Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Socks Edition.

These socks could make you a better runner. They could also make you a pariah.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sensoria.

Welcome to Should This Thing Be Smart?, a new series. Each month, Justin Peters will examine a new smart object and try to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Read the first installment, which looked at a $60 smart fork.

Item: Sensoria Fitness Socks and Anklet

Price: $189 on Amazon as of Friday afternoon

Function: The Sensoria Fitness Socks and Anklet combo is meant to help serious runners, walkers, and hopscotchers achieve their fitness goals while avoiding injury, frustration, and the indignity of wearing inexpensive socks. The socks are equipped with interwoven sensors and conductive fibers that gather and transmit information to the complementary Bluetooth anklet, which counts your steps, tracks your speed, and accentuates your calves. The wearables also pair with a smartphone app that provides real-time stride analysis and serves as a virtual running coach, and an online dashboard that charts your progress over time. If you’ve always wanted a running coach who is also a robot that you can wear on your feet, then the Sensoria Fitness Socks and Anklet may be the socks and anklet for you.

The case for the smart socks: The Sensoria Fitness Socks and Anklet are a very interesting socks-and-anklet combo! They capture precise and pertinent real-time data about your running habits, and then present that data in an app that can help you set, track, and modify your training goals. They are performance-enhancing socks, but not in the shameful sense of the word. You will never be banned from international athletic competition for wearing these socks. They will not cause you to develop backne.

Unlike your standard athletic socks, which serve to soak up sweat and prevent blisters, these smart socks soak up knowledge and prevent ignorance. (They also soak up sweat and prevent blisters. They are still socks, after all.) Running is easy to do but hard to do well—especially if you don’t know very much about what you’re doing. An ungainly stride, for example, can inhibit performance, increase the risk of injury, and make you look like a clod. And yet without proper training you might go on galumphing around the neighborhood indefinitely, until the day when you wake up with plantar fasciitis.

That’s where these data-driven socks come in. The Sensoria Fitness Socks use pressure sensors to track the force and position with which you strike the ground, among other things. Then they deliver this data to you while you’re still running. What you do with it is up to you. You can take it and apply it in real time. You can use it over the long term to develop an optimal running form and cadence. You can ignore it out of spite. You can lord it over all of the other runners in your neighborhood, perhaps by yelling, “Your socks are dumb and basic!” as you pass them by. Again, up to you.

If you buy these socks you might not need to hire a running coach. Instead, you can benefit from the advice and encouragement of the Sensoria app’s virtual coach, named Mara, whom you can mute with the touch of a button. Poking an actual human coach while yelling “Mute! Mute! Mute!” is the sort of thing that will land you on the bench, or in traction. Human coaches are sort of a mixed bag, anyway. In high school, one of our football coaches would limber up before practice by kicking us players in our helmeted heads. A virtual coach will never kick you in the head, or blow whistles at you, or bench you on Senior Day for no good reason even though you are unequivocally the best player at your position.

The Sensoria Fitness Socks and Anklet belong to a broader family of fitness gadgets that collect quantifiable data in the service of promoting good health. They are sort of like a Fitbit, except that they will also help keep your feet warm in cold weather. Plus, they are made from wicking fabric. Can your precious Fitbit keep your feet warm? (Checks Fitbit website.) No, it cannot. Is your precious Fitbit made from wicking fabric? (Checks Fitbit website again.) No, it is not.

These socks are perfect for introverts. They reduce the need to incorporate other humans into your fitness routine. If you are unsure whether you are an introvert, ask yourself this question: Does the prospect of asking someone else to critique your running style make you anxious enough to consider spending $199 on sensor-infused socks that will wear down after they have been machine-washed 60 times? If so, then the Sensoria Fitness Socks might be for you.

The case against the smart socks: Humans and their antecedents have been running for literally millions of years, and over that timespan we have gotten pretty good at it. We have also gotten pretty good at getting pretty good at it, without having to resort to needless gimmickry. Roger Bannister did not need smart socks to run a sub-four-minute mile. Neanderthal Man did not need smart socks to learn how to effectively flee from Neanderthal Murderer. You do not need smart socks to run around the block a few times for three straight days before finally giving up on your New Year’s resolution.

Just because you don’t need smart socks doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy them, of course. Most of the things we buy are things we don’t actually need, but we buy them anyway, because we think we will derive some benefit from them. Does the benefit of these smart socks outweigh their cost? Hard to say. They seem like an expensive solution to a relatively simple problem. While these socks may help you get closer to your running goals, you could probably get close to those goals anyway, just by going out and running, or watching other people run for a while, or reading stuff on the internet. You could even hire a running coach for a few sessions. According to a 2015 article in Runner’s World, a coach can cost as little as $50 per month. None of these solutions will cost you $199. These socks are socks for rich people with money to burn.

The promise of smart technology is that it fits seamlessly and unobtrusively into your regular routine, improving your life from the background. These socks are firmly in the foreground. “First impressions: heavy, scratchy, uncomfortable,” wrote Jessica Dolcourt of the anklet for CNET, though the discomfort lessened over time. “Imagine lumpy-looking gray socks with white ankle bracelets on each that don’t fully clamp around your leg but just kind of sit there, suspended by magnets, as you run or walk,” Valentina Palladino wrote for Ars Technica.

These smart socks are very delicate. According to the Sensoria website, they can only be machine-washed about 60 times, and also they should not go in the dryer. While you get two pairs of socks with your initial purchase, Sensoria recommends that you have four pairs of socks handy—but also implies that you will probably have to buy four pairs every year, because, after all, the socks are very delicate. Each additional two-pack costs $49. You will soon be working for these socks, instead of the other way around.

If I were to spend $199 on a pair of socks, I would be terrified of losing them in the wash. To avoid this, and also to prolong their life span, I would probably just never, ever wash them. Unwashed socks smell terrible, and terrible smells drive other people away. These socks may well make you a pariah.

Some critics have found the virtual running coach to be extremely obnoxious. Writing for Macworld, Caitlin McGarry found that “the voice-coaching section of the app has so many settings that it’s tough to tell what level of advice is useful and what veers into annoying territory. Even after four runs with this app, I still couldn’t strike the right balance.” Of course it’s annoying. A virtual coach is still a coach.

The Sensoria Fitness Socks seem like the sort of socks that would be worn by Sam Hinkie. Sam Hinkie sucks.

Security risk factor: As we’ve previously established, everything is a security risk when it comes to the Internet of Things. Lucky for all you potential sock owners out there, James Loving, a security researcher affiliated with MIT, told me over email that the risk for direct harm with these smart socks is pretty low. “[T]he anklet only has the ability to notify its user of its battery charge and connection with an LED and send information back to the paired smartphone over Bluetooth, so it takes an incredulous chain of events for a compromised device to actually harm a user—maybe forcing the runner’s form and cadence to change too rapidly from their norm, contributing to athletic injuries of some type,” wrote Loving. There are easier ways to take revenge on your athletic rivals.

What about indirect harm? Many IoT security risks come down to potentially shady uses of the highly personalized user data compiled by the devices in question. Loving aptly noted that the sock-and-anklet combo is indirectly monitoring the health and well-being of its wearer, and collecting fairly personal info that could be used for pattern-of-life analysis. “Unhealthy runners will run less, for shorter periods, and likely in other ways that the anklet can measure (perhaps heavier footfalls),” said Loving. “I don’t have a specific threat in mind, but I think creative adversaries (or unscrupulous insurance companies) could make use of that data.”

Are these smart socks more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? I can see it going both ways. “The Sensoria Virtual Coach literally monitors every step and provides actionable audio and video feedback during your run,” the Sensoria website notes, and it would probably not be impossible for a determined and eccentric criminal to hack into the virtual coach and direct you to run into an ambush. I can also see a world in which the police access your data to track your movements. Neither of these things would be a potential worry if you just ran barefoot.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should not be smart. While I grant that these socks might be a useful training aid for some people, I am making my decision here based on principle. The Sensoria Fitness Socks are a novel manifestation of a familiar fallacy: the idea that you need a lot of fancy, expensive gear in order to get into shape and improve as an athlete. This presumption is what stops a lot of people from actually getting into shape in the first place. Don’t be fooled. You don’t need to be Richie Rich in order to go out for a run, and you don’t need a bunch of high-tech gear to become the runner you want to be.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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