Blog Post

What We Count When We Count Steps: Quantification as Subjectivation

What We Count When We Count Steps: Quantification as Subjectivation

Fitbit and Jawbone: Tech Disappears Behind Style


Image posted to Fitbit Blog on February 25, 2015. No Fitbits in sight.

In my last post, I wrote about how fitness trackers trade on a logic on invisibility to market their products: Images of Fitbit users, but without the actual Fitbit; Jawbone UP marketed via collaboration with fashion, parenting, DIY projects, and healthy living blogs. These images market a lifestyle, and thus directly market to our desires about how to live our life. The actual technology is backgrounded, or absent entirely. 


Like vintage clothes? Wear a Jawbone UP. 

Like to eat healthy? Track your calories with FitBit. 

Like DIY crafts projects? Track your steps and sleep patterns.


What strikes me about fitness tracker advertisements and marketing is how absent the technology is. We hear nothing about what the device does—we are led to assume that it works silently and perfectly. There is no interaction: it just sits on your wrist and works. In some images on the Fitbit blog, they don’t even show the device at all.


What these images leads to is an understanding of quantification that it is neutral—politically, ethically, materially. By backgrounding and even overtly omitting the device itself we are left with images of a quantification so clean and perfect that its almost like its not there at all.


Quantification is a Process of Subjectivation


One of the dominant ideologies found in discourses on self-tracking and “Quantified-Self” is that data can reveal hidden aspects of the self. “Self-Knowledge Through Numbers,” the slogan goes.


However, I want to view the process of becoming a self as a process that creates interiority through internalizing social norms. The psychic unity of an individual is an ongoing process, not a pre-existing state. We are produced by and through cultural practices that control, train and teach us what is normal.


The idea that quantification reveals “depths” of interiority is only true on a cursory, initial reading. While it may be true that my fitness tracker can accurately count the number of steps I walked during a day—there is nothing inevitable or universally natural about counting those steps and turning them into data that flows into corporate algorithmic processes. 


I am very dubious of the claims of self-tracking enthusiasts that data collection can reveal hidden aspects of the self. They are simply looking in the wrong place. Instead of investigating the body with digital tools, we should be investigating what kinds of subjectivities and worlds and cultures we are bringing into existence through our obsession with data collection. 


The truth is that quantification is messy and obtrusive. It inserts a mediation process—turning walking into “steps,” and producing data and information that was not there before. By focusing on lifestyle, not technology, these advertisements naturalize and normalize the process of tracking one’s behavior. 


Self-tracking Does Not Investigate the Self


There is some evidence that many fitness-tracker users stop using their device after about six months. Fitness-tracker abandonment, I have to believe, is one of the biggest problems facing the industry right now. Why should I purchase the newest fitness-tracker when the one in my desk drawer is collecting dust?

Which brings me back to my original point. In order to gain more marketshare and spread the use of fitness-trackers worldwide, Fitbit and other companies have figured out that they need to make self-tracking seem desirable, obvious and inevitable. They do this by essentially removing the technology from the discourse. Their advertisements focus on what kind of life you can live, not on what kinds of data you can collect. 


By displaying images of background quantification, we see how fitness-tracking seamlessly integrate with an active lifestyle. As long as we are bombarded with the ideological rhetoric of invisibility, it is difficult to critique these devices. We need to start seeing quantification and self-tracking as cultural processes that create subjectivities, and NOT as tools that neutrally investigate our self and our body.



In my next post, I will delve into the hidden assumptions about "information" embedded into the paradigm of self-tracking as an investigation of the self. It is much easier to see quantification as a value-free process when "information" is constructed as medium-free. 




No comments