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Is too much data overwhelming us?

Smartphones, wearables and personal finance apps—is our obsession with data going too far and affecting our mental health?

A lot of fitness data is potentially meaningless to a non-expert 
A lot of fitness data is potentially meaningless to a non-expert  (iStock)

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In the 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens described the ghost of Jacob Marley, the business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, clasped by a chain that “… was long and wound about him like a tail; and it was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel”. The chain represented Marley’s sins and weighed down the tormented soul. Each time I pick up my phone, I feel weighed down with myriad kinds of data, often unsolicited. The slew of smart devices I have may be wireless but they chain me just the same.

We live in a hyper-connected world, with an array of sensors on objects around us and smartphones and wearables on our bodies. The assortment of data promises better decision-making, greater efficiency and opportunity. But often it can be overwhelming, needless, out of context—and wearying. It can spiral out of control and become an obsessive indulgence. Over-dependence, particularly in the absence of context and expertise to read data, can transform a healthy habit or an intellectual pursuit into something hazardous, or, well, soul-sucking. Most conversations on digital well-being and digital detox, though, do not account for data overload.

Samir Parikh, psychiatrist and director of the Fortis National Mental Health Program, Fortis Healthcare, says data overload can lead to anxiety, especially if one is prone to anxiety in that aspect of life. For example, if you are someone who gets anxious about stock market fluctuations and the state of your investment portfolio, real-time data streams and constant nudges by your fintech app, combined with factors like social conditioning and peer pressure, might trigger you even more. Some dietitians, often perceived as hard-line calorie monitors, believe the constant pressure of calorie counting can be debilitating, exacerbating issues the person was looking to resolve in the first place.

The situation is comparable, in some ways, to eating at a buffet where you may not make the right choice and/or overeat. Apps and services offer you a bouquet of data. How do you deal with it?

There’s nothing wrong with data per se, be it fitness trackers, health and wellness apps to track activities and vitals, water and food intake, or a personal finance app with superior expense tracking or better insights into mutual fund schemes. Several new smart vehicles even pitch companion apps that allow you to track battery health, drive patterns, trip history, et al.

Health and fitness data is gold for a healthcare professional or a sports coach. In their expert hands, it can be sliced and diced to draw insights that can help achieve fitness goals. Financial data can help informed investors with market patterns and trends. Service technicians and automotive enthusiasts have for long used cheap scanners to plug into the built-in OBD (on-board diagnostics) ports of cars to read the status of vehicle systems.

The problem comes when the data takes over your life. Apps and services tend to dump data on people without context or situational advice. Fitness trackers and apps don’t account for chronic conditions and mostly offer generic insights and recommendations which may not be relevant. A connected car may report poor mileage on a recent trip, but that could be just you enjoying kebabs sitting in the car by the kerbside.

Dr Parikh often advises people to dissociate from constant and unlimited data overload, especially if it starts impacting behaviour and social experiences. “There has to be a balance in what you are letting yourself be exposed to,” he says on the phone.

A few years ago, research at Duke University, US, found that activity-tracking can decrease enjoyment of the pastime someone is trying to quantify. “Enjoyable activities can become almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun,” the study noted.

Data overload is not limited to personal life and activities. In a 2019 Forbes article, Sébastien Ricard, co-founder of a leading digital workplace communications solution company, wrote that employees are experiencing a new hurdle, “infobesity”, in the workplace and wondered if “…consuming too much information can cloud our ability to make good decisions”.

According to a 2021 report on digital workplaces by Canadian enterprise software company Coveo, office workers spend two-and-a-half hours daily searching for information to do their jobs. Over a year, that’s a lot of person-hours wasted across the organisation. In fact, more than 40% of the information provided to employees is irrelevant to their specific job roles, leading to an overwhelmed, and often stressed, workforce, says the report.

Some companies are working to fix the problem—for instance, the Ate app promotes mindful food journaling instead of calorie counting; Insight Timer offers a mindful approach to wellness; and the Shapa Scale (not available in India) focuses on weight assessment rather than tracking kilograms. Using Artificial Intelligence and hyper-personalisation, they aim to deliver customised, actionable insights and meaningful patterns.

In the Duke University study, Prof. Jordan Etkin noted that we shouldn’t stop measuring our daily activity, but should balance increased productivity against our underlying enjoyment. Essentially, be mindful about what we track, and why. “For activities people do for fun, it may be better not to know,” the professor concluded.

Also read: Xiaomi 11i Hypercharge review: Riding the fast-charging wave

Abhishek Baxi is a technology journalist and digital consultant.

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