Fitbits for conviviality

My son received a Fitbit for Christmas. Since receiving it, it’s clear that he enjoys its ability to track his steps. He’s already quite active and so he’s using the device largely to recognize and acknowledge his existing behaviour rather than as a means to encourage any change in behavior. At the moment, the other functionality and measures of the device aren’t of interest to him.

But they are to me.

When I was reading up about his particular Fitbit, the feature that I was personally most interested in was its silent alarm feature. I immediately recognized that this was a solution of my current problem of how to start my day earlier without waking up my husband with an alarm from my phone.

And so every night my son lends me his Fitbit. And every morning, after the silent alarm rouses me out of bed, I remove it and set it aside for him and I start my morning routine.

What amuses me is that already the dashboard analytics of the device suggests that every evening, the resting heart rate of my son suddenly drops.

screen capture of Fitbit metric

It reminds me of Matt Haughey’s LoT Story:

The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.

But there was an unknown person.

The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.

I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.

Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.

An IoT story“, A Whole Lotta Nothing, November 4, 2018

This is a good reminder that ‘personal’ tools or ‘smart tools’ are built not to be shared. They are built to measure and track known users. Any use generates data and that data both reveals and betrays use.

I think we need to insist that our tools be convivial:

So what makes a tool “convivial?” For Illich, “tools foster conviviality to the extent to which they can be easily used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.” That is, convivial technologies are accessible, flexible, and noncoercive. Many tools are neutral, but some promote conviviality and some choke it off.

Why the Landline Telephone Was the Perfect Tool“, Suzanne Fischer, The Atlantic, Apr 16, 2012

I would write more but the silent alarm on my son’s Fitbit reminds me that it is time to go to bed.