Activity trackers train users to love lives that are all work
The anthropologist Marcel Mauss once said that the difference between magic and religion is that people actually believe in magic. But wearing a FitBit, it is easy to imagine what it feels like to believe in God. Clipped on my bra strap or tucked into a pocket, my FitBit watches over me. It converts even the most pointless errand into a pilgrimage. The final destination is more steps.
FitBit recommends walking at least 10,000 steps a day. I aim for 15,000, because what kind of person does only the minimum? Me neither, especially when others are watching. And the other that is my FitBit always is.
In the Middle Ages, theologians debated about what bodies would be like in the Resurrection. If you had lost a limb, would it grow back? Would people copulate? Would they poop? Imagine a heaven, St. Thomas Aquinas exclaimed, that full of shit!
He was being sarcastic, because he thought our immortal souls would not poop. But the question was dead serious. It meant: How should a person be? Which human activities are essential and which superfluous? What are the eternally significant data about ourselves?
The Catholic Church says the essential data point is the age 33. We will be resurrected as we were, or would have been, at 33 because that’s how old Jesus was. Activity trackers say that our true selves lie in a broader range of biodata.
This does not mean that they hold out more, or more flexible, ways to salvation. Only different ones. Fans of FitBit believe that we are essentially productive. The good life divides cleanly. We should strive to leave no remainder untracked.
The FitBit comes in two forms: little metal nubs and slender bracelets, available in a variety of colors. The device tracks your movements using an accelerometer and sensors that pick up changes in your speed and altitude. It cross-references this data with what you tell the website about your gender, height, weight, and age to calculate how many steps, stairs, and calories you have walked, climbed, and burned. These stats are uploaded to FitBit.com, where you can enter other facts relevant to your fitness—like how much and what kind of food you eat or sex you have. In return, the site sends you weekly updates and encouraging badges.
I remember the first “Skydiver Badge” I got for climbing over one hundred flights of stairs in one day, and the thrill of receiving a “Serengeti Badge.” The email contained a cartoon of a giraffe. “You may not have seen wildebeests, giraffes, or zebras on this trek,” it read, “but you have walked 500 miles—the same distance as the Serengeti, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.” Then it asked if I wanted to share or tweet my accomplishment.
Predictably, activity trackers have raised privacy concerns. In 2011, many FitBit users discovered that the profiles that they had created on the FitBit website turned up in Google searches—exposing a ton of private information, including sexual activity they had logged (“15 min passive, light effort”; “3 min active and vigorous”). Since then, the company has taken steps to prove it cares.
In December 2014, FitBit released a pledge stating that it “is deeply committed to protecting the security of your data.” Still, we may soon be obliged to turn over the sort of information the device is designed to collect in order to obtain medical coverage or life insurance. Some companies currently offer incentives like discounted premiums to members who volunteer information from their activity trackers. Many health and fitness industry experts say it is only a matter of time before all insurance providers start requiring this information.
Activity trackers like FitBit evolved out of spreadsheet computer logs that the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports started keeping in the 1990s, to create better records of the fitness of American citizens, and establish national averages against which they could compare themselves. As a fat middle-school student, I huffed and puffed through the Presidential Fitness Challenge in sheer terror of that spreadsheet.
By the turn of the millennium, however, it had become possible to automatically monitor such activities and to integrate monitors into wearable personal equipment. And so, today, we must confess that we are too fat and too slow not to our gym teachers but to ourselves.
Every means of confession creates a kind of person who confesses. You become who you are by saying what you did. The details make a difference. That pronoun, “I,” feels one way when you say it as part of a formula, in the dusk of a confessional, to a priest you cannot see behind the metal grille he blesses you through. Rambling in the well-lit office of a psychiatrist, “I” feels very different.
I remember prepping for my first confession when I was twelve years old. For weeks beforehand I dutifully took inventories of my thoughts and deeds. That time I cheated by checking the answers on my take home math test. All those times I masturbated. Did it count that I was pretty sure that I did not believe in any of this? That of all the religions I had read about, Jainism was my favorite?
Our church was liberal, almost to the point of heresy, and when I showed up to receive the sacrament, it turned out they were staging it more like a friendly chat. We were called, one by one, to go into the empty church and sit opposite a priest in folding chairs. There was no way I was about to talk about masturbating to his face, so I took the time-honored cop out: “I have disrespected my mother and father.” It was only later that I realized that taking the inventory of everything I did not confess had been the point.
My first therapist, too, said that the goal of our hours talking through my fretfulness was clarity. To call things by their names. On the edge of a breakthrough she would push me. Say it: You were _____. Your mother ______.
I soon recognized that forcing the right response out of my body was part of the naming process. Are you angry? You don’t sound angry. You keep telling me you’re angry, but I don’t see “angry,” and on she’d go until I cut her off: “I fucking said I’m angry!” The fact that I knew what she was up to did not still the shaking in my voice and hands.
Like confession and therapy, activity trackers promise to improve us by confronting us with who we are when we are not paying attention. The difference is that they produce clarity constantly, in real time. And they tell us exactly what to do. Every hour or so the “Chatter” feature on my 2014 Ultra sends a new instruction crawling across its screen. Walk me, it pleads when I sit for too long at my desk. Burn it, gorgeous! it cheers me on the treadmill. It makes it possible to see every problem as one we can tackle through activity. FitBit says: If you want to deserve love, do something. “Something” means become more and more fit.
A FitBit has little tolerance for magical thinking. It says: Eating the 0% yogurt rather than 2% yogurt for lunch after sitting at your desk all morning will not make up for your past three days skipping the gym, any more than finding out why that thing Dad said still hurts you will save your new relationship.
FitBit tells us back a story of our lives that has become highly abstract. The difference between the springtime run that you take with two friends and the half hour of jumping jacks that you do in the bathroom after not managing to throw up all of a chicken burger will not register. In this life, steps are steps.
Every form of confession comes with settings that determine what kind of self we get to know, and therefore, be. It also implies a particular vision of society. A kingdom of souls under God. A nation of citizens just repressed enough to get married and carry on reproducing citizens.
In the Republic of FitBit we are fundamentally alone.
“In the future, all products will be made for a market of one,” the Economist wrote in 2009. In New York and San Francisco, the two cities where I spend the most time, the fulfillment of this prophecy seems well under way. It is not unusual to see three or four boutique fitness studios within a city block. As a device designed to cajole and harass you personally, FitBit capitalizes on this trend of winnowing fitness markets down into narrower and narrower niches. It takes the just-for-you ethos of a place like Crossfit and scales it.
Isolation is literally a technical requirement of the FitBit. From the point of view of the tracker, all activity is inherently solitary and accrues to you alone. The device produces a complete archive of our lives by abstracting them from any and every context. This includes geospatial coordinates. The accelerometer measures only changes in speed relative to the stable external frame provided by your body. Taking an escalator will not increase your daily stair count. Taking a plane from New York to New Zealand, you travel no farther than the length of the aisle you walk to the bathroom. We travel best on treadmills rather than from armchairs.
In the process, FitBit affects not only to how we experience our bodies but how we experience space. FitBit’s television ads start with a shot of a man setting out for a jog before dawn, headlamp on, and then goes into a rapid fire montage of dozens of other people doing dozens of other workouts. A male voice sings an upbeat song at a sprint, à la the verses of REM’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Early fit, late fit, rise fit, ball fit, wall fit, ping fit, pong fit, ping fit, pong fit, row fit, slow fit, ollie fit, oops fit, otis fit, this fit, that fit… It finishes with the tagline: “FIND YOUR FIT.”
The song ostensibly celebrates the infinite diversity of consumer choice that technological innovation and digital networking are making possible. Find your fit. It could be anywhere. There is no place that does not offer an opportunity to improve yourself. It’s not fitness, it’s life, say the ads for the gym chain Equinox. The FitBit whispers: It’s not the world, it’s your private gym.
FitBit often stresses the connective element of its technology. It offers several means to link FitBits so that you can compare your daily activity with that of friends and loved ones. Fans of the device constantly emphasize this aspect. I know more than one couple for whom talking about their “steps” has taken the place of talking about their dog or a TV series: a constant source of shared interest.
The society that FitBit builds is not only a network of isolated selves. It is one which the only possible way to relate to others is through competition.
A friend from New York tells me he is worried about his mother. She has linked FitBits with his brother, a young professor who moved to Arizona for a tenure track job. Sometimes his mother wakes up before midnight and sees that her son has snuck in an unexpected mile or two thanks to the time change; she starts pacing frantically around their small apartment. In the morning she comes into the kitchen, rubbing her arthritic knees, but beaming. Not only does her device keep her feeling close to the body of her oldest son. She also won.
By turning every time and place into an opportunity to work out, the FitBit teaches that it would take real slothfulness ever to do otherwise. It shows us that sex and even sleep can be forms of productivity if they are only tracked properly. And so, just as a currency trader must always keep his mind’s eye on the market, which is always open somewhere, our bodies must learn to remain active 24/7.
The vision is total. For the dedicated user, to leave the house without putting on her FitBit is to feel as if the day never happened. When I mislaid mine, I was inconsolable until a friend, another addict, pointed out that, without even meaning to, we had basically memorized how many steps it took to get to and from most of the places we regularly went. Later I found it in the pocket of a bathrobe.
A friend had been missing her FitBit for days when a mysterious email appeared in her inbox. Congrats on earning your 250 lifetime miles badge! Or maybe it was a Ferris Wheel badge; I forget. She had forgotten her FitBit in the pocket of a pair of jeans; it had gone through the laundry, and was now tumbling around the dryer. Indestructible, it continued to register each turn of the drum as a step.
I do not know this friend well. I know this story because she posted it on Facebook. She is someone I have met a few times and long admired from afar for her intellectual achievements. It consoled me, even as it made me laugh, to think that even she spends time thinking about her FitBit.
Activity trackers emerged in tandem with social media platforms that have redrawn the lines between public and private, creating new protocols for confession. Over the past few years, on social media it has become acceptable to talk about how we obsess about our figures, as long as we call our obsession health. You are allowed to tag yourself at Soul Cycle or to Instagram your green juice, in a way that you are not allowed to broadcast, say, taking laxatives or preparing elaborate meals that you then throw away to prove you can.
Between the lines of self-deprecation and humble-bragging, we can sometimes read a brag-for-help.
Every phase of capitalism produces its own ideal body, partly by comparison with ideal bodies of times past. In the 1990s, the earliest years I remember, the ideal was borderline anorexic—the Calvin Klein billboards, and the twiggy limbs of all those teenagers tangled together over the bright lights of Time Square. The go-to contrast was the curvy magazine pinup of the Eisenhower era. “Marilyn Monroe wore a size 12!” the grownups wagged their fingers at us.
Today, the ideal woman is exorexic.
In Ancient Greek, orexis means “desire” or “appetite.” The prefix an means “not.” A true anorexic wants nothing. Ex is Latin, for “out of”; arcere means “restrain.” “Exercise” meant to break out of what is holding you, and to push the limit. The exorexic craves a challenge. Specifically, she aims to work her way out of desiring itself.
A century of advertising taught consumers to think that buying leisure products was a way to access erotic experience. Not only was consuming particular things—say, clothing or cosmetics—supposed to make you sexually attractive. Consuming itself was supposed to be sexy. Sex could attach itself to, and be used to sell, anything—from a car to a hair care product to bottled water. Work was a means to acquire goods whose desirability allowed those who owned them feel desirable by extension.
Today, the exorexic eroticizes work itself. The army of women in Lululemons and Nike Frees who bound purposefully along the sidewalks of more and more American cities proclaim no specific taste, but rather an insatiable appetite for effort. They wear the uniform of an upper middle class for whom the difference between leisure and work is supposed to have disappeared.
Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. When the guidance counselors say this, they suggest that if you work, you will be loved—or at least deserve love. Make yourself lovable first, they say, and sure as day you can trade that strange coin, ability, in for happiness later. They do not tell you the principle that follows. Love work above all and you will never rest.
For women, tracking the cycles of our bodies is nothing new. I remember the thrill of starving and running away my period when I was sixteen. Checking the crotch of my panties at “that time” of the month and finding no trace. Catch me if you can! Like being female was a scar I had finally healed. Need was a weakness I could outrun. I was not going to be it.
Nothing of ours—nothing female—has ever been private. Hence, the way men feel entitled to tell us to smile on the street. If a man says, Hey, beautiful, smile, the fact that you are beautiful is not a source of power but one more reason that you owe it to strangers to make them believe that you are happy. With the FitBit you wear your compulsion to work like an amulet, and swear it is play, and that it is good fun. Our data exists to reproduce the world.
Older kinds of confession promised to teach us how to love. The you that Catholic confession made me into may have looked constantly over her shoulder. But after we recognized our failings, and the priests absolved us, we could receive God’s love, unmarred, for a few sinless minutes; it was this we were supposed to try to imitate and live up to in human relationships. My therapist wanted to make me see the roles I played, as roles, so I could choose or choose to stop them. So I might glimpse what I wanted, not just what I thought I should.
What kind of love does the FitBit prepare us to feel? Is it self-love? Or is even the self of the exorexic a kind of body armor? FitBit users remain, above all, productive, in our data and our visibility. We do not succumb to that wan, sick decadence, the aggressively infertile unproductivity of the true anorexic. This is female labor becoming frictionless. The point of the game is to just not disappear.
As women have had so much longer to learn to love the exploitation of our bodies and are generally better at it, the final joke may be on men. Knock-knock. A girl walks into a Juice Bar. Just try to approach her. She is still in her gym clothes. Her triceps are perfect.