Waiting for Good Tech

In an anthropological perspective, “technology” can be all sorts of things, from language and family to tables and microprocessors. Here, “tech” is taken not as an abbreviation of “technology” but as a specific set of very sophisticated things, manufactured objects coming from long development processes. More to the point, “tech world” means a world dominated and dreamt by technologists, engineers and other technocentric people who perceive “tech” as solution. Which leads to what controversial character Evgeny Morozov has called “solutionism”.

So, in the “tech world”, there’s a strong trend towards “The Next (Big) Thing”. It’s partly forward-looking (“living in the future” instead of “living in the now, man!”). But it’s also a source of constant dissatisfaction with the present condition. We all know about vapourware, failed crowdfunding campaigns, unfulfilled promises, scams, bugs, epic failures, unforeseen delays, unmet expectations, botched releases, and tone-deaf enterpreneurs.

But the cycle keeps going on.  (For my part, still waiting on the Neptune Hub.)

It manifests in so many ways. “Just you wait”, technocentrists say, “our new tech will solve problems you never knew you had.” In many respects, the response to claims of problems perceived with current tech is to talk about future tech. “This one is just a glimpse of what’s to come!” “We’ll solve all of these issues in the next update!” (If quotes are overly present in my writing, exclamation points are more endemic in tech writing than in Elaine Benes’s edits of that Jake Jarmel book in Seinfeld.)

The update cycle is a known entity, in software development. We realise that part of such a cycle is about solving previous problem while another part is about adding features, often adding new problems. Each version is “new and improved”, often thanks to very thorough work. But new problems keep arising and the promises of a future update are accompanied with disappointments once the actual version comes out.

As a result, many of us who live in the tech world (without dominating it or even sharing most of its dreams) end up waiting constantly for something else, which will never come.

Much of this reminds me of La Fontaine’s The Fisherman and the Little Fish. Or, at least, an animated version from my childhood. That version had a fishing bird catching and releasing fish of increasing size until it was left with a very tiny fish. If we’re not satisfied with what we have, it’s not so likely that we’ll be satisfied with the very elusive “Future Tech” which are supposed to really make the world a better place, this time around. In anthro, there’s a classic concept of millenarianism. To some of us, much of the tech world sounds millenarian, an impression exacerbated by the “Y2K” scare of the late 20th Century and by the increase currency of the name “Millenial” to refer to a market segment based on people’s birth year.

 

There’s quite specific a personal angle to this, which helps justify this blog post. Like many others, my blogging activities have all but ceased. The latest entry on my main blog was written two years ago, following my “happiness anniversary” and the beginning of my first fulltime dayjob in ten years. This new blog here was started as an attempt at something new. Haven’t posted much on it, yet. But it feels like a fitting venue to place this piece about “waiting for good tech”.

The tech in question, here, is activity tracking for Quantified Self and fitness purposes. In a way, there’s something of a followup to a January 2014 post which would warrant another post. My thinking about the current one was partly inspired by this.

Long story short (!), my fitness peaked in Summer 2014, after which point some knee problems (and, a bit later, the aforementioned fulltime dayjob) “cramped my style” and made it much harder to maintain. At the current point in time, in late September 2016, my physical condition is pretty much midway between what it was in January 2012 and what it was in July 2014.

Kept using fitness trackers all this time. That January 2014 post mentioned a few key devices including the Jawbone Up and Fitbit Zip. Eventually stopped using any Jawbone product after a series of bad experiences. Searched for “the ideal tracker” on several occasions. For instance, bought and returned a Polar Loop, on some occasion. Later bought and kept a Garmin Vivofit, which is still in my drawer somewhere. Bought and gifted a Misfit Shine. Considered many other devices. Wasn’t giving up the search.

Ray Maker’s DC Rainmaker became a key source, for me. As a triathlete, Ray discusses and reviews all sorts of devices which are extremely unlikely to ever become interesting, to me. But Maker’s coverage of what we might call “casual fitness” devices is second to none. His site is a key destination for anyone on a quest for “the ideal tracker”.

In April 2015, such a quest led me to the Fitbit Charge HR. Maker’s In-Depth Review went a long way to convince me that this was “the ideal tracker” for me, at that specific point in time. At the time, unless my memory fails, review site The Sweethome also recommended that device (they currently recommend Garmin’s Vivosmart HR; more on this in a minute).

The Fitbit Charge HR was indeed an optimal solution to my perceived problem. Continuous (24 x 7) heartrate monitoring was, as expected, a very important addition. The kind of thing you may not think is a big deal if you’ve never had it but the first thing you miss when you lose it. The Charge HR also had some important features from the Jawbone Up (though not the Smart Alarms which find the ideal time to wake you up from a nap or from a good night’s sleep). It’s tiny display was also very convenient.

Would still be using the Fitbit Charge HR if a part hadn’t broken unexpectedly, a month ago.

While these devices often carry a one-year limited warranty, many people point out that they were able to get a replacement long after their warranty period had expired. My warranty expired in April 2016 and there was some hope that Fitbit would offer a replacement in August 2016. Things got in the way, though. Only called them this past week. The only thing they could offer me was a 25% discount on a new tracker. Nothing to sneeze at, but a far cry from a brand new tracker.

As part of what got in the way was a new “ideal tracker” quest. The longstanding rumours about the second model of Apple Watch were part of that quest. So were new devices by Fitbit’s competitors such as Garmin. In late August, just a few days after my Charge HR stopped working, the Garmin Vivosmart HR was on my wrist, delighting me with its smartwatch-like features (more on this later) and always-on display. Was this the ideal tracker (for me, at this time)? Since The Sweethome currently recommends it (and not the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ version)

Well, no. For whatever reason, the device didn’t properly track my activities. Stepcount and heartrate were probably accurate enough, but sleep tracking was laughable and it never showed active minutes despite some fairly energetic activities. The relatively big always-on display is a nice touch but, in practice, it’s been harder for me to read it without glasses (including during workouts). The UX is also subpar, both on the associated mobile app and on the device itself. For instance, starting a workout requires several presses and taps which were quite difficult for me to do without my glasses. Stopping a workout is somewhat quicker but too convoluted and error-prone. Though smartwatch-like notifications are more useful than one might imagine, there’s no real granularity in which applications send their notifications to your wrist. The music controls don’t show any information about what’s playing and don’t work at all with my favourite music- or podcast-listening apps. On a few occasions, the vibrating alarm was either too faint to wake me up or failed for some other reason. My three weeks with a Garmin device also caused a hiatus in my Fitbit data, which points to an important aspect of “lock-in”. It’d be possible for someone to completely move to a Garmin universe, especially for runners who also use their GPS devices (including the Vivosmart HR+). It’s also possible that the device’s lack of sensitivity was an issue with me, not the device. The point is, this was clearly not the ideal tracker for me at this point in time.

In the meantime, Apple released its Watch updates: watchOS 3, Apple Watch Series 2, and Apple Watch Series 1. Did consider these things quite thoroughly. After all, my current smartphone (iPhone 6S Plus) integrates very tightly with watchOS, allowing for all sorts of fun app-based possibilities. The combination of watchOS 3 and an upgraded processor means that the Apple Watch Series 1 is unlikely to suffer from the performance problems which plagued “Apple Watch Series 0” running watchOS 2. Even went so far as to purchase an Apple Watch Series 1 for immediate in-store pickup. Unfortunately or thankfully, the in-store pickup process was infuriating enough to lead to cancel my purchase. (This would warrant another blogpost with choice bits from my answers to Apple’s customer survey. Ignatius Reilly might be proud.)

Though it may all sound silly to some people (more on this in a minute), been agonizing over this for weeks. It was becoming An Important Issue. Not that it’s impossible for me to survive without an activity tracker. But diverse things happening in my life made it quite pressing for me to find a solution to this problem. Did lose some sleep over this.

Part of the problem is that other devices were getting released or were soon to be released. For instance, Fitbit had announced the Charge 2 which sounded like a significant upgrade from the Charge HR. It was possible for me to pre-order one but it was unlikely to get to me before the end of the return policy on the Vivosmart HR. As someone pointed out, getting a Pebble could also be a solution, especially the Pebble 2 which adds HR (more on this in a minute). But that also meant pushing the purchase for at least a few weeks if not months. Not to mention that the Pebble Time 2 (due in January) is even neater and that the “Coming Soon” Pebble Core will improve the whole experience by adding an external GPS and even a data connection.

But these things were too far in the future. Had to return the Garmin Vivosmart HR.

Found a solution. As it turns out, the Fitbit Blaze is the ideal tracker for me at the present time. It has a much better display than the Fitbit Charge HR or Garmin Vivosmart HR (though it’s not always-on, the screen turns on very quickly with a flick, double-tap, or button press; not an issue for me). It shows more data at a glance than did the other devices. It brings me back in the Fitbit ecosystem with all the data accumulated there. And it really feels like it fits me, as an accessory. Had planned a whole other blogpost about subjective dimensions of my time with the Blaze, including the pleasant unboxing experience and the replacement straps (already ordered two Milanese loops).

But stuff got in the way.

Several weeks ago, Fitbit announced an important firmware update for the Blaze. Ray Maker’s post about the Charge 2 (from August 29) includes a rundown of the new features (extended notifications, inactivity reminders, and new watch faces displaying more information at a glance). Purchasing a Blaze on September 22, these new features were close to a done deal, to me. And some parts of the Fitbit site made it sound like at least some updated features were already available. These new features certainly played a part in my purchasing decision, though the Blaze is probably good enough for me at this point, even without those updates. (But things may change very soon.)

Now on to the part which may sound silly to some. There’s been something of a kerfuffle over the update, at least as perceived in the Fitbit forums. As luck would have it, my purchase coincided with the day Fitbit was finally able to roll out the firmware update. Choosing to do a slow, progressive worldwide rollout by randomly assigning the update to users’ accounts, Fitbit has run into something of a PR problem, at least judging from those forum posts.

There are different attitudes on display, in the many forum posts which follow this firmware update. Including some people who blame Fitbit for not delivering on a promise and ad hominem attacks on those who complain about the update. The main thrust, though, is that we’re all checking compulsively for the pink arrow, sign of the new firmware’s availability. As one of the funniest posts has it:

Here Pinky Pink, Here Pinky Pinky.  I have a treat for you.

(Kenneth Peters, Re: Blaze Firmware Release – 17.8.301.7 [Updated 9/23])

Another forum member posted the following, apparently acknowledging her own impatience:

Patience struggles.

But talk about first world problems right?

(Samantha J.,Re: Blaze Firmware Release – 17.8.301.7 [Updated 9/23])

In some ways, such issues as waiting for a firmware update may sound exceedingly silly from the outside. The typical thing for those so privileged as to be able to quibble about fitness trackers and their features.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Not in the least.

Which prompted me to post the following:

@Samantha_J wrote:

But talk about first world problems right?

Like obesity, heart attacks, and cancer? Not sure Fitbit can do much for this last one, but it can surely help quite a bit with the first two.

This was based on a vague recollection from Omohundro’s Thinking Like an Anthropologist (the only textbook among my favourite texts with which to teach). It came from chapter 6 on the complex interactions between environment, biology, and culture:

By the 1980s obesity and hypertension were common. In fact, all the infirmities anthropologists call the “diseases of civilization” (Eaton and Konner 1999) were widespread. Atherosclerosis, emphysema, obesity, dental caries, osteoporosis, and adult-onset diabetes afflict many of our informants and neighbors.

The original Eaton and Konner text was a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Paleolithic Nutrition”. And, yes, it was a foundational text for what is now known as the Paleo Diet, especially given other texts by Eaton, Konner, and Shostack. Both Melvin Konner and Marjorie Shostak have been recognized in anthropological. The latter has written Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman, a book which constitutes something of a classic in anthropological teaching.

As you might imagine, the point of those texts wasn’t really to compare “The First World” with “The Rest of the World”. The transition they describe happened very early on and may not help much in characterising Global Inequalities. But it’s quite clear that those “diseases of civilization” are much more prominent in hyper-industrialized societies than they are in other parts of the World. The Wikipedia entry on Lifestyle disease emphasizes industrialization instead of the Neolithic Revolution. And though Alfred Sauvy coined “Third World” to designate unaligned political entities during the Cold War, it’s quite clear that the “First World” (Capitalist NATO bloc) is likely to be more affected than most. (It’d be interesting to get data on the prevalence of the same diseases in the Second World: Soviet Union, Cuba, China…)

In this perspective, issues surrounding activity trackers may indeed sound resolutely attached to the First World. And activity trackers help sustain a lifestyle which is less typical of the hyper-industrialized OECD contexts than it is of life in poorer (and still unaligned) spots on the planet. Thinking of most of my friends in Mali, they probably do walk enough during a typical day (though one of them had an almost Southern Californian attitude to going from one place to another).

Besides, waiting for the next tech is more of a quest.

In this case, my Blaze days might be counted. Ordered a Pebble 2 + Heart Rate and it might become the ideal tracker for me at the time it arrives.

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