Nick Bilton is a smart writer about technology and design. He wrote a book titled “I Live In The Future & Here’s How It Works” about which Jack Shafer on Slate noted, he “soothes our fears about electronic media turning kids into zombies and placates our worries that adults will suffocate from 'information overload' with deep readings from the scientific literature and generous doses of common sense.”
So it was surprising to see his byline on an article in The New York Times titled Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes? (since changed to The Health Concerns in Wearable Tech), in which Bilton raises concerns about the safety of all the new wearable devices that are coming onto the market, writing:
While there is no definitive research on the health effects of wearable computers (the Apple Watch isn’t even on store shelves yet), we can hypothesize a bit from existing research on cellphone radiation.
Well, actually you can’t, because cellphone frequencies and power are different from WiFi or Bluetooth or Zigbee or any of the other systems that connect our smart devices and wearables. Bolton acknowledges that "there is no proven harm from those frequencies on the human body" but expresses concern about smartwatches that have 3G or 4G cellphone-like connections.
He mentions concerns about batteries, conflating them with fears of EMF, the magnetic force that comes from alternating current in power lines. He concludes that cellphones are dangerous and has started using a headset, and “when it comes to wearable computers, I’ll still buy the Apple Watch, but I won’t let it go anywhere near my head. And I definitely won’t let any children I know play with it for extended periods of time.” Even though the Apple Watch doesn’t have a cellphone in it but connects to your iPhone by Bluetooth.
There are lots of people who are concerned about cellphone radiation, although study after study has concluded that there is little risk. The World Health Organization concluded that there was no danger, but qualified it by noting:
While an increased risk of brain tumors is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group. Several studies investigating potential health effects in children and adolescents are underway.
Fortunately, younger people seem to talk on the phone less and text more, dramatically reducing their exposure.
Although there have been some concerns that radio frequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radio frequency energy can cause cancer.
WiFi routers: Silent, blinking death? (Photo: Wellington Grey)
Then there are those who are afraid of WiFi. In Alberta, Canada, they are debating whether it should be allowed in schools, according to The Edmonton Journal. Parents are panicking because organizations that are studying something as carcinogenic often say "possibly carcinogenic" — that’s why they are studying it.
Yet those of us who have wireless in our homes are already bathing in WiFi, just as our parents with cathode ray tube TVs spent their time with electron guns aiming at their faces. (The glass stopped most but not all of it.) We have been surrounded with EMF since the electric motor was invented.
The tiny signals from our wearables are barely noticeable against the background of electromagnetic radiation that comes from space, let alone the stuff in our houses. But when someone as smart as Bilton worries, should we?
Over in Slate, Phil Plait writes a response bluntly titled Fear Mongering in the NYT: Does Wearable Tech Cause Cancer? and accuses Bilton of using “classic pseudoscience techniques: Speculation based on insignificant evidence, wordplay to make things sound worse than they are, and relying on an “expert” who is anything but.”
Let’s be clear: There is no direct evidence wearable tech will cause health problems like cancer. None. Bolton admits that pretty much up front, but then goes on to speculate based on health concerns over cell phones, and that’s where the article goes off the rails.
He concludes: “I expect this kind of thing from rags like the Daily Mail or other fact-free tabloids, but from the New York Times? Wow.”
As I write about smart homes and wearable tech while surrounded by connected light bulbs and bluetooth hearables, I think this is an issue of serious consideration and concern, and should be monitored closely. (Speaking of monitors, we could all probably cut our exposure to radiation and EMF dramatically just by switching to flat LED screens). However I worry that Bilton is going to scare a lot of people off wearables with this article, devices that can monitor peoples’ health and fitness, or as in my case, connect me to my family and the world. Readers deserve better from a writer as talented as Nick Bilton.
Update: It's worth noting that the public editor of the New York Times isn't too thrilled with Nick either.