Our Phones, Ourselves

Janelle Nanos shows off a few of the gadgets she used to report this month’s story So Appy Together. (Photos by Liz Noftle.)

Where is your cell phone right now? Chances are, you know exactly where it is, and if you don’t know, or God forbid you’ve lost it, then you’re probably on your way to a panic attack. I know the feeling. I love my phone, and I’ve often found myself saying I can’t live without it. When I say this in front of my husband, he typically rolls his eyes.

At the outset of reporting my feature in this month’s issue (So Appy Together), I hadn’t really contemplated the relationship I’d developed with my iPhone. I, like so many other tech-addicts, had become altogether reliant on the device, using it to check email, Facebook, and Twitter with a regularity that at times seems to have become a borderline tic. (Naturally, there is now a diagnosis for these symptoms: FOMO, or the fear of missing out.) But it was when my phone use shifted that I started to witness my feelings about my phone shift as well. It was after I began downloading apps to help me monitor my habits — feeding personal information about my health, weight, emotional state, food eaten, and exercise, among other intimate details — that things got a whole lot more personal between us.

These apps and devices, and the algorithms within them, are designed to learn about us and identify patterns in our data, so in many ways, they end up knowing us better than we know ourselves. But what happens when your phone begins to know where you are and what you’re doing at all times? How is the relationship between humans and their phones evolving as these gadgets get smarter and more intricately involved in our lives? And as I bounced around the city interviewing behavioral scientists, sociologists, doctors, app developers, neuroscientists, quantified selfers, industrial designers, health economists, and anyone else who would talk to me for the piece, one thing kept coming up: Our smartphones are only going to get smarter. And our relationships with them are going to become more complicated as they do.

When I started reporting the piece, I was using a few apps to monitor my caloric intake, exercise, and the money I spent each day. For the sake of the story, I started using even more tools to find out exactly how much my phone could potentially know about me. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the tools I used:

Uses the accelerometer and GPS information in your phone to help you track how fast and far you’ve run (or biked, or hiked, or various other forms of activity) and gives you feedback on how many calories you’ve burned. Their Health Graph, which was released last year, helps sync up the data gathered from other devices, and is poised to become the “Facebook of Fitness,” according to Jason Jacobs, the founder of FitnessKeeper, RunKeeper’s parent company.

Zeo mobile
Zeo’s sleep sensor attaches to your head with a headband, and syncs up with the Zeo iPhone app via Bluetooth to track your sleep. It measures REM, light, and deep sleep and counts the number of times that you wake during the night. And it assigns a “sleep score” to gauge how well you’ve rested. “A couple years ago you needed to do into a sleep lab, put 20 electrodes on your head, and spend $1000, to get a medical diagnosis [of your sleep],” says Zeo founder Ben Rubin. “Now you can put on a headband and look at your smartphone, and get actual advice.”

Body Media Armband
This body monitoring device, which has over 5,000 sensors, is worn on the left tricep that tracks your activity throughout the day. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth to allow real-time monitoring of the steps you’ve taken and calories you’ve burned. “We focus on the part of the market who need accuracy and personalization,” says Christine Robins, the company’s CEO.

The Daily Challenge from MeYouHealth
Users sign up to receive daily text messages or emails from this “social well-being company” and earn points for every challenge they complete. Inherently social, the program uses positive reinforcement from your friends and social network to help motivate you to make simple healthy decisions each day.

A personal finance tool and smartphone app which syncs up your bank accounts, credit cards, and loans, allowing you to track your spending habits and set goals to help save.

Q Sensor from Affectiva
This wristband measures emotional arousal via skin conductance, a “form of electrodermal activity that grows higher during states such as excitement, attention or anxiety and lower during states such as boredom or relaxation.” The sensor also tracks the body’s activity and temperature. It currently does not sync up with a phone, as it’s used primarily for clinical research, but its creator, MIT professor Rosalind Picard says it could become a commercial device one day. “It tells you things that your body is feeling that you’re ignoring,” she says.

Lose It!
This calorie tracking app also allows you to scan barcodes on purchased goods in order to get a quick read of a food’s nutritional value.

This “birth control support network” sends you daily text messages (with cheeky facts and quotes) to remind you to take your pill.

After a few weeks, I was feeling a bit like a cyborg after constantly logging my data into apps, and strapping sensors to my wrist, bicep, and head each day. But it was fascinating to glimpse at my phone and learn so much more about myself. With RunKeeper, I found myself running faster when I had a few days of workouts in a row. I used to think that it took me forever to fall asleep, but I realized after using the Zeo it was typically taking only 15 minutes. (Allowing myself to relax a bit before bed enabled me to sleep much deeper overall.) With the BodyMedia armband, I learned that getting a new puppy has been great for the number of steps I take each day. The Daily Challenge helped me to think about doing small things to help my health. Now, I walk a few more blocks to catch the bus if I see that it’s running late, just for an extra bit of exercise.

I’ve long been obsessed with Mint, and having the app on my phone has led me to start successfully saving for some upcoming travel plans. After strapping on the emotional Q Sensor, I noticed that I was far more stressed than I realized taking my dog to the dog park, worried that he’d tussle with bigger dogs and get hurt (motherly instinct perhaps?). With Lose It! calorie counting became less of a chore, as my phone did the number crunching for me (love that barcode scanner). And the messages from Bedsider were a funny little nudge for someone who’s fairly forgetful.

Right now, most of these devices and apps operate independently, measuring your sleep cycles, emotional state, and miles tracked within their individual little brains. But the sources I interviewed said that it’s only a matter of time before our phones will be able to weave these assorted data streams together and help us make sense of them all. Already, RunKeeper’s Health Graph syncs up your workout information with Zeo sleep data and about 50 different apps and devices. What’s more, when you factor in a tool like Siri, which can speak to you and anticipate your needs, then it’s only a matter of time before our phones will become tiny coaches giving us the guidance we need to live healthier, happier lives. We just have to be prepared for when that day comes. Are you ready?