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Data Streams and Energy Flows

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Over the holidays, my love for competition overtook my dislike of being constantly monitored, so I got a fitbit. The small device tracks the number of steps I’ve taken and the number of floors I’ve climbed, syncing to a server that ranks me against friends and family. Living in LA, where everyone drives everywhere, having the tiny device in my pocket makes a big difference in my motivation to actually walk anywhere. For this reason, I’ve come to see the fitbit as a data-driven version of crystal healing.

Most scientists consider crystal healing, with its “energies” and “vibrations” as New Age mumbo jumbo, but there’s another way to think about these crystals that has nothing to do with chakras. Different colors and shapes of crystals are supposed to represent different things, from better health to increased financial security, and wearing a crystal that matches these goals is a way of clearly stating your intentions. Crystals are placebos that you can wear as jewelry, constantly reminding you of your goals, whether they are to be more mindful and keep a clearer head, better monitor your health or your bank account.

So then activity trackers are like crystals, not because of any magical energy that emanates from certain arrangements of silicon atoms, but because they are both physical manifestations of intention. For activity trackers, the intention is obvious: increased physical activity. As we reach the time of year where most New Year’s resolutions are abandoned, these devices and their online rankings and achievement badges can help keep us on track. Psychology studies have shown that having clear goals, rewards rather than punishments, and supportive friends can all help in achieving health-related resolutions, and activity trackers combine all these into a device that clips onto your belt and reminds you to take the stairs.

Tracking your footsteps and calorie intake, monitoring fork movements, tracking mood, and the many many other ways to quantify yourself are about much more than the information you can get from the data itself. The devices, trackers, apps, and spreadsheets are talismans meant to influence health and wealth through numerical mindfulness, externalizing and amplifying intentions. Just like there’s nothing magic to the energy of crystals, there’s nothing magic about the data streams coming from these devices. Their power is in how these data streams and energy flows can convince us to change.

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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