Last week, a small Oklahoma Christian university went viral after the internet discovered that the school, Oral Roberts University, was requiring all of its incoming students to wear Fitbits to track their fitness.
With students' heart rates being synced to an account associated with the school, some people realized that information you definitely would not want your teachers to have, like sex, would show up in the data. The school was forced to go on the record and say that it wouldn't use the data to track whether students were honoring their purity pledges. It was Big Brother reimagined as your high school gym teacher.
If you think tracking a student's exercise routine sounds Orwellian, you should know that elaborate tracking measures are moving far beyond the campus Fitbit.
Dr. John Coates, a former Goldman Sachs trader-turned-Cambridge neuroscientist, for example, put trackers on Wall Street traders that monitor their hormone levels. He found that testosterone, cortisol and adrenaline directly affected the traders' risk appetite—and thinks that knowing a trader's hormone level on a given day could reveal how well they'll perform. Now he's partnered with hedge funds to study the effects of hormones in the real world.
“The elevated presence of one freaking molecule in the morning can predict your [profit and loss] in the afternoon,” he told me. “So much of the real activity in trading is taking place subconsciously.”
Much of Coates' research on hormone tracking and trading is still awaiting publication, but he's developing wearable technology that could allow companies to track employees' body readings outside of an academic setting. He's already had interest from other industries, including law firms.
“We view performance in the market in the same manner as a sports physiologist,” Coates told me. “The stage of your body completely predicts how well you’re going to do.”
Coates, though, doesn't want to put a specific trader's data in the hands of their boss, like at Oral Roberts. In his vision, managers would receive anonymized aggregate data, and only individual traders would actually receive specific information about themselves.
Still, if Fitbit data can capture the precise moment of a breakup, it's hard not to wonder what other things a boss could figure out if they got their hands on data like the body's chemical messaging.
If you're not totally creeped out already, check out my feature on the future of workplace tracking. Surveillance no longer merely seeks to observe us; it seeks to know us, to probe and analyze us to find out exactly what kind of person we are.