Experiencing Beyond Response

Why we should demand more from wearable technology

Technology, generally, is dis-embodying. Much of the technology we use in our daily lives captures our mental capacities while we use our bodies to swipe and type in response. Technology can exaggerate the seemingly natural (but really, naturalized) split of the mind and the body.

There is a mental immediacy that is undeniable in our interaction with our screens, but there is a major lack in terms of bodily sensation and experience. How much can we really experience if we continue to condition our bodies into merely responding?

It is difficult to identify a recent technological development that actually cultivates embodiment. Sure, there are tools that help us become more aware, like meditation apps, and ones that help us think more about our bodies, but I have yet to find anything that actually engages our embodiment as a primary condition, rather than a taken-for-granted given.

There is a big question mark here in terms of wearable technology. Some assume that simply because something is on the body, it leads to greater bodily experience. Okay so, your fancy bracelet may remind you that you have a body, but I doubt it actually enables you to feel and be differently moment-to-moment. Let’s consider the FitBit.

People who buy and use FitBit products do so for multiple reasons. Here’s sketch of three types of consumers: First, are the people who are very committed to knowing their bodies through counting and other forms of quantitative data. Before they got their FitBit they were probably already fit and counting calories. Second, are the people who want to become fitter and healthier, they are aspirational types and perhaps, the FitBit was a New Year’s resolution purchase. Third, are the people who are curious about their activity, but are really more into the technology than committed to using the data for change; they will probably lose interest pretty quickly.

The way the FitBit works is largely rational and reflexive. It uses numbers to obtain an understanding of past experience, with the hope that the retroactive information will enable one to modify their behavior in the future. This is much less an exercise in knowledge, where knowledge is a process of learning, and much more a practice of gathering data. For example, one user of FitBit I spoke with told me that it confirmed that she isn’t a great sleeper, which was validating for her, but it left her at a loss when it came to becoming a better sleeper. Now, it is great to build self-knowledge in any way possible, but what happens if you really want to change as a result of the information?

FitBit doesn’t make people fitter or healthier, but it does create some form of awareness, which can be very powerful. It’s just a shame that this form of awareness is derived from static information rather than embodied learning. This is important at least, because embodied learning often becomes a lifelong practice, rather than merely an informational fad regime. It is sustainable without being finite (which could mean loyal customers).

The value judgment I’m willing to place here is on the products themselves. If we are to continue to expand into and through our digital worldview, we mustn’t decommission our bodies into oblivion. Which is to say, producers of wearable technology, like the FitBit, need to approach the problem differently if they really want to have longevity. They need to enable users to form new ways of being, rather than simply new ways of doing. Furthermore, new ways of being promote personal empowerment and agency; what could be more desirable (in a product)?

In short, reflexive informational processes, such as measuring steps in order to later modify how many you take in the future, are slow, limiting, and unimaginative in a digital world of immediacy. It’s the snail-mail of activity. These processes rely on sameness to detect difference (but not to create it).

To clear away this static, we need to develop diffractive practices that enable a thinking-from, -through, and -with patterns of difference, interaction, interference, and reinforcement. We need to move information beyond the ‘from point A to point B’ mentality, and learn to recognize possibilities as they emerge.

This isn’t so much about unrealized potential, but under-realized possibility. If we can have screen-based mental immediacy, surely we too can develop ways of bodily and experiential immediacy. We need to learn to think with and through difference, rather than relying on patterns of sameness to show us how we could potentially introduce it.

If I were to buy a wearable it would be the DURR. It might not track and compare my activity, but it would help me to become more aware of how I’m living, while I’m living.

    Dara Blumenthal, PhD

    Written by

    You’re invited into my Humanity and Expertise darablumenthal.com