Fitness Tracking: a network of users

The 1930’s philosopher, Lewis Mumford, once stated that technology is both liberating and oppressive. When fitness trackers first hit the market in 2009, their surrounding ideology focused on the devise as an aid to personal health in which the user is freed from cumbersome tasks of self-monitoring. Fitness tracking devices such as the Jawbone, Fitbit and the Apple Watch soon took on a similar role to that of the door closer (as discussed in class), as the Fitbit slowly lost its technological visibility.

Do Artifacts have Politics,’ by Langdon Winner discusses the ways in which technology is created free from political intention, but when put into social context inherent political intention, which becomes evident in the evolution of the Fitbit. Upon first release, users began to report their relationship with the device as a natural part of their body, often going unnoticed daily. A recent study by CNN revealed that 200 women who wear a Fitbit daily, have embraced the device as part of themselves. For most, the fitness tracker became a naturalized, and its politics ‘black-boxed’, as its function and deeper consequences easily escape our consciousness.

It hasn’t been until recently, that the Fitbit has been scrutinized for its function and values in relation to regulating the human body and its associated behaviours. Winner’s discussion of social determinism is important in understanding the (bio)-political implications of fitness tracking technologies, as what matters is not the technology itself, but the social and/or economic system in which it is embedded. As there currently exists concern over the physical health of North American citizen (Obesity epidemic), devices such as the Fitbit can be viewed as a political device,in the ways in which its values and functions align with the governmental push for a regulation of physical health practices through techniques of self-governance. This is where both users and scholars began to see dark-side of the technology, as fitness trackers were not only reminders of current bio-political interests, they also functioned as a resource within the current surveillance society.

Similar to Alannah’s article on the “#Delete Uber” movement, technological devices and their associated affordances are part of a network that both liberate and limiting a users capabilities. As Jodi Dean reminds us, once involved in the network, it is a hard to divorce yourself from it completely. In the case of the Fitbit, users had dystopian reactions when they tried to exit the network.

“When we asked the women how they felt without their Fitbit, many reported feeling “naked” (45%) and that the activities they completed were wasted (43%). Some even felt less motivated to exercise (22%).”

Looking at the Fitbit as a form of infrastructure that guides and controls the flow of bodies and ideas of a healthy citizen, it becomes easier to qualify the political consequences of the device.  Many users reported feeling under pressure to reach their daily targets and that their daily routines were controlled by Fitbit. “Add to this that almost 30% felt that Fitbit was an enemy and made them feel guilty, and suddenly this technology doesn’t seem so perfect.” Sure we can chose to stop using our Fitbit, but if the health and athletic industries are built around visible bio-data, is there really a way to escape this network? If we aren’t using the Fitbit to measure our health and activity data, there is likely already another technology working in its place, potentially operating under the level of visibility.





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