How Fitness Trackers Change the Way You See the World (1): Seeing, Knowing, and Doing
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Note: This is an edited version of my MSc thesis: Tracking, Anchoring, and Reviewing Everyday Life with Oura and Fitbit- A User’s Guide (attached at the end of the page for reference. It's good, but I doubt anyone will actually read it).
Background: the limits of 'seeing' and 'knowing'
The ways in which we perceive the world are not definitive, but conditioned by sociocultural constructs (loosely understood as 'identity', 'sensibility', or 'intuition') and cognitive thresholds (the limits of our sensory organs or 'perceptibility'). Today, connecting these two sets of conditions is digital technology, as they are mediated and transformed in our daily cyborg-like activities by the ubiquitous digital prostheses - like reading this on your phone or laptop. The relations between technology, culture, and cognition are best exampled by two mainstream tech discourses: Elon Musk's famous declaration that 'we're already cyborgs' and the title of Bret Victor's 2013 talk at MIT Media Lab: new media enable thinking the unthinkable. Not only do these two discourses reflect the ways in which ongoing technological development are re-shaping human cognition, they also embody the vision as well as cultural ideologies of future development.
Much like cooking, riding a bike, or deadlifting, our interaction with technology is a technique that is learned, nurtured, and re-adjusted in a dynamic process. Broadly, fitness tracking (the user-fitness tracker interaction) is one such example and more. It is a particular technique that involves perceiving reality through a set of standardized metrics, which then becomes incorporated into the decision-making apparatus in everyday life, and ultimately subjugate other techniques.
Imagine organizing your everyday life around and evaluating every action by a single metric, what could it be?
Happiness? Not quite. Morality? Too far-fetched. Becoming superhuman? Getting closer (in my research at least). Sleep (or rather sleep score), is the holy grail, according to the six participants in my graduate research. With regular interviews and photo diary, I managed to reconstruct how their daily life is re-shaped by their use of fitness trackers through a conceptual lens (detailed methodology to be found in my thesis). If it sounds one-dimensional and reductionistic, that's because it is. The interesting thing about the practice of fitness tracking is how it embodies the digital extension or delegation of a meta-technique - the technique of the self - to popular electronic commodities. It is not my intention to produce yet another case study that captures the alienating human condition; rather, I wish to highlight how fitness tracking conditions and is conditioned by daily life. Why? Because life is a product of negotiation fraught with inconsistencies, and the mundane, everyday experience is all that we have to reveal such conditions.
My thesis in a nutshell, visualized.
For the impatient reader, the two images below illustrate (1) how fitness trackers develop a new cognitive schema that enables behavioral change, and (2) how this schema translates into and sustains change or fails to do so.
Obviously you would need to continue reading for context. If you want to learn more about the hard mechanics of behavioral change in fitness tracking, go to the last chapter of this series. To understand what this change looks like in the context of everyday, check out the second chapter.
Self-tracking, information, and cybernetics
In sociology and anthropology, self-tracking can basically be considered as a sub-topic of the study of Silicon Valley's 'tech culture', as the idea of was quantifying oneself was first popularized by Quantified Self (QS) movement. Founded by Wired magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, the movement quickly gained initial traction among savvy professionals and 'life-hacking' enthusiasts. Today, the practice of self-tracking is very much in the mainstream. Using off-the-shelf, generally affordable products like Fitbit (a fitness wristband), Oura (a wearable ring), Apple Watch, users across age, sex, and socioeconomic backgrounds voluntarily track themselves for all kinds of reasons: medical conditions, health improvement, optimize productivity, and so on.
Conceptually, self-tracking is interesting because it embodies an abstraction of human behavior. Behind the design of fitness tracker (a.k.a personal informatics devices) is the idea that behavior can be turned into data, processed, and presented in a way that is perceptible, understandable, informative, and actionable to the individual user. Subsequently, the user's expected behavioral change is to be picked up again by electronic sensors, thereby sustaining the information processing cycle. The name 'personal informatics device' is perhaps itself reflective of this neatly cybernetician portrayal of reality, with information as the elementary analytical unit, as we will see in Part III.
For instance, a user reviews her Fitbit data with the designated app on her phone first thing in morning everyday to find consistently a sleep score somewhere between 70-80. One day the score has dropped by 10 points and she starts wondering what caused the drop: "Could it be the beer I had an hour before bed last night? Ok, I will cut out my evening beers and see what happens". In this setting, the human user is considered to be a perpetual, course-correcting sponge, endlessly absorbing the informational value generated by their own action, formalized and thus made perceptible by a fitness-tracker. The specific cognitive schema the user develops overtime to interpret reality, through predetermined fitness metrics, by design, is what I refer to as 'the metricizing gaze'.
Levels of analysis: individual and systemic
Principally, considering self-tracking as a feedback loop, on the individual level, is a potent way to understand behavior change. One may even consider everything that we do as really just a feedback loop. Of course, humans and their goals change all the time (yes, you're not the only one). We will see how the practice is really subject to negotiation and fraught with inconsistencies . The individual level of analysis in my thesis is backed by in-depth, qualitative accounts that I collected through online interviews and participant-generated photos.
On a systemic level, however, the human user (or at least their datafied shadows) is also part of a wider information loop cutting across the the electronic trackers, smartphones, and data servers, as data is transmitted as signals through Bluetooth, WIFI, and 4G. This continuously expanding network of systemic information flow, storage, and processing nodes, in a way, is much like an externalized and amplified version of a human being's cognitive function (although one could also argue that this informational conceptualization of humanity is precisely inspired by theoretical developments in STEM, which would be a separate topic). The idea of developing 'smartness' in objects as well as systems to assist, administrate, or even govern is precisely predicated on the human ability to perceive (data collection), analyze, and anticipate, factoring in past experiences and, more importantly, contingency. In other words, to reflect and 'course-correct'.
This level of analysis borders on the empirical and the conceptual. Despite it was only a four months-long project, it is my hope to contrast the actions of everyday life with the ineffable, abstract technological development by situating the individual within the system. This approach is chiefly defined by an experimental spirit.
So what? This series of articles aims to answer three questions: (1) How does the new way of perceiving, enabled by fitness trackers, develop into a cognitive schema which collides with pre-existing ways of living; (2) how is this schema produced by the prolonged tracker-user interaction, stabilized into the user's worldview, and re-negotiated as the interaction continues; and (3) what comes after and who gets left behind? Or, in more simplistic terms, how do we 'see' more? What are the implications and how do they develop overtime? What comes after?
Part I: Setting the scene.
Part II: An outline of the biographical context of some of my participants (we will use three in this edition) to cover the what, why, and how of their practice. We will also see how self-tracking is at once a cognitive schema ('metricizing gaze'), identity, and lifestyle choice, which co-exist and compete with other identities as well as commitments of the user.
Part III: A deep dive into how the metricizing gaze is developed, sustained, and re-negotiated, in a broadly circumstantial fashion. We will then conclude with a speculative portrayal of the co-evolution of the user and the technical infrastructure that fitness trackers are but a small part of. In other words, the collision between the reality of finite human lives and the metaphysics of infinite technological development.