A Body in Tracked Motion – Life Tracking vs./for Better Technique

Moving comes naturally to us; running might even have made us, as a species. It does us good, physically and psychologically. Our “modern” lifestyles, though, oftentimes make us look as if we could just as well be rooted to a spot – and the consequences for health are grave.

In coming to be at home in our bodies and in this world of ours, better than we often have been, motion thus has a pivotal role to play.

It’s especially interesting as we have been making this natural action one that is also technological.

Increasingly, we track our levels of physical activity, let devices count the number of steps we take per day, measure and record our weight and body composition and its development over time.

All the tracking that is increasingly added on to daily life and its motions is enthusiastically welcomed by some; it holds great promise – and it also seems, the way it has been described as eventually coming, to move towards a dangerous world of ubiquitous data mined for corporate advantage, in which everyone’s forced to be active enough and eat in certain ways (or suffer the consequences even when it comes to employment and insurance) rather than nudged to better.

The problem, as with so many of the internet-related promises, lies with what Evgeny Morozov has termed “solutionism.” That is, the tech world has become so enamored of apps as the hammers with which to drive in any and all nails that stick up, and with technological crutches as solutions to all life’s problems, that noticing potential negative side-effects is seen as akin to heresy. This very approach to solving particular problems, however, all too often fails to go  to the root of those same problems, and ends up in effect strengthening/deepening them all the more.

Some data use in physical activity has been around for ages. Competitions check who is the fastest or otherwise best, after all. Checking one’s pulse to judge intensity of an exercise not only by feeling is not exactly unusual, either.

Both interest in data and availability of tools for collecting and analyzing it have, however, risen to all new levels.

It is only quite recently that the quantified self movement made it into the news. Talk of people who live their life more experimentally has been around for a while (and if you count hippies and their alternative lifestyles, even longer), but it used to be about the way they lived when it comes to the mind, not so much the way they lived bodily (drug use and sex notwithstanding, but that’s a different story).

As a runner, I have been using some forms of self-tracking of physical data for a long time. My Suunto Advizor started showing me heart rate; the X6HR made it possible to also log the workout data; and with the t6, the analysis reached a level where variations in heart rate were used to calculate how much of a load the training session put on my body (as well as other parameters). Speed and distance measurements, and partly the recording of tracks (by GPS), came along as well.

By now, the talk is of a future with ubiquitous computing, or more specifically with health-tracking technologies becoming seamlessly integrated into our daily lives (if not our very bodies), informing us of our levels of activity, the development of our weight and body composition, heart rate-related indicators of fitness or irregularities to note, and perhaps even the effects of our diets on our blood sugar levels.

Withings Body Scale Dashboard
All stable now, for better or worse…

And the technology is fascinating and useful.

Consider what Scott Jurek had to say about running, instinct, and technology, though:

“… I continued to run  with abandon, but I measured the results. The more I measured and adjusted, the more I trusted my instincts. Running as we were born to run is great, and I believe in it. But we live in the twenty-first century, and we have tools our ancestors never did. I wouldn’t ignore those tools any more than I would ignore my impulse to get outside on a sunny morning and just run for the sheer joy of it. What I learned during those years… was that I could run – and eat – with wild, primitive abandon, the way our ancestors had, and that by checking the results of my natural impulses, I could hone those impulses even more. By combining instinct and technique, I searched for that small zone where I could push myself as hard as possible without injury and the unraveling of the body’s systems.” (“Eat & Run,” 113)

And that’s just the thing.

There is also a “small zone” beyond which we get to “solutionist” ubiquitous technology added everywhere and expected to do everything.

At that point, however, the technology has become a crutch we depend on, that replaces skill – and that, since some people will not want to be pushed around by outside input like that, might well be pushed onto all by those with only the best of intentions, taking away human freedom.

Even if the technology and the tracking is appreciated and welcomed, it needs to be a tool used adequately, added to ways of living that are already good and getting better, and now do so with that technology. Otherwise, it’s not the user of the technology who is living well, and better, in both the motion, pleasure, and skill involved with that and the skillful use of appropriate technology.

Rather, it’s only the peddlers of the same tech who are doing well… which is, actually, what we have been seeing with so much of the consumerist promise, when “the retail conversation has dwarfed the education conversation,” as Christopher McDougall pointed out about the “running shoe revolution”: Buy this action camera, and you’ll have fun everyone will envy you for; buy those shoes and you’ll run farther and faster – no matter your technique.

This is just what we tend to forget, fascinated with the potential of technologies as we are: In between pure natural abandon that just does without much learning, and tracked, technologized over-analysis that doesn’t see the doing for the data, there is a sweet spot in which the simple, natural, instinctual/habitual can be combined with technology in order to extend awareness and analysis of technique so as to track, record, *and improve* it.

Too much reliance on technology might track and might seem to give great insight, but it ultimately weakens and infantilizes, giving away power as it does. No technology is nice sometimes, but forfeits chances for analyzing and getting better that are positively and uniquely human.

In between, with just enough data and technology to improve natural skill and technique, that’s where we make ourselves at home and get to better. So: Track enough. Not as an end in itself. To improve skill.

Feel free to contribute