Observer Effect

There's been a certain amount of talk recently, in the write-ups of CES and on some tech blogs, about the awfully named 'Internet of Things'. That is, the myriad innocuous devices that potentially benefit from internet connectivity (and therefore some kind of data input and processing). While many mundane objects, such as forks with data collection capabilities, are of questionable usefulness many objects some purpose built and some not could provide meaningful information about our lives.

Kyle Baxter makes an interesting point about how such devices shouldn't affect our behaviour on TightWind:

We need computing devices which quietly do these things for us—exercise bands, exercise machines, bicycles, heart monitors and scales—and connect to centralized services that compile this information into useful forms for us. These devices need to do all of this with as little interaction as necessary, so our activities are as natural as possible.

This sounds fine in principle, and on the whole is going to be more or less achievable. However, if we take a fitness monitor such as the Nike Fuel Band as an example we (in this case by necessity) run into the Observer Effect.

In physics, the Observer Effect is direct and quantifiable. If you want to physically measure something then you must interact with it. That may be bouncing electrons off a surface as is the case with electron microscopy or it may be interacting with it's electromagnetic field. Both of these actions have an effect, however minimal, on the outcome of the observation. You change the thing you are observing through the act of observation.

The Fuel Band is analogous. It's purpose is based on the assumption that on some level, conscious or not, wearing the Fuel Band to measure your activity will increase your activity as you are psychologically encouraged to meet your goals. We have all at one time or another adjusted our behaviour when we're aware that we are being observed, and new technologies will serve to increase the number of ways that we observe and study ourselves.

There is a cost to observation in terms of how that observation subtly affects the behaviour of the subject, and if we are to continue finding ways to record and quantify our lives then we should try to understand how we are changing our behaviours in doing so.