Biopower to the People

Fitness trackers are redefining what it means to be a human subject

| Spring 2018

  • Top view shot of young woman checking activity tracker after exercise.
    Photo by Youngoldman
  • The famous drawing "Vitruvian Man" (Uomo vitruviano) by Leonardo da Vinci. Edited to include only the illustration without writings of the original. INSPECTOR PLEASE NOTE: Scanned from an old tourist poster and edited by me, original is in public domain. Different version of the same scan approved earlier, file #29118476.
    Photo by Vaara

Since getting a Fitbit several months ago, my days have been focused on action and analysis: Wake up, check my sleep stats. Go to the gym, track my workout. Eat breakfast, log my calories. Bike to work, track my miles and steps. Repeat ad infinitum. Variety is the enemy of optimization.

And “optimization” has increasingly become a synonym for “health,” one that conjures a sense of the rational, the ordered, the programmatically ideal. To optimize one’s body is to take it to its functional maximum, to fine-tune its performance to machine-level accuracy.

Then there’s “fitness,” another term that’s been folded into this technological vision of ability and potential. “Fitness,” the Fitbit website states, “is the sum of your life.” And tracking “every part of your day—including activity, exercise, food, weight, and sleep—[helps] you find your fit, stay motivated, and see how small steps make a big impact.” In essence, Fitbit claims that not only is your day-to-day the true marker of fitness, and not only is fitness is the key marker of your life, but that quantifying them as a series of inputs and outputs will ultimately improve it, too. Health trackers like the Fitbit—including the Apple Watch, Nike Fuelband, Garmin vÍvosmart, and Samsung Galaxy Gear—assert that your bodily output is the sum total of your experience, and that sum can be quantified.

THIS IS THE BEDROCK of the Quantified Self (QS) movement, a group of people whose rallying cry is “self knowledge through numbers.” You won’t be surprised to hear that the QS movement was first conceived in San Francisco, by former Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, in 2007. From determining the peak enjoyment of an album by number of listens to the most effective way to train for physical strength or endurance, QS evangelists believe that gathering data about the self is one of the most effective and meaningful ways to learn about both the human condition and the human body. “If we want to act more effectively in the world,” said Wolf in a 2010 TED Talk, “we have to get to know ourselves better.” By reflecting on ourselves as systems and using data “as a mirror,” Wolf says we can achieve levels of self-awareness—and therefore self-improvement—previously unavailable to us. Who knows what we might achieve once we attain peak personal performance?

Of course, self-tracking has been around for a long time. Cumbersome though they were, computers were small enough to be developed into wearables by fringe enthusiasts in the 1970s; throwing it back even further, women have been tracking their periods since at least 388 ad. We have been seeking ways to understand the body’s behavior for as long as we’ve turned a scientific eye to our own navels. In today’s era of ubiquitous computing, Bluetooth, and microprocessors, it only makes sense that some of our most sophisticated measurement devices be applied to ourselves. Now, the body is best understood through its abstraction: It isn’t until I’ve logged my meals and checked my stats that I’m able to comprehend what I’ve done with my day. There’s little space in the ethos of optimization for the chaotic, unpredictable, and often uncontrollable vicissitudes of being human. Order has always been a human ideal—now that we can apply it to the previously invisible and unquantifiable processes of our physical selves, has it become a defining category of a worthy life?

12/10/2018 7:10:59 AM

Very thought-provoking article. As a runner and writer, I always find I have an uneasy relationship with numbers when I'm writing in my running log. I record numbers, I realize, less because they tell "truth" and more because recording them is part of a larger process of reflection, consideration, and inquiry. In a sense, numbers like the activity itself are exploratory, like talking or writing about something. I find I'm pretty suspicious of anyone else trying to tell me what my numbers mean. The article encourages me in that suspicion.

3/19/2018 9:16:26 AM

Just another way to become enslaved by technology.

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