False Steps

Biohacking and Fitbits promise better health, but deliver a very Victorian mindset.

Ten thousand steps, 20 flights of stairs, 8 glasses of water. The numbers have a pleasing cadence, a reassuring tangibility. Numerical data can make you healthy, say the makers of fitness trackers, many of which reward our exertions with animated confetti or a green star on the screen. From tracking devices and apps to pen-and-paper bullet journals, we are bombarded with ways to measure whether we are doing enough—walking enough, moving enough, drinking enough—to stay healthy and avoid disease. With fetishistic zeal, tracking devotees quantify their progress, calculating their accomplishments down to the hundredth of a mile and tenth of a pound. The tracking becomes an end in itself—was I good? Did I do enough?—while the critical question remains unasked: Do I feel good? A quantified self is a monitored self; a quantified self is a controlled self. And while the technological tools and trappings of our measuring activities may be new, the quantified self is also a quintessentially nineteenth-century, Victorian kind of self.

Our trackers, ourselves

The father of the quantified self movement may well have been Benjamin Franklin, who in his autobiography outlined the 13 virtues he identified as a young man and his system for tracking his deviations from these self-improving ideals. Franklin’s scheme continues to find adherents today, with popular lifestyle blogs such as The Art of Manliness producing a journal titled Ben Franklin’s Virtues. Bullet journals, envisioned by their creator Ryder Carroll as a personalized task log, have expanded in the hands of aficionados to become artistic and deeply personal records of appointments, goals, and accomplishments. Customized virtue/habit trackers are a popular addition to the basic bullet journal format, in which users create and assiduously log their adherence to desired behaviors.

The contemporary quantified self goes beyond this, though. Formalized in 2007 by two editors at Wired magazine, the quantified self movement—lifelogging or biohacking—brings together people who believe that our lives are data, and these data can be used to enhance our bodies and our experiences. “We are (complex) robots. Robots can be tuned and improved,” writes one devotee on the website Hackernoon (Faguet 2017). Self-quantification techniques range from the now-prosaic habit trackers and Fitbits, to the bizarre. One practitioner tied the fate of a plant he named Eddie to his own personal growth, placing Eddie in a box with a light linked to a productivity tracking app so that the plant would thrive or fail based on his ability to stay on task. Whether low- or high-tech, these approaches to quantifying and taking responsibility for one’s self are what Michel Foucault termed “technologies of the self: modes of reasoning through which individuals alter their bodies, thoughts, and actions to achieve “happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality” (Rabinow 1998).Through technologies of the self, power/knowledge becomes personal domination: control of the self through self-knowledge.

Healthy minds in healthy bodies

The road from Franklin’s 13 virtues to present day fitness trackers and biohacking lies through the Victorians. During the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century, British and US social structures (as well as those of Western Europe more broadly),were marked by the cultural and political ascendency of the middle classes. Membership of the bourgeoisie, first determined by one’s practicing a profession, now expanded to include widely accepted, socially appropriate behavior. To be Victorian and middle class was to distinguish oneself from the perceived moral and physical shortcomings of the working and upper classes; a distinction that encompassed work with the mind (rather than the hands), philanthropic efforts to “improve” working people, opposition to the self-interest of the aristocracy, and the display of self-control.

The Victorians distinguished exercise that felt good from the disciplined physical practice necessary to optimize health.
Western medicine also underwent a transformation during this time. As they transitioned medical practice from an externalized, symptom-based diagnostic process to diagnosis based upon physiological signs of disease, Western European physicians carved for themselves a niche of private knowledge and constructed themselves as professional arbiters of healthy behavior. These middle-class men transliterated the hegemonic importance of careful self-control into biomedical concepts of disease—and vice versa. Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was a frequent refrain. “[U]ncleanliness of the mind and body act and react,” Edinburgh-trained physician J. Milner Fothergill warned in his 1874 lay health guide The Maintenance of Health, “and perfect health of one is incompatible with an unhealthy state of the other.” He predicted multigenerational effects: the health of working-class children would not improve so long as their parents indulged in improvidence, political agitation, and sensational literature. In his 1881 publication, Plain Facts for Old and Young, medical doctor and noted breakfast cereal enthusiast John Harvey Kellogg prescribed walking four to five miles per day to ward off unchaste thoughts and promote general health.

Borrowing from Darwinian theory, the later Victorians grew concerned with the working classes’ apparent biological decline. In popular middle-class fears of the time, the perceived physical inferiority of the working classes—“stunted, misshapen and often loathsome objects” to the reformer Andrew Mearns (1883), “stunted forms, ugly faces, and blunt and stolid minds” to Jack London(1904)—intertwined with their assumed immorality to risk swamping the middle classes with their degenerate mass. Incorporating the Lamarckian concept of inheritance of acquired characteristics, however, the Victorians believed that physical improvement of the middle classes could counter this threat to bourgeois supremacy.

It is from them we receive the concept of health as an active, visible, deliberate, and inherently virtuous pursuit.
Enter rational exercise and self-control. Physical exertion was widely recommended for Victorian men and women (somewhat) alike—Kellogg’s advocacy is only one of many examples. For the middle classes, and particularly for women, however, one’s exercise should be carefully controlled to avoid over-fatigue or the suboptimal development of particular muscle groups. Popular publications such as Godey’s Magazine exhorted “habitual physical exercise” for women, while specifying that it be “judicious” and include “exercise in a gymnasium, under competent instructors” (Tournier 1893). Physical education pioneer Dio Lewis (1862) similarly warned against simply letting children play, insisting that “a disjointed product” would result without the structure of his methodical system of gymnastic exercises.

With respect to men’s exercise, Victorian fitness advocates were careful to distinguish between working-class and middle-class athleticism. Working-class athletes were professionals and specialists, such as boxers, the exercise of their skills closely linked to gambling. Organized amateurism was considered a more suitable kind of sporting endeavor for middle-class men, combining as it did regularity of schedule, exercise for leisure rather than remuneration, balance between physical exertion and mental pursuits, and a Greco-Roman inspired aesthetic of well-rounded, moderate musculature in contrast to the specialized physiques of professional single-sport athletes (Day and Oldfield 2015).

For middle-class Victorian men, women, and children, the ideal was a healthy mind in a healthy body—the actions of both mind and body guided by medical science, moderation, and self-control.

The medical gaze in your pocket

This Victorian approach to health, in which virtue and healthiness intertwine, is the legacy we carry with our Fitbits today. The pursuit of virtue is inseparable from the pursuit of wellness (Conrad 1994, Crawford 2006). The healthy self is a well-regulated self. Yet the wearable technology of fitness trackers and pen-and-ink self-monitoring, with their promise to “hack” our biology toward better health and to return power to the consumer through self-knowledge, is only an extension of the medical gaze. Rather than consult ourselves—do I feel good?—we turn to the authority of our data and our devices. We have not reclaimed our knowledge of ourselves or subverted the medical gaze, but internalized it. Like the Victorian children turned from active play to gymnastic exercises, we submit our sense of our own bodies to our Fitbits’ digital advice. We rely on the numbers to know ourselves.

Doctor and fitness advocate John Harvey Kellogg. Library of Congress

But what harm can it do? Indeed, there is little evidence that we should not be moderately active; ten thousand steps and 8 glasses of water a day seem sensible enough goals. But do we feel any better than if we simply walked more, or drank when we felt thirsty? The Victorians distinguished exercise that felt good from the disciplined physical practice necessary to optimize health, just as we deliberately engage in exercise—donning technical garments, tracking our progress—and discount behaviors that do not require special effort. Healthy behaviors are self-care—mens sana in corpore sano—the centerpiece of contemporary do-it-yourself mental health. Yet there may be a price to pay for our supposedly beneficial exertions. David Sedaris (2014) has satirized the cycle of guilt and never-ending, all-consuming self-improvement—goals that ratchet upward each time they are met—brought on by his Fitbit habit. Sara Watson (2014), tells how self-tracking during her research on the quantified self movement became a record of the overuse that led to a joint injury. As Foucault points out, self-knowledge has subsumed self-care. To know oneself is to control oneself, but not necessarily to care for oneself. The Victorians would have found Sedaris and Watson gauche in their overindulgence. Yet it is from them we receive the concept of health as an active, visible, deliberate, and inherently virtuous pursuit. We have the Victorians to thank for our self-knowledge that is not self-care.

The self-knowledge of data—steps, miles, glasses of water—is distinct from the self-knowledge of health. Like the narrator in Franz Kafka’s “Give It Up!” we have lost our way; we defer to the authority of our devices and doubt ourselves. “From me you want to know the way?” asks a policeman in the parable. “Yes,” the narrator confirms, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” replies the policeman, turning away with a laugh. Our Fitbits cannot show us the way to health; they can only reflect our own data, decontextualized, back to us. Give it up, give it up. We must consult ourselves to find the way.

Amy W. Farnbach Pearson averages between 8,000 and 9,000 steps per day. She earned her PhD in anthropology from Arizona State University. A historical anthropologist specializing in the social construction of medical knowledge and practice, Farnbach Pearson examines sociocultural influences on Western medical concepts of health and disease, doctor-patient interactions, and quality of care, particularly in Victorian Scotland.

Cite as: Farnbach Pearson, Amy W. 2018. “False Steps.” Anthropology News website, January 24, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.749

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