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In a recent advert for the American wearable technology company Whoop, lithe and glistening athletes move against a dark background lit by spotlights that accentuate their musculature. “You know a lot, about a lot,” begins a spoken word-style voiceover. “You know 26.2 in two was impossible… until it wasn’t.” It continues in this vein until the reveal at the end: “You know the inside of everything, except you,” says the voice, before the words “Know yourself, unlock yourself” appear. Circular symbols representing the three principal metrics Whoop measures—“sleep,” “strain,” and “recovery”—blink on the screen before the advert fades away.  

The offer of privileged insights into the energetic capacities of individuals has long been a feature of wearable technologies designed for exercise. What has changed is that such devices are now designed to be always-on, collecting data endlessly and without friction. The Whoop band resembles a faceless watch with a fabric strap, and features a detachable charger, so that it never has to leave your wrist. They aim to give a holistic assessment of the body that goes beyond exercise. Whoop, and other wearable technologies like it, measures a metric called heart rate variability (HRV) and uses this as a proxy for stress. 

A daily “strain” score, on a scale of one to twenty-one, is designed to capture the “strain” not only of exercise, but of giving a presentation or taking your kids to the park. Yet the device is not accurate at detecting particular activities—I dig a pond one afternoon and receive a notification congratulating me on 90 minutes of mountain biking. The device blurs the lines between work and play, collapsing everything into the same metric. I find myself checking my “recovery” score (measured as a percentage the body begins to resemble a battery) first thing in the morning. I try to compare the number with how my energy levels feel.  

I return again and again to the same question: Is this providing privileged insight into the workings of my autonomic nervous system? Or is it, in fact, blunting my ability to monitor my own energy levels, to feel how I actually feel? 


Michael Crawley

Michael Crawley is a social anthropologist and assistant professor at Durham University, United Kingdom. He is currently working on endurance, self-tracking, and performance enhancement. His first book, Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia (2020), won the 2022 SfAA/AAA Margaret Mead Award.

Cite as

Crawley, Michael. 2023. “Self-Tracking Device .” Anthropology News website, November 21, 2023.