Tracking Personal Data

I’ve had smart scales at home for a year now, but I’d never tried their ‘smart functions’ before I was tasked to track some personal data last week. The app turned out to be really friendly. I was surprised to discover how much it ‘knows’ about me and my family.
Overall, I was pleased to find out that I’m right in the middle of their normal band. However, I have never succeeded to understand how they measure normality and biometric metrics, like protein, body fat etc. Premised on the phrase that ‘you are 45% lighter than other users’, it seems they count the arithmetic average of user weights, and the crowd defines normality. Hopefully, the producer also taps into some healthcare metrics, but I failed to find any relevant details on their site either. Does it mean that if the majority of users of my age and height are overweight, it will shift the norm? From my experience, though, I can say that people that use health trackers of all sorts are usually health-conscious individuals, for whom the trackers are, like learning journals for autonomous students, intended for celebrating new achievements. In the same vein, meeting an overweight person in a fitness club is a rare event.
Thus, I have a feeling that smart scales promote thinness rather than health. Look at the girl that advertises the scales on their site (see the screenshot below)! And what about the visualization of my weight changes? I put on 200 gr, and the diagram demonstrates a huge vertical jump. The rise of weight is marked with a red arrow, the fall with green. Since I’m taking those fluctuations critically, the visualization doesn’t make any difference. But maybe it will for a teenage girl for whom those emphases can become the source of a lifelong anxiety.
Nevertheless, the motivating function of the smart scales shouldn’t stay unnoticed. Last week, due to this data tracking experiment of mine, my husband discovered than he is 10 kilo overweight. He never paid any attention to my delicate hints, but was quick to trust a piece of plastic. As a result, he’s reconsidered his diet, which I’m absolutely happy about.
It was curious to find out that our peer proved that smart scales can leak personal data in his thesis. Besides, it’s essential to point out that their use of variables is limited and largely black-boxed, so using smart scales as the only source of data to inform your decisions can be risky to your mental and physical health.

2 thoughts on “Tracking Personal Data

  1. What a line: “He never paid any attention to my delicate hints, but was quick to trust a piece of plastic”! I think this says much about the widespread cultural assumption that measuring instruments capture reality as it really is, as compared to personal, subjective perspectives. Though as you have rightly questioned, there is a lot of ‘norm’-setting in these devices. There are in-built assumptions about healthiness that could prove dangerous for some users. Really interesting issues to further tease out here about why people might sometimes ‘trust’ devices more than advice from close relations, despite the former being decontextualizing and normative too.

    • Indeed, ‘dataism’, as a ‘widespread belief in the objectivity and
      impartiality of automated decision-making’ (van Dijck) as opposed to the stereotypical subjectivity of a human has penetrated in all spheres of our lives. Maybe, this social belief has its roots in the affective side of a personality that is considered to be irrational and biased. Unlike people, tech has no temptation to get carried away by emotions or gravitate to one person more than to another. Moreover, it has no intuition, EI and compassion… But aren’t those things crucial when you aim to make a change for the better in people’s life?

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