Matt Stoller warned last June that citizens will increasingly have to submit to personal surveillance to get many types of insurance and financial products. He wrote:
Profit-driven surveillance does not starts and stop with young adults. It is, in fact, becoming pervasive. The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers…
It’s not just sensors in your car – insurance companies are modeling tighter and tighter risk chunks. IBM goes on, saying that new products “will facilitate “just-in-time insurance” as a person moves through a set of “spaces.” Each step of the journey represents a different risk such as car-to-train-station, train-to-city-station, station-to- office, and so on. Each leg of the trip truly represents a varying amount of risk.” Tracking these movements could require nothing more than downloading an app on a smart phone, or some other device. But it is literally the application of financial engineering to your very liberty, or the toll-boothing of your life.
We are moving towards that future from two separate directions. One from the employer side, where companies are increasingly requiring workers to divulge information about their physical condition, and imposing extra charges, in the form of higher health insurance charges, on ones with conditions deemed to be treatable, like overweight and hypertension. From the Wall Street Journal:
Are you a man with a waist measuring 40 inches or more? If you want to work at Michelin North America Inc., that spare tire could cost you.
Employees at the tire maker who have high blood pressure or certain size waistlines may have to pay as much as $1,000 more for health-care coverage starting next year.
As they fight rising health-care costs and poor results from voluntary wellness programs, companies across America are penalizing workers for a range of conditions, including high blood pressure and thick waistlines. They are also demanding that employees share personal-health information, such as body-mass index, weight and blood-sugar level, or face higher premiums or deductibles…
Six in 10 employers say they plan to impose penalties in the next few years on employees who don’t take action to improve their health, according to a recent study of 800 mid- to large-size firms by human-resources consultancy Aon Hewitt….
Pharmacy chain CVS Caremark sparked outrage among employees and workers-rights advocates last month by asking staff members to report personal health metrics, including their body fat, blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to the company’s insurer by May or pay a $600 penalty.
This is basically another tax on the poor and lower income. Weight levels in particular have become a class marker. Why? Because more affluent people can eat healthier food, in particular, more fresh vegetables and fruits (which fill you up with a lot fewer calories) and less of the highly refined and prepared foods that are cheap and not very good for you (fast food in particular, but also refined carbs like sugars and starches). In addition, affluent people are more able to have enough control over their schedule to get in exercise if they are so inclined. By contrast, lower income people who are cobbling together several jobs or reliant on public transportation have to struggle to hold their place on the economic ladder and be good parents. Eating well and taking care of themselves is a luxury they often can’t afford.
And you have the tacit assumption that if people fall outside certain norms, they are presumed to be guilty of poor lifestyle choices. And the focus on simple indicators is often misleading. For instance, new research suggests that being physically active is more important than being svelte. Heavy people who exercise regularly are often in better health than normal weight couch potatoes. And what about people who put on weight, say as the result of a forced period of restricted activity (as a result of an operation or accident) or due to aging (women who go through menopause typically put on 5 to 15 pounds even if they fight to keep it off).
But even more troubling is the intrusiveness. Once the details of an employee’s health are considered fair grounds for disclosure, it’s hard to see this development not going further and further down the path of more intrusions, and more covert and overt discrimination. And that ties into the surveillance issues that Matt Stoller raised earlier. Some behaviors are bad for your health, and I don’t mean just smoking. Having a high appetite for risk is also correlated with higher health care costs. Fortunately, we are hopefully a very long way from the health police trying to monitor condom use.
But on the other end, the public is being increasingly desensitized about putting information on view. Gillian Tett writes about how Nike and Jawbone have created a vogue for biorythm monitors where people upload and share the information. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would want to know the pattern of their friends’ sleep. Perhaps this is just the Pet Rock of 2013 and will quickly tire. Tett is also perplexed, and tries putting on her anthropologist hat:
Most notably, when I was growing up as a child in England, I assumed that people would always prefer to sleep in private, unless they were with a romantic partner. To be sure, children would sometimes share bedrooms; but when somebody “grew up”, they would usually choose to sleep in their own bedroom and bed – if they had the economic means.
However, people in Tibet and Tajikistan had different assumptions. Each night, piles of people would all sleep in the same room, or tent. If somebody was not sleeping or eating well, it became a matter of wider knowledge and debate. Personally, I found that extremely intrusive. And until recently, I vaguely assumed that societies tended to shed this group pattern when they got richer and more technologically advanced. After all, the broad sweep of history suggests that most cultures have become more individualistic over time, as wealth gives people more freedom to break away from the group.
But the digital revolution could be shaking these assumptions. Never mind the fact that the younger generation today has an obsessive need to keep communicating via Twitter and Facebook, or post information online with scant concern for privacy. If young professionals in places such as San Francisco and New York now think it is “cool” to post their sleeping patterns to each other, then it would appear that the concept of cultural progress has come full circle. Suddenly we are all back in a giant electronic tent together – or at least Andy and some of his elite, wealthy friends are.
Now of course, I may simply be too deeply invested in my out, now dated, notion of culture. But the tell in Tett’s write up is the word “cool”. This is not an organic development. Fashion is created, and it’s created through marketing. Anyone who has seen any of Adam Curtis’ films, or has read up on propaganda knows the degree to which changes in social values in the 20th and 21st centuries aren’t the result of environment and need (for instance, the contention that Japan’s group-oriented society results from the demands of rice cultivation) but of marketing and public relations. For instance, surveys have repeatedly found that more engagement with the Internet is directly correlated with unhappiness. Similarly, people with more Facebook friends are typically more aggressive and narcissistic. All of this sounds terribly mal-adaptive, unless you are a big company that thrives on creating anxieties and then offers products or services that give you a short-term psychological lift.
If collective impulses were really on the rise, one would think you’d see people banding together to push back against oppressive and intrusive authority. And maybe we will see some employee groups pushing for limits on employer nosiness. But they need to move quickly before this new practice becomes firmly entrenched.