Tech by VICE

Why Are Crowdfunders So Obsessed With Hacking Hydration?

From mineral water to glowing smart bottles, we keep reinventing water consumption.

by Roisin Kiberd
Jul 3 2015, 5:50pm

The HidrateMe bottle. Image: Image: HidrateMe

Last month saw the crowdfunding debut of HidrateMe, a "smart water bottle" which connects to a phone app and sends out alerts and starts glowing when it thinks the user is thirsty. Dubbed "the worst Kickstarter" by Gawker and "the most pointless Kickstarter yet" by Time, it still went on to out-fund its original goal of $35,000 more than 10 times over, and counting.

But the HidrateMe is only one of a torrent of similar projects, a small-scale movement catering to our hydration obsession. Type "water bottle" into Kickstarter and you get 95 results. Do the same on Indiegogo and you get over 150.

These projects can be grouped under different headings. There's the experimental redesign, such as the anime-inspired "NeoGourd," the collapsible water bottle, the flat "Memobottle" and its cousin "Booktilla: the book-shaped bottle"; the water-bottle-as-wearable, such as the waistband bottle, the armband bottle, the water bottle as neck collar and, most ambitiously, the "Liquid Sleeve" (most of these never took off); and those which otherwise make superlative claims, such as the Mobot, a bottle-slash-massage-roller billed as a "movement", or the gargantuan Vedalife, a one-gallon bottle designed for athletes presumably looking to build arm strength by lifting it.

And then there's the "smart" bottle. On Kickstarter at present, HidrateMe sits alongside another project that claims to be a "world's first," the Trago. So far both have done well: Trago has also overshot its target, claiming pledges over $70,000 to its $50,000 goal.

Water seems like it should be relatively uncomplicated in the developed world: if you feel thirsty, it's there in a tap to drink. Yet we persist in complicating water, making it a canvas for our culture's obsession with hacking our way to good health.

In her 1977 essay "Holy Water" Joan Didion describes water in California, a state plagued by drought but never short of backyard swimming pools. Of these Didion writes, "[A] pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable… It is easy to forget that the only natural force over which we have any control out here is water, and that only recently."

Smart bottles, by fusing water consumption with the Internet of Things, extend this control to the body, famously largely made up of water itself. For all the ridicule they attract, these products cater to the modern health tech obsession of tracking everything we consume.

It's becoming increasingly apparent that the Internet of Things will be very good at body-shaming.

We don't need technology to tell us when we're thirsty, but somehow, over the years, advertising and beauty standards have isolated us from our own bodies to the point that we trust phone apps over physical sensation. From activity trackers like Fitbit to "connected" vape pens which shame you into smoking less and wearables designed to monitor and improve your sex life, it's becoming increasingly apparent that the Internet of Things will be very good at body-shaming.

Smart water bottles present another commercial spin on the Quantified Self: they represent ceaseless dedication to routine—the kind which others at your gym will envy as it glows visibly by the side of your treadmill.

But the cultural obsession with staying hydrated the fashionable way also long pre-dates smart devices. Perhaps the oldest and most repeated health myth relating to water is that of needing eight glasses a day. A study back in 2002 by New Hampshire kidney specialist Heinz Valtin traced the origins of this advice to a nutritionist popular in the 70s called Fredrick J Stare, who advised 6-8 glasses per day in the form of water, tea, milk, soft drinks or, interestingly, beer.

Heinz concluded that this advice had no real scientific basis (today the NHS acknowledges eight-a-day guidelines but says that it depends on a person's size and the climate they live in). But advertisers have always stood to gain from health-conscious shoppers carrying water with them at all times.

In the late 1970s Orson Welles' extravagantly-scripted advertisements for Perrier helped send their sales up by 3,000 percent and turned water into a fashion accessory. This continued through the 80s and 90s: sexually-charged ad campaigns urged viewers to "keep your body at its peak" by drinking Evian, the same brand of bottle Madonna simulated oral sex on in her 1991 film Truth or Dare.

The launch of purified waters Aquafina and Dasani, both sourced from municipal water taps, proved that exotic provenance didn't matter so much as the convenience of water carried in your hand. The trend culminated in 2006 with the launch of Bling H20, a brand of "high-end" water currently priced at $38 per Swarovski-encrusted bottle. It was instantly declared tasteless and was, the rumours persisted, a favourite of Paris Hilton's pet dog.

Having reached its excessive peak, the public subsequently turned against bottled water. Studies found that it takes more water to produce a single bottle for sale than the water contained inside it, and in 2008 the UK's minister for the environment declared that mineral water "borders on being morally unacceptable." In 2012, the town of Concord, Massachusetts became the first in the US to ban the sale of bottled still water after a three-year campaign by local activists (the sparkling variety is still allowed).

But old habits die hard, and bottled water remains popular. Sales continue to climb, and brands have formed their own lobby groups such as the National Hydration Council set up by Danone, Nestlé, and bottled water brands including Harrowgate and Highland Spring, with the campaign slogan "you ought to drink more water."

Though crowdfunding campaigns are the underdog to companies like Danone and Nestlé, their creations find ready customers in those primed to this message. Smart bottles are an improvement on disposable bottles (at least they're reusable), but they cater to those same old neurotic habits.

Our hydration obsession has gone mobile, now: it follows us around in smart bottles and apps, talking back, reminding us to keep checking, keep obsessing, reminding us that "you ought to drink more water" every time we check our phones. Or every time our connected bottles glow.