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The promise of random numbers

Time for a brief thought experiment: there is a wearable device, which people buy to improve their health and fitness, and it does – literally – nothing.

It looks like a normal device because it has instructions, promises, a manual, bundled software, and a community full of people who use it. And, of course, it takes measurements from the human body, processes them into information, then scrambles those measurements with random numbers, and then returns realistic numbers to the user. That description sounds like a thing that works.

It is 100% deliberately and explicitly designed to measure nothing. The numbers it returns to you are pure white noise, no more an accurate indication of the state of your body than TV static.

But didn’t we just say it would work?

Yes. Actually, it’s entirely possible that this device could work. Quite well, too.

How?

Measurement and meaning

The answer is not so much measurement, as what it means to buy a fitness wearable.

  • It makes you part of a community of people who care about what it means. How many conversations start with ‘hey, cool [anonymous device], I have the [anonymous device], what do you think of that one?’ Say you’re counting steps – now you’re talking about step counts with everyone you meet.
  • It means you make an investment in your health. You spend money on it. You make a commitment to yourself and by extension a commitment to whatever is being ‘measured’. Say you want to track your mood over time. Well, when you buy a wearable to do that, you just made a financial commitment to the idea.
  • It continually forces you to think about the relevant capacity it measures. Say you want to measure mindfulness, and you buy a ‘mindfulness’ wearable. It is literally attached to you, reminding you over and over again – ‘hey, I’m down here! and I measure mindfulness!’
  • It outsources responsibility. Say your wearable measures training readiness, whether or not it’s a good time to exercise. If you get a measurement that says you aren’t ready to exercise then you stay home. If you get a notification that tells you that the time is right to exercise then you exercise.

And so on.

In other words, a physiological measurement device is more than just the metrics it takes from your body, the recommendations, and behavioral changes it gives you.

For companies in this space, this is a real and present danger. Because it’s hard to cross the data to information gap, there is a real risk that if a device never works as advertised – and does not have any formal studies investigating its effectiveness – we might never know.

And considering that wearable devices are an increasing presence in healthcare, supposedly, managing fertility and predicting heart attacks to (eventually) determine insurance premiums, it is incredibly important to determine if they work how they say they do.