connected

There’s been plenty of talk about how connected devices can help each of us individually. Fitness trackers like the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, and Nike+ FuelBand are meant to help you finally get in shape. Nest’s learning thermostat promises to lower your energy bill by up to 20 percent. A connected home might be able to tell you when the laundry is done, can lock the doors and turn off the lights when you go to sleep, or allow everyday objects to communicate with you and each other. But can connected devices be used for something beyond our narrow interests?

Scanadu’s Walter de Brouwer thinks so. He says that the company’s Scout product, a multi-capable sensor often compared to the tricorder from “Star Trek,” could help people better understand what wellness looks like on a global scale. “We have built this global map — we call it the global body — that will allow us to see that medicine is a cultural product,” he says. “We could see, for instance, how does blood pressure perform in India? What [health-related information] are New Yorkers interested in? What do I combine with what?” The data might enable doctors and individuals to view medical information on a worldwide, discretely-quantified scale.

This could allow physicians and scientists to monitor large populations with ease, or encourage you to monitor your health and see how you compare to most people in your area. Are there a lot of people in your city experiencing a slight fever? If there were a zombie apocalypse, would you be able to outrun your newly-undead neighbors or should you maybe step it up a notch? A health-focused data network might be able to answer those — and probably some more serious — questions better than the current solution, which is largely controlled by research firms or the government and kept away from people like you and me.

The concept of a “global body” could also be applied to other sensors and objects in your home. Matt Webb, the chief executive of the London-based Berg design consultancy, says that “smart meters” should be able to communicate with each other to further social good. Maybe, instead of using a Nest thermostat to reduce the energy costs of a single home, an entire city block could reduce their energy usage. Or maybe a smart water filter could measure how much water you use during a drought and inform you that you’ve used more than your neighborhood suggests. You wouldn’t be able to count on anonymity or ignorance to shield your actions from the people around you — everyone, or at least their devices would be watching all the time.

“A lot of people are going to probe the idea of, what if my smart meter at home told me that I’m using a whole lot more electricity than the guys down the street. There’s something in that,” Webb says. “The objects in my home really should be gossiping and should be telling me these things.”

A future where everyday objects “gossip” with each other is either hilarious or horrifying, depending on your point of view. I, for one, would prefer that my oven didn’t let my neighbors know just how rarely it’s used, or that an Internet-connected sensor didn’t blab about what I watch on my laptop after my fiancée leaves the apartment. (Let’s go with “Futurama.”) It might be fun to know these things about other people — imagine the opportunities to blackmail, ridicule, or tease your neighbors if their appliances could talk — but once it happens to you it’ll probably be considered an extreme violation of privacy, mainly because that’s exactly what it is.

The problem, as Webb puts it, is that you probably don’t want your smart meter talking to you and telling you what to do or sharing information about your personal life with neighbors and, in Scanadu’s case, complete strangers. Keeping control of our data with our newly-quantifiable lives is hard enough. Allowing, and even encouraging, the objects we use in our daily lives to share that data will present challenges.

Is there a way of approaching it so it isn’t creepy?

“There’s a way of building trust in the behavior and in the character that kind of makes that fun,” Webb says. “I think that’s one of the things that’s missing in the way that a lot of connected products work at the moment. There’s not much experiment with that kind of interaction design, like how should we relate to these things? And I think that that’s where you need platforms that strip away complexity.”

Sharing our private lives might not be so difficult, so long as the devices doing the sharing do so with a smile. Or that’s how the thinking goes, anyway. Right now it’s hard for us to accept that our smartphones know where we are, how long we’ve been there, and how often we move around, or that all of the services we use have access to some of our most personal information. I would sooner go without the Internet entirely than be surrounded by a bunch of blabber-mouth appliances trying to guilt me into using less electricity or sharing just how out-of-shape I really am.

[Image courtesy jimmypons]