How Fitness Trackers Change the Way You See the World (3): Metricizing Reality
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
The ecology of human-technology interaction
Conceptually, the parallel between human and technical system: the ability to connect relations. This idea is evident in the story of 'smartification' (“Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology” ) and its aggregated, networked sibling, Internet of Things (IoT), with sensors as the elementary unit which constitutes an interconnected network of 'smart' objects, servers, and infrastructure. Following this rudimentary conception of the network, we may begin to see how individual fitness trackers are just the tip of the iceberg. Fitbit, for instance, operates on an end-to-end communication paradigm in which data collected by the tracker is sent to the company's server through the smartphone app.
"Humans are already integrated in a materialized network that submits to manipulation by algorithms, and they also have the capacity to do all these things by themselves. This gives us a new motivation to think of the technical system as having the power to converge and integrate all as part of its functions" (Yuk Hui, 2019, p.27)
Empirically, human lives are intertwined with this materialized network, much like the relation between a fish and a pond, and a hunter-gather in the wild.
Central to this ecological line of thought is the process of 'reverse mediation' that unfolds in the technological environment generated by a technical object - in this case, the fitness tracker - and its operation. The process of mediation and reverse mediation is circular: while different people use technologies differently (mediation), the human users' perception of the self (identity as a self-tracker etc.) and external reality (the metricizing gaze) is also re-shaped by how the technical object functions (reverse mediation).
Self-tracking is a fundamentally cyborg-like activity enabled and sustained by a digital prosthesis, which functions in a hybrid operational environment. This hybridity encompasses the human user in their physical environment, navigated digitally through the interface of the app or the screen of the tracker. The human user is the operational environment in which a self-tracker operates, provided that it is worn and has enough battery. Meanwhile, the user exists in a physical world (the house, the gym, the street, the Scientology building etc.) and establishes relations through the fitness tracker. Importantly, as we will later see, the app interface is no less and more 'real' than the house or the Scientology building, as we now live in a world where the human consciousness constantly slips in and out of the digital world, tangibly (computers, smartphones) as well as intangibly (text, email).
Reality as a set of relations
Two sets of relations are presented here: pre-determined and contextual
The interconnection between sensors, data, devices, servers, and so on, is predicated on a pre-determined form of relations. Oura users have access to all of their past data via the company's cloud - Oura Cloud. The user may either access a readily available dashboard online to review statistical trends of different scores (sleep score/ recovery index etc.) and metrics (or proxies, really, such as the amount of deep sleep, heart rate, body temperature etc.). You can download your data onto a spreadsheet and play around with them, like A does, but the framework used is set in stone by design.
Meanwhile, there are also relations arranged by the user contextually, understood and perceived through the self-tracking metrics. Following our previous discussion on intervention, apparently unrelated objects and practices can readily be incorporated into one's routine under the rubric of wellness and health improvement. For instance, A purchased an array of consumer products to create an environment and habit conducive to quality sleep, as a result of her newfound ability to measure progress. They include both smart and non-smart objects: a cooling mattress that 'personalizes one's sleep microclimate' by adjusting its temperature according to her body temperature, and a pair of blue light blocking glasses to mitigate the impact of excessive screen time. Similarly, C has been tracking the correlation between her home sauna - purchased almost a year ago as a solution to her rising suspicion of a latent heavy metal toxicity problem - and body index.
What connects the sauna, blue light blocking glasses, and cooling mattress is a cognitive process enabled and conditioned by measurability. This process is neither entirely pre-determined nor arbitrarily contextualized, but hybrid in nature. True, while certain things (alcohol etc.) almost certainly have an impact, there could always be another correlation, a link, a 'hmm maybe'. This hint of endless uncertainty reveals precisely the cognitive toll within the process of contextualization. In order to sustain the information flow and out of the fear of losing the ring, the two Oura users rarely take off their ring, except for planned charging.
Reality as the limits of perceptibility
Intervention, as previously discussed, is enabled by perceptibility. Standardized metrics like sleep score and step count serve to render perceptible, measurable, and thus knowable, what is usually imperceptible (ever tried counting your steps in your head for a full day?).
To take a step further, we may now take a quick detour and ask: what is knowledge? More precisely, what is knowing? Gregory Bateson (1979, p.29) defines knowing as "at any given moment...a function of the thresholds of our available means of perception. He maintained that, as a result of the natural limits of our sensory organs (for instance, you can't see electric current with your bare eyes), "all phenomena are literally appearances".
Bateson built his epistemological formulation with reference to Kant's idea of the Ding an sich (Thing-in-itself), exemplified by a piece of chalk. There are an infinite number of potential facts contained within the chalk that can never be processed by the human sensory receptors. Only the filtered facts that enter into communication and mental process could become information. Bateson further asserts that the most elementary unit of information is a difference which makes a difference - a piece of chalk is registered as such according to its infinite differences with the rest of the universe. Knowing, therefore, is the selection, processing, and comparison of information.
Thus, what digital prosthesis refers to is the extended perceptual apparatus a fitness-tracker serves to be. In the discipline of Human Computer Interaction (HCI), the design of fitness trackers is often considered in pure informational (thus cybernetician) terms, according to which information flow is what matters, not the physical device.
Here, what I refer to as the 'metricizing gaze' is the cognitive schema nurtured by regular interaction with the fitness tracker. For instance, when A is tempted to a drink, she would now intuitively ask herself: "how much will this affect my sleep score?"
In this informational paradigm, decision-making, action, and objectives are perfectly aligned by information. While objectives may differ individually, the principle is the same,as A cleanly portrays:
"It's just a way of quantifying something that used to be more ephemeral...having all these metrics gives you more levers to pull because it gives you indications of what you need to work on"
Trust, technical affinity, and intentionality
In the messy terrain that we inhabit, however, one could desire, think, say, and do completely different things. 'Input' does not guarantee 'output' when we are dealing with the self-contradicting humanoids.
In practice, behavioral change can be broken down into three steps: metricizing reality, self-knowledge generation, and action. Correspondingly, this process of change is subject to a parallel process of negotiation and reflection characterized by trust ( how representative are the data of reality?), technical capability (how can I utilize the data), and intentionality (goals of varying scale, which are subject to change and contradiction, as discussed in the previous chapter). Each segment is essential to meaningful change.
Trust: Things like lifestyle and biological predispositions mark the intrinsically experimental nature of wellness improvement - a goal shared by committed self-trackers. Trust is thus another key factor, as subjective feeling could often contradict what the tracker 'says'. In this context, trust entails confidence in contextualizing feedback as much as faith in its accuracy.
For instance, having a low readiness and sleep score could confirm one's exhaustion. This is linked to the idea that 'you can't lie to yourself', which is based on the value of a good-enough accuracy that serves as an objective benchmark against which progress may be measured. Equally, it could be ignored as noise, when one feels energetic.
Technical capability: understanding the relation between actions, habits, and sleep requires a big enough dataset, and the ability to identify and interpret statistical trends. A does so by measuring dozens of other metrics (screen time etc.) against the core metrics of Oura, with a year worth of data. The capability to work with quantitative data is a key to methodical self-experimentation.
The development of technical capability is asymmetrical and dependent on professional background, age, and education. Learning to make her experience with Oura 'good enough', remains a pressing issue for C, who considers herself to have been "just blowing in the breeze", as she struggles to produce any meaningful findings other than using overnight feedback. The cure for one is the poison for another. Overwhelmed by her data that continue to pile up, C suggests that there should be 'data coaches' who organize and interpret fitness tracking data for the less technically adjusted.
Technical capability is also relative to intentionality. For some, the basic features of step count and in-app weekly review are sufficient sources of self-knowledge. For those who seek the more ambitious goal of optimization, the end is more remote. In other words, what one wants defines what 'good enough' is.
Interestingly, the curious interplay between intentionality and technical capability involves the attitude towards, or imagination of, the future. There is no desire without télos. Namely, intentionality requires and end. For C, good enough simply means getting more sleep consistently, whereas good enough for the likes of A merely signifies a particular point in the wider process of technical development that promises continuous betterment. It is A's hope that she will no longer have to input her data manually, instead, the data should automatically sync across different apps into a custom dashboard, analyzed by a personalized AI to produce specific insights and recommendations - an algorithmic version of C's data coach.
Personal informatics devices like Oura and Fitbit may be considered to be the harbinger of Hui's description of a materializing 'smart' order - an ongoing form of industrialization that envisions the creation and application of an algorithmic predictive capability to (1) connect and systematize different technical ensembles, (2) and eventually overcome and instrumentalize contingency. Thus far, we have understood the operational reality of knowing as recursive and contingent (feedback generated by uncertainties that shapes what we are). In this paradigm, the epoch-changing quality of the emerging smart order is the 'becoming organic' of machines - the ability of digital objects, assemblages, and systems to absorb the informational value of contingency.
The celebration of continued enhancement and anticipation of the eventual arrival of an organic technical order, are emblematic of my participants' technological vision. In this near future, personal informatics devices will be seamlessly integrated into the human body as biochips, connecting them to a wider 'smart' infrastructure which is coordinated by a network of AI's to deliver personalized insights and recommendations on which actionable steps could be based. The idea of an ubiquitous and all-encompassing network of signals and devices envisions a reality where food storage and cooking equipment will help monitor caloric intake, supplementation personalized, and data everywhere.
While their view is not necessarily representative of a 'self-tracking culture', it raises interesting questions about the idea of 'good enough'. True, it's not quite there yet, but it will keep getting better.
Summary and Conclusion
This chapter focuses on revealing the mechanisms and dynamics of the cognitive shift and process that my participants have undergone and employed, through a standardized set of metrics, to initiate and sustain a double recursive (world-human-tracker) exploration, learning, knowing, and living.
At the individual level, this thesis has hopefully shown that the practice of self-tracking is neither a purely empowering tool nor a submission to a dystopian technical order, but always a process of negotiation that initiates and unfolds at a particular point a life.
All in all, self-tracking remains a new phenomenon, and indeed a new practice as well as a new interpretive frame for my participants. The durability of the metricize gaze remains unknown, while my participants continue to evolve with their fitness trackers, as part of the wider process of 'smartification'. Yet, development has no finality but individual life is finite. Ultimately, the practice of self-tracking embodies the will of my participants, old or young, to lead a better life bound by an inevitable end.
Ticktock ticktock ticktock.