The Spire Breathing App and Biometric Devices

There are few things worse than mindless boosterism but Spire’s new biometric devices are not those. Whether it’s a Babbit-esque trumpeting of the blunt acceptance of normative values or a huckster promoting snake oil, someone is, even unconsciously, trying to grift the rubes (and yes, you can say war and genocide are worse, but someone was boosting them at some point; natural disasters and disease fall outside of this). One particular strand of that is technological boosterism, where the latest gadget it always good and needed simply by dint of being new, and usually shiny.

There is a lot of that in the world of smartphones and mobile technology. I always think about that when I see someone walking down the street, holding the microphone on their hands-free set close to their mouth so that they can talk. To me, that is every bit as inconvenient, if not more so, than actually holding the phone, but it has the impression of being the easy way to do things- it’s hands-free!- so it seems people forget they are still using their hands.

I bring this up because I was reading recently about Spire, a new entry into health-based biometric devices that will monitor your breathing to let you know if you are stressed, and help to keep you healthy and fit by offering suggestions about rectifying that. My initial reaction is that this was something that no one needed, and kind of loopy, even though the position of this blog is that even behavior-modification apps are essentially a good thing. But thinking it through, I think there are some uses that show how biometric devices can actually help keep us healthier in the times when we aren’t paying attention.Climbing the Spire

So, what Spire does is monitor your breathing rates, but it is ultimately a little more complicated than that. It judges if you are sitting, running, standing, etc., and calibrates it accordingly. This way, it manages to get a true reading of your lifestyle. This is done by wearing little biometric devices, essentially a pod or a stone, to either your waistband or the front of your bra, depending I guess on who you are and what you’re wearing that day.

And it probably isn’t overstating the case to say that breathing is important to, you know, life. Not only that, but it can determine what your breathing means. If you have been running, it knows that short ragged breaths are par for the course. But if you have been sitting, this could mean you have eaten too much, you have been sitting too long, or you are beginning to get stressed.

The objections of biometric devices

Of course, there are immediate things to point out here. One is that monitoring your breathing seems a bit absurd. The immediate thought is: I don’t need a machine to tell me to breathe. It’s one of the most autonomic things there is, and you never think about it until you are actually, consciously thinking about it. Like right now, for example, you’re judging how often you’re breathing, and wondering if you’re doing it right, and panicking about if now you’re going to be thinking about it the rest of your life. Or forgetting. What then?

The other objection is that you might not need a machine to tell when you are stressed. For example, I can always tell when I am beginning to get stressed from a very conscious and in-depth reading of my internal moods, through subtle, almost imperceptible clues, such as: I’m in traffic and yelling at some guy because you knew the exit was coming up so why did you wait til now to get out of the left lane, you moron. Little hints like that. My inner life is a rich tapestry, like a 5th-grader trying to imitate Bruegel.

Anyway, those are the objections: that it tells us what we already know, just adding the gleam of a smartphone to it. It’s no better than your cube mate saying, “Whoa, you look stressed. Are you stressed?” when your phone is ringing off the hook and there is a stack of papers Babel-ing leeward off your desk. Only this cube irritant is attached to your bra.

The limits of self-knowledge

But here’s the thing: a few paragraphs up we talked about that vague terror when we suddenly become conscious of our breathing in areas outside of meditation or exercise. It’s silly, though: you aren’t ever going to forget to do so, and you certainly aren’t suddenly going to be thinking about it at all times. It’s automatic.

And that’s exactly why something like this can render such a service. How often do we consider what we’re doing to ourselves when we aren’t actually actively doing something to ourselves. I know when I am bike-riding, I am being healthy, and when I am lighting a cigarette literally before I have finished fully swallowing an Egg McMuffin purchased to ward off a hangover, I’m…well, the exact opposite of health. But those times in between are what can really get you.

Most of us sit all day. We stare at screens, and then get on the train, and stare at more screens or the people colorfully populating your personal space, and then often go home to look at more screens, or even engage in constructive activities like cooking or talking or reading. But even that is still sedentary. More people are working out and going to the gym or taking long walks before or after work, but there isn’t much done during the workday. We aren’t thinking about our health then.

And something like Spire can help us do that. Wearable tech, connected to our smartphones, has the power to allow us what some would call total consciousness, and others, less pretentiously, would call “basic monitoring.” That sounds ominous, but we are just monitoring ourselves. A device that lets you know how you are doing at all times could be incredibly helpful.

Keeping Track of Ourselves

That’s sort of the promise of wearable technology. It does the things that we can’t do. I could monitor my heart rate at all times, but I need my thumbs for things other than counting my pulse (opening jars, for one example, and everything else that makes us primates for another). I can’t make sure that my white blood cell count is fine, or that my organs are functioning the way they should, or that I am getting optimal amounts of oxygen at any given moment. But wearable tech, biometric smartphone apps, ingestible nanotechnology: these things can.

So it is easy to laugh at boosters of tech that seems to answer a need no one had- a brilliant device that tells you exactly when it is time for a haircut! And there will always be useless things. It was always that way. The wheel had hardly been invented before someone put silhouetted mudflaps on them (Ed note: this is questionable). You’ll always have attempts to cash in by people whose imaginations are limited to questions of fleecing. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss legitimate attempts at approval. The good doesn’t always rise above the fray, and sometimes wheat gets thrown away with the chaff. But in the end, if enough people of both good faith and a skeptical mindset work toward it, we can get at the useful and leave behind the carnival barkers and shoeshine pickpockets that threaten to derail any technological revolution.

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