Science and medicine can do a lot to make our lives better. But for that to happen, we have to be able to trust the public authorities, companies and institutions that produce and oversee the innovations.
We’re already seeing the sad fruits of distrust in the unwillingness of many people — including health workers on both sides of the Atlantic — to take the COVID-19 vaccines. People don’t trust experts and government agencies as they once did, which means assurances of vaccine safety often fail to persuade. When health officials and other authorities manipulate the public, as they have throughout this pandemic, they lose credibility.
I was thinking about this recently in connection with a coming generation of wearable medical devices that might radically improve health and prolong lives. Back in 2005, thinking about the wrist computer that tracks my nitrogen levels when I scuba dive and about the far more sophisticated implanted pacemaker/defibrillator that lives behind my wife’s left breast, I speculated that we would soon see a round of “body-computer”-type devices.
Such devices could measure heart rate, blood chemistry, diet and exercise levels and export the data to outside devices so that the owner, or a physician, could monitor the owner’s health.
Perhaps they could take preemptive action, releasing clot-busting drugs at the onset of a heart attack or stroke, or steroids in the event of an allergy attack, providing on-the-spot first aid for many serious problems.
We are getting closer to that. Apple watches and similar devices measure many basic bodily indicators. Recently, research showed that an Apple Watch can be used to measure frailty in patients with cardiovascular disease. There are even tests of devices that can warn wearers of an impending heart attack hours in advance, giving them time to get to a hospital.
This is great news, and we can expect rapid progress, since it’s based on two fields, biological knowledge and electronics, that are advancing in leaps and bounds. There is only one thing that might hold it back, and that thing is . . . mistrust.
When I mentioned all of this progress to a friend recently, the response was that he trusted Apple a lot more in 2005 than he does now, and that went for all the other tech companies, too. It was an unhappily good point.
Back then, we thought, perhaps foolishly, that those companies worked for us. Now we have learned that all too often — and no doubt still more often than we know — they’re simply using us for their own benefit, harvesting our data, manipulating our behavior and otherwise being, well, untrustworthy. (Another friend joked that the way the tech companies’ politics are going, they might decide not to stop your heart attack if they thought you might vote the wrong way. That’s not as crazy-sounding as it might have been in 2005, I’m afraid.)
And can we trust them with our data? A really good wearable medical device would generate data about movement, respiration, heart rate and many other things. It could probably figure out when you had sex last, and maybe even make a good guess at your partner and position. It could send news of bad habits to your insurance company or to the state.
Recent history suggests that the answer to “Can we trust them with our data?” is pretty much always a resounding “No.” So how many people will be eager to jump on board with invasive technology that makes their body less the temple of their soul than a tech-company subsidiary?
Some will. Those who are old and frail enough — the “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” crowd — will welcome devices that might keep them out of assisted living for a few more years, privacy be damned.
Those who want bling, or those who just don’t think much, won’t be too troubled. But I have to think that the more-savvy early-adopter crowd will rightly think twice before adopting these gadgets. And that’s too bad.
I’d like to live in a world where I can have those gadgets, and where I can trust them. But we’re a long way from that world, and it’s getting farther away every day.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the InstaPundit.com blog.