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A Disappearing Symbol of Virtue? Smartwatches Rain on the Fitness Tracker Parade

The new kid on the block is smartwatches. They will have everything that a fitness tracker has, and then some. But I think we are going to lose an important signal of people’s potential in so doing.

You wear a fitness tracker all the time. It measures your activity including steps in walking, running, stair climbing, calories and so on. It’s part of the so-called self-measurement movement. On the face of it, it caters to fitness fanatics and OCD types although it’s starting to penetrate the mainstream for people who just want to become healthier.

But a fitness tracker actually tells you a lot about the person wearing it. In particular about their cognitive, mental and emotional states and life objectives.

In order to get fit and stay that way you have to be disciplined. Voila, there’s one signal you are sending out. Fitness implies a higher level of cognitive and emotional functioning and mental improvement. There’s another. A high level of fitness means you are going to be more relaxed (plenty of research now on positive impacts of exercise on happiness) and more in control, no matter what the situation. Getting active means taking control of your own life and your own mental and physical functioning, not just passively letting it happen to you. Isn’t that what leadership and achieving one’s self-potential is all about?

Fitness trackers are a new kind of “staff of virtue”. In the modern idiom, it’s a lightsaber a la Luke Skywalker. They demonstrate that you are a person of virtue, on the side of the good. They are the opposite of that other type of stick, the smoke-stick. That’s for anti-heroes like Darth Vader.

Like it or not, fitness trackers have quietly morphed into a modern symbol of godliness, a secular vision of the holy man’s staff. The fact that they are usually worn relatively unobtrusively (shades of the hair-shirt?) renders them a kind of symbol of a brotherhood, like a secret handshake. Virtue is not something to be bruited about but to be quietly exercised only as needed. When you wear a fitness tracker you are joining the ranks of the Jedi.

But now emerges a new breed of newfangled smartwatches. First off, they are going to have way more health functions than a fitness tracker. That will include heart-rate, pulse, blood oxygenation, and many other basics. But it can’t be long before they do a huge swag of other things. Lung function, kidney efficiency, erectile dysfunction anyone? Does that sound like it fits in with the legend of the Jedi?

The smartwatch actually isn’t really a fitness tracker at all; that’s just an incidental function. The real functions of a smartwatch are everything you currently have on your smartphone, and a whole lot more. All the usual computer, communications and internet stuff. A much new and improved Siri. Well on the road to beam-me-up-Scotty. Things we can’t even dream of yet.

So the problem is that when you see a person wearing a smartwatch, you have no idea if they acquired it to help their health and power their way to fitness and mental acuity. The overwhelming likelihood is that they didn’t. Chances are they bought it because it has a new set of cool 4-D games you can play through a brain implant. Or to figure out when the next meteorite will hit the Earth.

So the smartwatch cannot and will not double as a Lightsaber. Far from it. It just becomes yet another fashion item cum appliance. Useful maybe. A sign of virtue, membership in a secret but good society of souls. Not a chance.

Fitness trackers were genuinely for the strivers and achievers. See one attached to someone and you draw an accurate bead on their essential over-achieving psychodynamics. With smartwatches that’s all lost. They are for the hoi polloi, just like the iPhone. Fashion for the masses. Out with the Jedi.

Maybe an enterprising startup will see an opportunity here. A fitness tracker that is definitely not a smartwatch. If you don’t exercise it self-destructs or broadcasts a message saying the wearer is a fraud. But I guess there isn’t any money in that.

Full disclosure: I have been a Fitbit wearer ever since they came out….





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