, we invariably comply.
Why might marketers want to know about your emotional states? How are they benefited by knowing you are sad for 1.6 seconds at 12:30 p.m.? Marketers can take advantage of you in such moments and pitch products and services that you are susceptible to. As media scholar Zeynep Tufekci argues, it’s but a short step from identifying your vulnerabilities to creating them. If Amazon determines you are depressed, for example, it may know exactly what movies you will indulge in, what snack foods you will load up on—what “retail therapy” soothes you at that moment.
This is the tip of the iceberg. Data analysis is an esoteric science, and we have little idea of the conclusions drawn about us, how marketers evaluate and manipulate us in subtle ways. Consider that a retailer determined that buying felt pads to keep your furniture from scratching the floor is a preeminent marker of credit-worthiness. Facebook, meanwhile, has studied patterns of social media use to determine when we are falling in love or breaking up. They wouldn’t do this if there wasn’t money to be made with the information.
Halo and other smart devices objectify people, treating them as little more than a collection of impulses and motives that can be played upon. When we are but objects liable to manipulation, corporations will more easily overlook our pain and suffering—or incite it. And this market is only growing. What kinds of devious new products lie in wait now that Big Tech is convinced of its omniscience? What abuses will these companies excuse or justify? Facebook already saw fit to influence voter behavior during an election—an insight Cambridge Analytica swiftly exploited. What will Amazon do when it learns of our weakest, darkest moments?