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Your Fitbit has stolen your soul Our quest for self-knowledge has corrupted humanity

Don't get a FitBit (CBS Photo Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Don't get a FitBit (CBS Photo Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images)


June 29, 2022   7 mins

Philosophers have seldom lived up to the ideal of radical doubt that they often claim as the prime directive of their tradition. They insist on questioning everything, while nonetheless holding onto many pieties. Foremost among these, perhaps, is the commandment handed down from the Oracle at Delphi and characterised by Plato as a life-motto of his master Socrates: “Know thyself.”

While this may seem an unassailable injunction, it is at least somewhat at odds with an equally ancient demand of Western philosophy, which may in fact be offered up in direct response to what the oracle says: “Don’t tell me what to do.” This response gets close to the spirit of the Cynics, who, like Plato, also believed they were following the teachings of Socrates, yet took his philosophy not to require some arduous process of self-examination, but only a simple and immediate decision to conduct one’s life according only to the law dictated by nature.

There are good reasons to defy the oracle beyond simply a distaste for taking orders. For one thing, it is not a settled matter that the commandment to “know thyself” can be followed at all, since it is not clear that there is anything to know. In the end the self may be the greatest “nothingburger” of all; there may simply be nothing there. The self may be an illusion, as most strains of classical Buddhist philosophy held; or it may be a “hole in being at the heart of Being”, as Jean-Paul Sartre disconsolingly suggested; or it may be perfectly real, but by definition beyond the bounds of knowability.

If you become convinced that the self is unknowable, there are a few different ways you might react. You might decide to “go with the flow”, to live out your days in happy ignorance of your “true” nature, but in sentimental harmony with the world around you. Or you might turn your attention to the body, as the closest thing you’re ever going to get to the self itself, and learn everything you can about it. In doing this, over time you and your peers might come to believe that the information derived from such investigation counts as self-knowledge in the fullest sense, that it is not just as good as it gets, but good purely and simply.

This impression that knowledge of the body’s “vital stats” is good in itself may come to appear particularly compelling when it presents itself not only as good, but as cool. And there is no more effective way to make learning cool than to make it depend on the intermediation of some sleek new device, some bit of technology, a gadget that did not exist at all just a few years before. In a world flooded with such new devices, it is not at all surprising to find that many people now are not even aware of any aspiration to self-knowledge beyond what may be revealed by the AppleWatch or the Fitbit.

Of course, these devices are only the tip of the iceberg. For some years we have heard reports of “tech bros” willingly cyborgising themselves to monitor a constant stream of data concerning their blood-sugar levels, or the chemical composition of their urine or sweat. Nor is such pervasive monitoring always part of a project of self-cultivation, nor even is it always voluntary. Doctors are increasingly able to monitor the vital signs of outpatients going about their lives far from the centres of medical care, and now we are starting to hear of pills that can send an electronic signal once they have arrived in their swallower’s stomach: a potential way of ensuring that a patient is adhering to some court-ordered medical regime of anti-psychotics, or even, potentially, of chemical castration.

It is not hard to imagine a near-future scenario in which countless data-points from all of our bodies are quietly and unceasingly transmitted to the cloud and available for inspection by “the authorities”: how many calories we consume per day, how often we get sexually aroused, as well as the old standards of steps, heart-rate, blood-sugar, and so on.

For now, anyway, most of these corporeal metrics are noted only by the person whose body they quantify, and they are noted, most commonly, as part of a project of what we may call “ersatz self-knowledge”: the kind of knowledge of who you are that can still be obtained even after you and your culture have given up on any conception of the true value of a human being.

But everything we have considered so far is only half the story. In a first phase of this materialist reduction of the self, the body is taken as a reliable source of the best sort of information that we may hope to obtain about who we are. In a more advanced phase, typical “soul activity” — all the things we do that are expressive of our agency and creativity — is passed through what are essentially the same metrical filters. The daily quota of steps for which our Fitbit — and perhaps also our health-insurer or our government — may be programmed to congratulate us is not so different, in the end, from the quantity of “likes” we feel, or are made to feel, are the appropriate recompense for the expression of some political opinion on social media.

In the Objections and Replies to the 1641 Meditations on First Philosophy, Thomas Hobbes made fun of RenĂ© Descartes’s famous claim that we may know ourselves to exist from the fact that we think: “I think therefore I am.” Why not say instead, Hobbes wondered, “I walk therefore I am”? Whether or not Hobbes was fully appreciating the subtleties of the Cartesian Cogito, we may at least note that his observation was a sort of prophecy: in our present materialistic age, ambulation and cogitation really have become one and the same sort of thing. They are both, now, but fodder for metrics.

We know very well that the motion of megafaunal herds, like the behaviour of bacteria clustered into a cooperative brain-like system, may be modelled algorithmically. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that as thinking degenerates into like-seeking, as soul activity becomes a mere subset of measurable data, this activity is correspondingly conceived as if it were itself the output of an algorithmic process.

There is a familiar notion of “algorithm creep”, in which the gamified incentives that structure our online behaviour spread into other domains, such as labour (as when an Uber employee is compelled to pursue his work in pursuit of points, as if it were a video game), logistics, medicine, and, increasingly, the economy. But the ultimate case of algorithm creep, which might better be called “algorithm leap”, occurs when the rules that structure our experience of the online world jump across the screen and begin to structure our understanding of ourselves and of other human beings.

It is common, now, to read on the internet accounts of human action that model it on artificial systems, and that have no other resources for conceiving human motivation than those borrowed from programming, even when what is at issue is human moral failure. Let us consider one striking example from a few years ago. In 2020, a controversy was triggered by the behaviour of a well-known comic-book artist accused by numerous younger women, most of them fans of his work and aspiring comic-book authors, of sexually inappropriate behaviour, emotional manipulation, and what is known as “grooming”.

A website was set up for his proclaimed victims to share their testimonials. On this site, the author’s grooming behaviour is described as: “rel[ying] on subtle techniques that leverage ‘compulsion loops’, which are well-established in scientific literature and video gaming, and are commonly utilised by modern businesses to achieve addiction, AKA ‘user retention’. Examples include daily quests in games, getting a higher reward (more ‘XP’, etc.) for the first game of a day, more ‘karma’ for the first post of a day on a message board, etc. The main driver is a regular daily dopamine boost sustained over time.”

At issue here is the moral conduct of a person who in another era would have been accused of lechery, of being manipulative, of playing the cad. Here, the accusation against the comic-book author, however, eschews inherited moral categories, and blames him, effectively, for instantiating the same features we also know from our use of social media. The author has had programmed into him, it would seem, the same addictive hooks for which we rightly criticise Facebook. He now stands accused of “user retention”.

Nor is this modified use of language confined to the realm of human behaviour. Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”, sought to chart the fate of art’s “aura” in an era in which likenesses of any given work may be generated cheaply and without limit. Effectively, in the age of the photograph, the Xerox, or the screenshot, all art becomes “allographic” — to see a copy of a work is for most purposes as good as seeing the real thing. Though there may be some qualities in the brushstrokes that only the original canvas can reveal, it is by now a plain social fact that the added value in the work itself, as when tourists leap over one another to take an iPhone photo of the Mona Lisa, is pure aura. To say that the aura is pure is to say that what gives the work its perceived value is by now entirely disconnected from its aesthetic properties, and entirely caught up in fantastical speculations as to how much money it could fetch, or how much it would cost the museum if someone were to slash it.

When culture arrives at this point, the NFT, though it has hit some bumps recently, cannot but become the artwork par excellence. Some people will still try, laughably, to feign connoisseurship and to explain to the rest of us yokels why the obscene price attached to some token or other derives from its aesthetic properties. But this is a bluff, for what we have in fact seen with the rise of the NFT is the literal convergence of art and money. A work can only be assessed, now, in terms of its financial value, and is therefore perfectly interchangeable with any other work of the same value. Financial value, in turn, becomes the ultimate metric — the one we are all really hoping to convert our likes and faves and followers into eventually, somehow. Otherwise the like-seeking that has taken away our souls over the past decade is just too sad to contemplate: we will have been doing it for literally nothing, not even money.

But while art may now seem fully elided with capital, this only relates to works of art that are put forth as candidates for exchange, which is to say works that have been entered into the metrics game. There is, of course, a vast reserve of other artworks, and an even vaster reserve of human creative potential, that lie outside of that whole bleak nexus — as, for example, the sweet and rough airs that come from an old bard’s broken singing voice, busking for change, as you walk past him in the metro. Such moments provide not only brief access to art in its unmetricised and therefore borderline-outlawed form. They can also have the power to summon us back to ourselves, to our proper selves: grounded only in phenomenal consciousness, and following no rule.


Justin Smith-Ruiu is the author of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. He also writes on Substack.


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Sam Wilson
Sam Wilson
2 years ago

Well, that was cheery. Good stuff nonetheless. Attaching some reward – tangible, like video game progress, to arbitrary, like “streaks” – to everyday tasks like walking does seem to be in line with both the interests of tech companies who want you to integrate their product with your life and interact with it as much as possible, and with the interests of governments like China. Already the latter assigns “social credits” (or deducts them, if one is bold enough to object against the Chinese government online) to mundane chores like attending yoga sessions or visiting a relative. Like the author said, perhaps some mystique is overdue in our attitude towards human nature. Drop the behavioural psychology and freedom-damning neuroscience. Give us back the mysterious, unplumbed mind full of possibilities and staunchly untouched by the outside world. Paradoxically, we might just learn more about what it means to be human with that approach, anyways.

Last edited 2 years ago by Sam Wilson
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Sam Wilson

Well said. Though I’m not sure we have to totally drop the behavioural psychology. Some gamerfication in ones life can be both fun & useful. For example, when I do an online learning course, I love the points, levelling up & badges, and I think it helps me learn better, faster & with more enjoyment. But yes, the neuroscience should not be at the expense of the mysterious and the invsible world.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 years ago

Everything able to be data vacuumed will be commoditized. Humans will increasingly function mostly as robots for the elite who live in an entirely different reality. The sooner the elite can replace them with ACTUAL robots, the better in their minds.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

I worry about this. A small part of me wonders if the current tensions being stoked up by US politics and media are really about gearing people up to attack groups with strong individualistic tendencies.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Thanks for a stimulating article. Nietzsche’s take on “Know thyself” is interesting: “A thing known is a thing no longer of concern.” So “Know thyself” could be seen as an injunction to become objective and direct ones attention almost entirely to the outer world.

But for me Socrates meant it literally, or at least that was one of his intended meanings. He was an alchemist and as such practiced what is perhaps the only reliable set of methods to succeed at the undertaking, which involves a deep dive into the perilous unconscious. An undertaking that while involving an interior transformation, also brings down Heaven into Earth, and hence can benefit all people, and Nature herself. Sadly it’s an almost impossible task in the current age. Napoleon is said to have felt a calling to alchemy, but even back then it seemed easier to him to set out to conquer the external world, rather than face the realm within.

So a deep dive into the now neglected unconscious is not for everyone, unless they’re up for a major risk of wasted time at best and psychosis or death at worst. But all can benefit from looking after their unconscious a bit better. If your fitbit is saying you need a walk, try and take it in nature. And it doesnt have to be an ‘opportunity for reflection’, (which seems the common way left brained folk like to see it) but it can be a chance just to attend to nature and not consciously think at all, giving the unconscious a chance. The same with brief moments when one encounters unmetricised art. I guess I couldnt agree less about our proper selves being “grounded only in phenomenal consciousness, and following no rule.” But still an excellent article overall.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

And at Christmas-time, when that old bard is singing and strumming his guitar, busking for change, in the metro, and he whispers “Merry Christmas” or “God Bless” to somebody who drops a coin into his cap, could he look forward to a “Merry Christmas to you, too” in return?
Maybe a tepid “And to you, too” to “God bless.” Maybe a harsh “Don’t mention it”? Maybe, heaven help us, “Happy Holidays” to the bard’s “Merry Christmas,” followed by a wan smile to the down-on-his luck entertainer.
Maybe the coin is the most important sign of genuine recognition. But then cash is frowned upon now and folk want to shed the cash.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Nope, not persuaded that the unmeasurable is some wonderful elixir that brings us back to our humanity. What is our humanity?
For all the limitations and risks of relying on materialism (and there are many as the article suggests) the idea of ‘proper selves’ grounded only in phenomenal consciousness is also limited and risky. Especially when the great and good set themselves up to guide the huddled masses to the glorious uplands.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
2 years ago

And to think that I was against “videoing” my wedding 35 years ago for the same reasons. Some things are meant to be preserved for the memory only. I still enjoy getting completely “lost” in a museum or antique store on a Saturday afternoon, completely oblivious to the outside world. I feel more human afterwards.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

I no longer go on things like facebook, but when I did i was saddened by the people I know going on holiday and spending more time documenting it on facebook than actually enjoyIng it! I have gone away with my family and forgotten to take pictures because I was too busy enjoying the moment!

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I don’t own a FitBit, but I do own an Apple Watch. While I recognize the author’s concerns, it has objectively made me fitter.

Jeff Krinock
Jeff Krinock
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Julian — has it made you body fitter? Or the whole of you?

James Anthony Seyforth
James Anthony Seyforth
2 years ago

Like Heidegger intimated the world has been ‘pictured’, we picture everything now, nothing is a real unfolding, everything is framed and copied even history itself; not that history doesn’t repeat, it does, but that we lack the imagination and distance to create properly new culture and history. Fukuyama was also right in that the ‘end of history’ would look something like the whole of the 21st century so far and that technological self-knowledge would not necessarily tell a more meaningful story than the past humanistic attempts. I.e. We might survive more easily in the 21C but perhaps not equally mean more, or feel more certain about who or what we are or what we are doing with ourselves. That can only come to those who entertain an integrated humanity instead of a reductionist humanity.

Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
2 years ago

Knowledge of self is asymptotic, always expanding but never complete.
Data is not knowledge.
Knowledge of self is gained when behaviour is changed in light of experience, when the data is fed back in and applied.
There are no contradictions or mysteries here. Simply a lack of interest on the part of most people, together with an obsession with the idea of progress, a means by which people can pin responsibility for their life on a series of externalities.

Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago

This excellent essay got me thinking along with it!
The oracle was Delphic after all. And Plato’s Apology draws out brilliantly the irony of Socrates’ “obedience” to the divine command to “know thyself”/”don’t tell me what to do”.
Also, the flip side of money colonizing art is art colonizing money: Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose” would seem to describe the NFT and the digital token (that is, its tokos), albeit in different senses.

Jeff Krinock
Jeff Krinock
2 years ago

Two thoughts I wish you would have explored as well: 1) Aristotle did not list deliberation (i.e., choosing among weighable options) as a particularly good form of thinking. 2) St. Maximus the Confessor’s concept of gnomic willing seemed to at least parallel Aristotle’s viewpoint about deliberation.
For the thought of both of those men, quantification of everything (and, sadly, of everyone) is necessary for deliberative thought to work. St. Maximus contrasted gnomic willing with natural willing. The differences between those two forms of willing (or rather, the consequences of adopting one or the other as normative for the human condition) are astounding, imo.
Which is a very long way of saying that, yes, your Fitbit may indeed be in the process of stealing your soul.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
2 years ago

Re: those “rough and sweet airs of an old bard’s singing voice” – The once-universal view of humans as mysterious, half-divine *creatures* was bound to be replaced by a model of Man-as-Animal, once the Creator was removed from Creation. Now that even Nature has been atomized into her bits and bytes, dying in the process of dissection, we are left with the model of Man-as-Machine, and as usual the arts – particularly music – are ahead of most of society in illustrating that model. Music has become easy to create, wide-open, freely-accessible – and ultimately unsatisfying, as an overview of global music consumption shows.
But the human needs for *security* and *significance* remain, unsatisfied by any number of “likes” or social credit points. We hear the echo of our searching in those “rough and sweet airs” in the metro stations. But only the echo.

Paul Claireaux
Paul Claireaux
2 years ago

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

William Bruce Cameron

Paul Claireaux
Paul Claireaux
2 years ago

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

William Bruce Cameron

Aman Shukla
Aman Shukla
2 years ago

Seems like black mirror SS1 EP2 turning out to be real.

Bright X
Bright X
2 years ago

I play the fit bit metric game. I am subject to countless algorithms and I consume many copies of art and engage in allographic pursuits. So what? Take self-knowledge to its proper ends and authenticity disappear along with the allographic. Trying to avoid algorithmic existence and pretend you are following along some kind of authentic existence is illusory in itself. The fit bit is just another tool. It helps me align my bodily feelings with bodily facts. Culture has warped my perceptions of myself. Advertising, subsidizing, and presentation of junky food has destroyed my body’s ability to make healthy choices. I had a warped sense of what it means to be healthy before the fit bit came along. The fit bit grounds me to some extent.
It seems like a straw man argument to make fit bits and other tools of healthy living out to be soul destroying pursuits. There is a reason the Buddha came along when he did, before fit bits and mass advertising. People have been suffering for eons. The fit bit and algorithms did not cause this. Like anything in life they can make us be too attached to them and we need to learn how to use them with mindfulness. It is hubris to assume that we can’t do this and that there is a way to view art that is better.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

My faith in my FitBit was dented somewhat when after having forgotten to put it back on after a shower, it nevertheless turned in a night’s worth of sleep-tracking data for me, the following morning.

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1 month ago

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