Fitbit and other algorithms of tyranny

Reg Henry - Guest Columnist

Reg Henry

Modern living has tyrannies unknown to other generations. Most are related to technology and come into our lives under the banner of progress. But you know what I say: All progress isn’t.

Facebook is an obvious example. In its initial seductions, it promises to keep friends, acquaintances and colleagues in touch with each other. So it does, to some extent. Yet, much of the time it is a forum for dancing kittens, selfies, sentimental slop or unfiltered propaganda from political cranks.

If anything, Facebook makes the user come to doubt the taste and sanity of his or her friends. Worse, this diet of diversions becomes highly addictive. Facebook is the sugar of social media.

My subject today, however, is not Facebook but another new creation for the self-absorbed — the devices that monitor the workings of our bodies in the interests of fitness and health. Worn on the wrist, devices such as Fitbit and Sony SmartBand serve a higher purpose but are no less addictive.

My own body has been pretty much left to its own natural devices. When it is hungry, it lets me know and I feed it. When it is thirsty, I give it a drink. When it gets fat, I give it a diet. If it gets sick, I take it to a doctor to monitor its vital signs and suggest a remedy. I know this is terribly old-fashioned.

My wife, Priscilla, is much more attuned to the times. Her iPhone chirps so much with incoming messages that she gives the impression of keeping canaries captive. Then, a few months ago, she started wearing a Fitbit on her wrist. She raves about it. I am now raving too, as the constant monitoring drives me bonkers.

For those unfamiliar with Fitbit and its competitors, these devices can — depending on the model chosen — track GPS, heart rate, calories burned, steps taken, floors climbed, sleep patterns slept and inactive moments idled away (very popular in government departments).

Some of these devices do more than monitor the old bod, but the bodily stats are Priscilla’s interest. On warm evenings, we used to sit out after dinner and discuss matters of mutual interest, such as the grandchildren and my various shortcomings. But now she is likely to say, “Oh dear, I have only 14,000 steps. Do you want to walk around the block with me, so I can reach 15,000?”

Of course I do. There’s nothing I like better than walking the streets in the gloom of night to reach a requisite number of steps at the urging of the god Fitbit, it that must be obeyed by she who must be obeyed.

On a recent weekend, we went camping out of reach of cellular service, email, Wi-Fi and the other modern tyrannies. But Fitbit was there and another lady in the party, Janey, was wearing a Fitbit snugly on her wrist, too.

After the day’s exertions, Janey and Priscilla compared data. “Hey, how come you went 400 steps further than me when we went the same distance?” Janey said. She then ran on the spot to make up the deficit. Meanwhile, Priscilla was making lots of secretive motions to stay ahead of her pal. I think life used to be simpler.

Young couples used to make love under a romantic moon and the woman would look at her wrist to see how much longer it might last so she could call her mother. Now she is checking on the calories she has lost.

Of course, it is good that people are moved to exercise more. I also understand the importance of keeping a log as a spur to further effort. I have been a jogger for 25 years and I have recorded my journeys in old school books. I also have noted the days I did not run — and why.

Ah, what fascinating reading it makes. For example, on March 16, 1991, ending a week in which I ran 20 miles, I noted: “School fair. Was going to run in evening, but Allison (our daughter) won nine (gold) fish and we went to the store to buy food and gravel instead: no run.”

Now that’s information you won’t find logged on my wife’s Fitbit. Best of all, I didn’t have to look at my wrist all day to see how I was doing. And I didn’t have to jump up and down on the spot afterward to placate mysterious algorithms. I tell you: Modern life makes you fit to be tied.


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Reg Henry Henry

Reg Henry

Guest Columnist

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at [email protected]

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at [email protected]

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