How fitness technologies turn the body into an investment property

“Well, if you are a high-priced man, you will do exactly as this man tells you to-morrow, from morning till night. When he tells you to pick up a pig and walk, you pick it up and you walk, and when he tells you to sit down and rest, you sit down. You do that right straight through the day. And what’s more, no back talk. Now a high-priced man does just what he’s told to do, and no back talk. Do you understand that?”

—Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (1911)

In 1911, when Frederick Winslow Taylor set out his “principles of scientific management,” he hoped to revolutionize the role managers play in organizing work for profit. Against workers’ autonomy and self-direction, Taylor reimagined work as a series of highly measurable tasks, the performance of which could be controlled not only through surveillance and metrics (watching how long workers take to perform discrete tasks) but by appealing to workers’ self-interest: “The task before us, then, narrowed itself down to getting Schmidt” — the “little Pennsylvania Dutchman” Taylor uses as an example of an ideal worker (in reality, a man named Henry Noll, who, according to this paper, was misrepresented) — “to handle 47 tons of pig iron per day and making him glad to do it.”

Management, Taylor argued, could achieve this by synchronizing workers’ skills with appropriate tasks. Taylor was deeply concerned with workers themselves seeing the management project as one of sensible progress, where each worker’s seemingly innate traits, such as physical strength, would be recognized and rewarded. Rather than using a set of traditional incentives (like pay and dismissal threats) to motivate workers, scientific management could ameliorate the struggle employers faced. Through a set of time-tests, Taylor’s system broke the labor process into “manageable” tasks that could be supervised. Such time-tests were meant not only to codify labor arrangements but to illustrate to workers that their own labor could be understood “efficiently” in a mutually beneficial arrangement with employers.

As labor in the West has shifted away from industrial manufacturing toward service, it might seem that Taylor’s principles and mechanical routines no longer apply. As the factory walls of the old capitalism have dissolved into the networks and virtual spaces of the “new economy,” the distinctions between work time, work space, and domestic space have blurred. Under what sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called the “new spirit of capitalism,” technological advances in logistics have made “lean,” “just-in-time” production possible, which demands of workers more flexibility and risk management. This demand was sold to workers as an offer of more freedom and more meaningful work, performed on their own terms, addressing what Boltanski and Chiapello described as the “artistic critique” of the old capitalism, which attacked its tendency to standardize goods and human beings alike. No more picking up pig-iron when the boss says so; workers could now devise their own pig-iron logistical solutions to flexibly meet employers’ targets.

Communication technology has extended the demand for worker flexibility, making its supposed joys even more dubious. Because of how we tend to be continually connected, it is less clear when we are working or when we can refuse to be productive. To illustrate how pervasive the condition has become, French workers recently fought for the “right to disconnect” and to avoid email outside traditional working hours.

In the realm of perpetual work, it would seem that sheer exhaustion would overwhelm the possibility of continual productivity

In the realm of perpetual work, it would seem that sheer exhaustion would overwhelm the possibility of continual productivity. Taylorist time-and-motion studies would seem beside the point if we are always working. But the spirit of measurement remains central to the project of reconciling workers to their work. Only now, workers are invited to seemingly measure themselves, and use the data for their own personal betterment. This calls for different form of measuring that can assess the worker’s body as valuable property.

As Boltanski and Chiapello document, the techniques of new capitalism make managers more like life coaches than bosses. They are friendly guides who encourage us to internalize the capitalist vision of productivity, profit, and accomplishment so that “everyone knows what they must do without having to be told.” Workers are encouraged to see themselves not necessarily as efficient machines moving the maximum amount of pig iron but as entrepreneurs who work diligently yet flexibly, absorbing the shocks and risks of an economy in transition for the benefit of their own human capital (and only incidentally the company’s bottom line).

“As bodies we are violently torn from the world’s embrace and belatedly return to it as property owners of ourselves,” Ed Cohen writes in A Body Worth Defending. Under this logic — one that sees bodies as “owned” by selves — care becomes entangled with a sense of duty to make the body endlessly productive, an investment capable of yielding returns. Each individual must be a manager of the self and an investor in the body as a capital stock.

This framework helps address the problem of meaningful work that haunted the old capitalism. Meaning is equated with maintaining the body’s productivity, as Taylor had hoped, fusing the elusive goal of self-esteem to measurable output. Only what it is measured is not work productivity directly but a more general potential capability for discipline and accomplishment, captured through the proxy of the body’s fitness.

Fitness is given a definite form through the use of tracking technologies and wearables. Major phone manufacturers now offer proprietary health-monitoring tools to make it “simpler than ever to move your health forward” and pursue this sense of fulfillment. The devices are knowing, providing insight, revealing knowledge, enabling understanding, an idea reinforced at the state and corporate level by wellness programs tied to the devices. Self-tracking is made an expression of well-being in and of itself. How we might feel and know our bodies is sterilized and systematized, packaged into clean presentations of data through the trackers’ interfaces: percentages, charts, graphs.

Data visualization reduces movement to a series of static moments, discrete actions performed to be measured and scored: step count, heart rate, speed, and so on are decontextualized and treated as numbers to be worked upon and improved. These grossly oversimplify the idea of value, what’s worth trading effort for, and what effort can accomplish.


Wearable technologies bring Taylorism and the spirit of new capitalism together, putting them both in direct contact with our bodies

Wearable technologies bring Taylorism together with the “spirit” of new capitalism, putting them both in direct contact with our bodies. They let us measure our progress while synchronizing and standardizing our selfwork with the demands of waged labor. By using fitness-tracking apps and wearables, the quantification and efficiency fetishes of Taylorism become the logic by which we understand our body’s movement.In individualizing the act of self-care as selfwork, apps push targets, notifications, and nudges onto the user throughout the day as prompts aimed to encourage more activity and, subsequently, more data.

Wearing a FitBit or another sensor means implicitly agreeing to an exchange: To know the workings of our bodies (and thereby develop our human capital and our self-esteem), we allow our movements to become labor as our bodies become data generators. We relinquish our rights to this data and our privacy in pursuit of this intimate, interior knowledge. In their marketing material, Nike+ Run Club and Fitbit suggest that this data has a mainly social value — the key to inspiring yourself and others “to push a little harder and go a little further.” However, the kind of data being collected — name, telephone number, heart rate, location, and body measurements such as weight, height, bra size and shoe size, to give some examples — have a level of intimacy and scale previously beyond the reach of marketing companies. The privacy policy of the new Nike Run Club app formalizes such collected personal data as a company asset that may be sold off at any time.

Care of the self thus gains a commodity value separate from any abstract utopian values of bolstering community health or garnering self-knowledge. Rather than counteract the corporate gaze, self-care is instead subsumed into it, at the level of data provision. This emboldens human resource departments to further conflate fitness with the work ethic. Employers and insurers offer workers incentives to wear fitness trackers and share the data with them, formalizing the annexation of self-care and allowing companies to manage human resources with increased granularity and reduced latency. HR departments have a direct window into what employees are doing.

Data production becomes an extension of the job description. This expansion mirrors the way workplaces have become distended and amorphous. Humanyze, a “People Analytics” company, already offers managers the opportunity to track the movements of their employees with “smart ID badges,” with the goal of improving workplace efficiency. But wearable fitness-tracking technologies can ambiently monitor the bodily information of its wearer and extend the dominion of Taylorist management everywhere. As FitBit testifies in their corporate wellness literature, “What’s fun for employees is simple for administrators.”

From the perspective of the new spirit of capitalism, using fitness trackers is a logical, cost-saving practice: If every body is to be a business and each individual an entrepreneur of the self, then each body-factory needs a managerial process to gather and analyze data in hopes of running the business better, maximizing efficiency, and minimizing risk. But by engaging with tracking devices and their associated services, the user interacts with a black-box ecosystem of data circulation that co-opts the act of self-care for corporate ends. We don’t get to negotiate the value of this labor once its alienated into the services’ databases, nor do we have a chance to understand how apps process it. In lieu of that, we are instead pushed ever inward as we are encouraged to demand more of ourselves. Since we aren’t afforded the disclosures that would let us to understand how the data is used, we can instead produce more of it in hopes of self-understanding. The tracking metrics direct questions about personal happiness, health, and fulfillment inward: Rather than challenge our unhappiness by questioning the cultural, economic, and environmental factors that govern our collective experiences, health-tracking practices suggest the source of imbalance must lie within us.

This serves to feed an already data-hungry regime, producing new maps the worker can be situated in and aggregated norms they can be measured against. To become visible through being counted is to implicitly submit oneself to competition. As David Beer puts it in Metric Power, metrics “afford differentiations to be created and inequalities to be cemented.” Metrics forge ways to see what otherwise cannot be seen — and what is made visible, among other pretenses for sustaining inequality, are supposedly objective measures through which we can map ourselves onto numerical standards of normativity and health. These standards are contested within the medical community, yet they still incentivize fitness-app users to engage in perpetual training toward the illusory state of “health” or “wellness” they are supposed to designate.

We could consider these devices of perpetual training in terms of theorist Lauren Berlant’s “technologies of patience,” which she defines as strategies that “enable a concept of the later to suspend questions about the cruelty of now.” Through their emphasis on training, fitness applications, wearables, and trackers cultivate the users’ ability to conceive of themselves in an exclusively future-oriented way, investing in the self along lines established by appmakers and their state and corporate sponsors, to placate the anxieties of the present.

But for what sort of deferred future are we training? “Training” carries with it not just the idea of physical conditioning but also mental conditioning: It evokes the command, the instruction, the drill. To be in training is to be held in a space of suspension, anticipation, aspiration. To be subject to training is to warp the very notion of progress; it’s a wormhole representing future prospects as present opportunities. It grounds the feeling that one is equipped, prepared, ready to take control of the future even as it instantiates control in the present.

Wearables posit bodily reserves not as exhaustible but as essentially infinite, easy to top up or restore through sheer force of will

Wearables sell the “cruel now” of perpetual training and constant maintenance with gamification-based incentive strategies. These posit bodily reserves not as exhaustible but as essentially infinite, easy to top up or restore through sheer force of will. Rather than make the ineffable qualities of bodily movement knowable or understandable in all their complexity, the interface design of health and fitness tracking apps rely on representation and abstraction. These interfaces ape the design aesthetics of the dashboard, using it as a visual shorthand for functionality, control, and performance. The dashboard is positioned as the site through which physical activity acquires significance and meaning; it becomes a prophetic space in which the “self” may discover truths about the mysterious “body.”

Through dashboard interfaces, fitness trackers reduce corporeal exercise into a logic of credit and debt: Gains, progress, achievements are the results of time spent, calories burnt, ground covered. These interfaces also further a technical, rational approach to the body, creating a false mind-body binary in which the body has no agency of its own.

It is vital to distinguish the “self” from the data we produce. As artist Katherine Behar suggests, the laboring body that produces data is “much bigger, more materially diverse and crowd-like” than we are conditioned to think by health and fitness tracking technologies, which cultivate forms of interiority that individualize us as subjects. They tether us to our data and, in the process, alienate us from our body by commodifying this labor for our consumption as engagingly displayed fitness metrics. As a result, our sense of self becomes estranged from society, reducing our relationship to it to a matter of competition and comparison of data points.

The managerial nudges and notifications of fitness apps seek to envelop us in that interiority rather than pursue any collective potential in our bodily labor. Is it possible to disrupt the seamlessness of this data gathering and upend the notion that such data production is in our best interests?

Rather than see data collection as something done for us, we must become aware of our data as a form of labor, and value it accordingly — in other words, we must understand our data as a form of collective potential or even political leverage. One way to begin this conversation and to start to unpick the complexities of self-work and the body in the era of big data is to look at artists, whose labor is frequently conflated with self-expression or self-fulfillment. As artist Marina Vishmidt has written in Reproducing Autonomy, art “appears to be formally (or principally) free of labor, but is utterly dependent upon it,” much like fitness-tracking apps purport to be. Both artistic labor and physical exercise are heralded as ways to know oneself, and both are often reduced to matters of quantifiable information production. They both hinge on incentives that seek to extract free work under the auspices of “investing in one’s own human capital.” Accordingly, both are affected by society’s intensifying entrepreneurial rhetoric and its erosions of the boundaries around work: incentives to self-quantify couched in “do what you love” rhetoric.

Because artists’ work is not always seen as work, they are accustomed to exposure to potentially exploitative labor conditions and practices. They often know by experience the implications of having their work abstracted and systematized into market data. So they may be well-placed to recognize similar practices in other areas and offer strategies for coping, resisting, or rejecting them.

To examine this conjunction (and to consider how apps as a cultural form might be more explicitly politicized), we developed Cursor, a combined fitness app and content platform. The intent is to make explicit how fitness apps transmute self-care into wage labor: The app tracks users’ behavior, granting them access to specially commissioned pieces of art (themselves taking up the themes of digital labor and data privacy) but only if users have been deemed “active enough” by the app’s ambiguous metrics. The dubious exchange of exercise for art is meant to show how neither form of labor is as easily quantified or valued as we are led to believe. How much physical effort is art “really” worth? A user might ask themselves this question as they receive a notification from the app: “Cursor is running. Are you?”

Cursor resists competition-fueled interiority by making its counting imperceptible and presenting no evidence of what sort of data it’s capturing. Instead, the absence of a visible, and therefore rational, protocol for counting emphasizes the potentially oblique nature of all tracking metrics. But in a direct inversion of fitness apps, it withholds rather than sustains the possibility of ersatz self-knowledge. In this sense, the app is as unreasonable by design as labor-extorting fitness apps are in practice.

Cursor was established by artists Kirsty Hendry, Jake Watts, and Dave Young. The app also contains contributions from Karen Gregory, Rumi Josephs, Simone C Niquille, and Anna Zett.