Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Sneakers Edition.

Maybe $350 self-lacing sneakers are actually a good idea?

A Nike shoe with a smartphone underneath
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Nike.

In Should This Thing Be Smart?, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, the $99 dog collar, the $1,199 mirror, the $199 bike lock, the $60 microwave, and the $130 Christmas lights.

In mid-January, Nike proudly announced the release of a pair of self-lacing basketball shoes called the Nike Adapt BB. The Nike Adapt BB was “the future of footwear,” the company’s website crowed, and it aimed to make amends for the horrific past of footwear, in which we all had to stoop over and tie our own shoes like suckers. “Shoelaces: you had a good run. But we think we may have finally bettered you,” Nike’s vice president of innovation wrote on the day the shoes were released. Take that, shoelaces!

But like so many other would-be revolutions throughout history, this one took a prematurely dystopian turn. In February, a flawed firmware update—yes, this shoe involves firmware—effectively turned many users’ shoes into $350 pairs of bricks and gave thousands of kids worldwide a truly novel excuse for missing gym class. This is what happens when you fly too close to the sun.

It is easy to see the entire debacle as conclusive proof that sneakers should not actually be smart. I beg you to withhold your judgment, though—at least until the end of this column—because it is unfair to judge an entire market segment by its most visible product’s most embarrassing failure. There is a viable case to be made for, and against, the entire concept of a smart sneaker, and I am the man to make it. Should this thing be smart? Let’s find out!

Item: Nike Adapt BB self-lacing sneakers

Price: $350

The case for the smart sneakers: The Nike Adapt BB sneakers are a very interesting pair of sneakers! They aim to augment the wearer’s innate athleticism by offering a better, more personalized fit than any other sneaker on the market. A well-fitted shoe, according to Nike, is “the foundation of athletic performance.” Granted, Nike touting the performance benefits of shoes is sort of like PepsiCo touting the awesomeness benefits of Mountain Dew—but it’s still reasonable to think that, given an otherwise equal playing field, an athlete with a perfectly fitted pair of sneakers might perform better than someone wearing a pair of oversize clodhoppers.

The smart sneakers strive for that elusive perfect fit. The Nike Adapt BB adapts (get it?) to your foot, rather than the other way around. It uses a small internal motor and a so-called Electro Adaptive Reactive Lacing system to automatically conform to the wearer’s foot, while the complementary app lets users adjust the fit on the fly and program custom presets. These are welcome developments in a world where athletes are always looking for the newest incremental edge over their competitors. The smart sneakers are performance-enhancing devices, of a sort, except you won’t be blackballed from the Hall of Fame for using them (yet).

The Nike Adapt BB purports to offer an experience that most amateur athletes have never known: the thrill of wearing a shoe that fits like a glove. Though mass-produced athletic shoes come in various shapes and sizes, they are all meant for median feet, and the median foot does not actually exist. The feet of the world are like precious, bunion-covered snowflakes, with no two exactly alike. The Adapt BB is Nike’s bid at creating a mass-produced shoe that nevertheless offers a bespoke fit.

The smart basketball shoe dispenses with shoelaces, which, if we are being honest, are sort of a pain. Shoelaces come undone at inconvenient times, such as when you are running through an airport or standing on an escalator. The knots you tie to prevent the laces from coming undone are often impossible to untie without tweezers or magic. Shoelaces ought to be disrupted.

The smart sneakers are a boon for people who cannot easily tie their shoes themselves, and who are also unwilling to be seen in public wearing Velcro. There are a lot of people like this out there, and for them, the Nike Adapt BB is less a gimmick than a godsend. Whenever you read about a new smart device and ask yourself, Who would want this?, the answer is usually people who aren’t as physically fortunate as you are, you ungrateful prick.

The Nike Adapt BB lights up! There are two small lights embedded on the side of the sole, and you can use the app to change their colors: a great feature for those of us who have long believed that basketball games need more mood lighting. Why does a basketball shoe have lights in it? Because it’s the future, dummy! The future is very well-lit.

The smart sneakers will stymie your prankster buddies when they stoop down to surreptitiously give you a hotfoot. “Better luck next time, guys,” you will hoot as they kneel there, befuddled, matches in hand. They will go back to the drawing board and be forced to devise a whole roster of new, non–shoelace-related pranks. The smart sneakers will lead us into a new Golden Age of Pranks.

The case against the smart sneakers: The best case against the smart sneakers has already been made by the smart sneakers themselves. The smart sneakers broke after a cruddy firmware update. Instead of making their users’ lives easier, the smart sneakers made them more difficult. I know, I know, early adopters ought to know what they’re getting themselves into, but still: A shoe is not meant to be a software platform. It is a shoe. You wear it on your feet. You get mud on it. Your shoes bear your entire body weight every single day. You shouldn’t have to troubleshoot your shoes. You shouldn’t have to charge your shoes on a wireless charging mat. They are shoes. You wear them. To expect anything more from a shoe is just asking for trouble.

The smart sneakers are presumptuous. They presume that you, the Nike Adapt BB owner, also desire some sort of ongoing relationship with the manufacturer, and that opting into firmware updates counts as consummating that relationship. “For most footwear out there, buying the shoe is the end of a transaction. But here, buying the shoe is just the beginning,” Nike’s VP of innovation said of the smart sneakers in January, and that is a truly horrific threat. The only reason why a brand wants to maintain an ongoing relationship with a customer is to extract money from that person sometime down the road. The smart sneakers are the first step down the inevitable path toward subscription sneakers.

A well-fitted shoe is not the foundation of athletic performance. No credible coach in the world has ever said that. God-given talent is the foundation of athletic performance, followed by “practice makes perfect,” followed by “stick-to-it-ive-ness,” followed by “giving 110 percent,” followed by “keep your eye on the ball,” followed by “rub some dirt on it.” No piece of athletic gear, no matter how expensive or high-tech, will be able to help you achieve peak performance if you are unwilling to first rub some dirt on it.

I have played a whole lot of pickup basketball in my life, and I can say with great confidence that you do not want to be the guy who shows up to the court in a pair of light-up motorized shoes. You will be even less popular than the guy wearing compression shorts. Everyone will want to take you down, even the guy who showed up wearing wingtips for some reason. Getting dunked on by Wingtips Guy will be the lowest moment of your life. The smart sneakers will send you spiraling into depression.

The Nike Adapt BB is reminiscent of the self-lacing Nike shoes from Back to the Future II, which was by far the worst Back to the Future movie. Wearing these shoes may well remind you of this bad movie, and remembering the movie may well make you upset. “They recast Crispin Glover with someone who looked like Crispin Glover but who clearly wasn’t Crispin Glover! Did they think we were idiots?” you will shout. The smart sneakers will make you very upset on behalf of Crispin Glover.

General security and privacy concerns: If the manufacturer can accidentally brick your shoes, then a hacker can intentionally brick your shoes. That is my major concern here. But I’d also like to reiterate that smart sneakers are indicative of a troubling and intrusive trend in Silicon Valley, wherein purchasing a product implies a subsequent ongoing relationship with a manufacturer. Nike calls the shoe “the first continually updated performance product from Nike,” and it will certainly not be the last shoe of its kind from Nike or any other company. If Nike is going to go through the hassle of issuing updates for its shoes, it’s going to want something in return. Those things, friends, are your money and your data.

Nike does not just admit that it plans to track your usage patterns with this shoe; it openly boasts of the prospect. “Imagine a cycle, where opting in creates data about your activity to inform personalized guidance from Nike. And as your performance improves, we can connect you to new product and services for your new goals—and the cycle continues,” Nike’s VP of innovation said in January. In other words, the smart sneakers are an early foray into data mining for Nike, and as goes Nike, so goes the rest of the market.

But how will these shoe companies secure the data that they collect? How can you be sure that your data won’t be shared with third parties? If it is shared with third parties, can you trust that those third parties will keep it secure? And what will happen a few years later, when the Nike Adapt is 20 models into the future and your current shoes are obsolete? Will the firmware updates continue? Or will they gradually taper off, opening up security holes in the process? The Nike Adapt BB firmware update debacle underscores that shoe companies are not primarily tech companies—and that a truly smart consumer should be very concerned about what they will do with the data they collect.

Are the smart sneakers more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? These sneakers will stop crimes-in-progress, as it is very difficult for suspects to flee the scene on foot when their shoes are rebooting.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should not be smart. More gimmick than actual necessary innovation, the Nike Adapt BB is currently more likely to make its users’ lives harder, not easier.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.