So Appy Together

Siri, the iPhone’s sassy personal assistant, was just the beginning. Right now, behavioral scientists are racing to develop a new generation of apps and programs that can mimic compassion, concern, and sympathy—technology they hope we will form relationships with, even fall in love with. Janelle Nanos goes inside this brave new world to find out how our ever-smarter phones are changing what it means to be human.

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

“Starting QS was about anticipating that this boom was coming, and wanting to produce a context for intelligence and reflection,” Gary Wolf tells me when I get him on the phone in California. He says QS is not about finding answers, per se, but about asking questions and learning more about yourself in the process. He goes on to explain that this convergence of technology and personal data is creating a “new way of being human, and it’s something that we should think and talk about and work out together.”

A NEW WAY OF BEING HUMAN? That’s certainly not what I thought I was signing up for when I began my own self-tracking about a year ago. I downloaded one of the most popular health apps on iTunes, RunKeeper, which was designed by the local startup FitnessKeeper. As I jog, it tracks my pace and uses my phone’s GPS coordinates to calculate my distance, while its internal coach gives me my splits and tallies my calories burned. RunKeeper’s been called the gateway drug for self-tracking, and after getting the initial bit of data, I did feel a dopamine surge in my brain. As I kept using the app, I got hooked. I’d receive e-mails when I hit a new distance goal, and would share my runs on Facebook, where friends would cheer me on, adding to the warm-fuzzy feeling. Later, I learned that I was experiencing what researchers call the Hawthorne effect: the idea that test subjects improve upon an observed habit simply because it’s being watched. Socrates famously said that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. And sure enough, I began to feel like I needed to run with my phone for my workouts to really count.

Then last summer, I noticed that all of the maps of my runs were being logged online, and made searchable by Google. Realizing that someone could easily deduce where I lived, I quickly changed my settings to private. It was a bit of a buzzkill, and feeling slightly betrayed, I began jogging without my phone. But I got off easy. This past July, users of the Fitbit, a clip-on device that monitors your physical movement, were surprised to learn that after logging their sexual activity (the average person burns 150 to 200 calories per go, so why not count it?), the information was available online, including how long, how vigorous, and how often they got busy.

  • Andrew

    One thing I worry about is that these apps can further exaggerate the relevance of surrogate or intermediate outcomes to our health, so that we are pushed to produce the best lab test results, instead of living the most healthful lives that fit with our goals and values.

    Too many patients are already obsessed with the test. For example, a survey of people with diabetes found that one in four considered their hemoglobin A1c levels to be a more important outcome than even death, stroke or heart attack!
    (Murad MH, Shah ND, Houten HKV, et al. Individuals with diabetes preferred that future trials use patient-important outcomes and provide pragmatic inferences. J Clin Epidemiol. Jul 2011(7):743-748.)

    Such distortions occur when the first thing clinicians talk to their patients about is their test results. Patients know they’ll get gold stars for good lab tests and a harrumph for missing the mark.

    Sure, people with diabetes should be aware of hemoglobin A1c, heart attack survivors should track their LDL, and so on. But we should not let these numbers consume our attention far out of proportion with their actual usefulness to promoting health.

    Smartphone apps are great at tracking numbers, but can any track how many times we…