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‘Feminising the Fitbit’. Pedometrics & Proxy

‘Feminising the Fitbit’. Pedometrics & Proxy

There are many ways in which making journeys (walking or otherwise) by proxy can be liberating – to be somewhere else without losing time, to be in two places at once (1). This is not an argument in favour of cultures of dual distraction - watching TV while playing on your phone for example – but a proposition for a way to use technology as a conduit to thinking, imagining and fantasising about other places, which may have important implications for those unable to travel (due to parenthood, economics or disability). In the midst of designing our dual physical-virtual proposition with the ‘S project’ it should have come as no surprise that we would encounter anti-female bias in the very technologies we used to produce the work… 
Devices enabling the counting of steps have existed for at least 500 years, Leonardo Da Vinci has been credited with the invention of a mechanical device with a basic pendulum swing which moved back and forth with each step and recorded distance travelled. This is recorded in paintings and sketches by Da Vinci (2). Numerous inventors have created similar devices; Abraham-Louis Perrelet, a Swiss inventor built a device in 1777 based on a self winding watch that could measure walking distance; Thomas Jefferson introduced the pedometer to the American public in the 1930’s where it was unsurprisingly, very popular with long distance trail walkers and branded the ‘hike o meter’. A British man John Harwood, was awarded the first patent for a pedometer in 1924. Pedometers have also since been a big feature in the 1960s Japanese walking model and programme, based on 10,000 steps, called Manpo-kei (3).

Buggy in Fordham Nature Reserve 'Wet Woods' Cambridgeshire - Gudrun Filipska 2016. Digital photograph

Buggy in Fordham Nature Reserve 'Wet Woods' Cambridgeshire - Gudrun Filipska 2016. Digital photograph

Gudrun uses the popular wrist-worn Fitbit to count her steps, and early on, realised that large amounts of steps were being missed when pushing a buggy. Experimenting using a phone step counter strapped to her as well as the Fitbit, the phone-app counted 16,000 and the fitbit only 6050 steps. There are numerous suggestions in the online Fitbit forum for parents trying to get around this problem including; jogging and pushing the buggy one handed - so the Fitbit arm may swing freely (which could be dangerous for the buggy’s occupant); putting the device around the ankle (it is too small for this); or putting it in a pocket which can result in inaccurate readings and the item falling out. The device offers a ‘rowing mode’ and a 'cycling mode’ but the world’s most popular pedometer, does not account for buggy pushing, wheelchair pushing, carrying, or even the simple human act of handholding. This is reflected by the comments in the Fitbit community pages where there is currently a petition asking for the introduction of 'stroller mode’, the status of which according to the makers, is unsurprisingly ’currently not planned’ (4).

The commodification of human ambulation —as Bjorn Nansen points out in his essay ’Step Counting: The anatomo- and chrono-politics of Pedometers’ although seemingly innocuous, actively participates in ’shaping of temporal rhythms of everyday life’, and exists within a complicated nexus of marketing, health and governance (5). Naturally by extension, devices skewed to a male centred bias - which make female routines and use of space seem odd and non conforming – perpetuate the historical normative already established, that mens’ use of space in the public sphere is somehow more valid. 

Male-centric design bias of course stretches far beyond pedometric devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can also be prejudiced due to its design and according to the bias of those who 'train’ it. An algorithm used by Amazon to sort through applicant CV’s was recently found to be discounting female CV’s altogether – this was not done consciously on the part of the designers but had arisen due to the way it had been taught by men using male colleagues CV’s as examples of successful candidates (6). This embeds the urgent need for women – and those living and identifying as female, and people of colour - to be involved in the design of algorithms in order to counter trends, which, as society becomes more reliant on AI technologies, may deem any non white male as a less valid member of society. 

The ‘gender data gap’ as described by Caroline Criado Perez in ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ is key to understanding how the seemingly simple task of counting daily steps is riddled with unseen bias against typically ‘female’ tasks (75% more likely to push a pram, for example), and in turn against the female body itself (7). 

Carly uses a smartphone to count steps on a pedometer app. As Criado Perez has discovered:

“The average smartphone size is now 5.5 inches. While the average man can fairly comfortably use his device one-handed, the average woman’s hand is not much bigger than the handset itself. This is obviously annoying for female customers – and shortsighted for a company like Apple, given that research shows women are more likely to own an iPhone than men” (8).

Another study on the accuracy of pedometers showed that they are: 

“within 5 percent of an established criterion of accuracy when placed on the waist, chest and arm, but the divergence rose to 7.3 percent for placement in a purse and 7.7 percent for placement in a pocket.” (9)

If your arm is too small to comfortably have a smartphone strapped to it, and it’s not practical to hold a large smartphone while walking, it goes in your pocket or bag and your step count is compromised. 

The promotion of the Pedometer as a fitness aid follows a health crisis caused by sedentary office centred lifestyles and a society built around vehicle infrastructures. It represents a marketing opportunity created around people’s health anxiety. The use of health apps, heart rate monitors and pedometric devices lead to a culture of self awareness in movement and a constant monitoring of the body which could be read as government intervention masquerading as self care echoing Foucaultian Biopolitics. The issue over who your pedometer data belongs to is opaque, as privacy around pedometers is questionable and there have been a number of incidents where data has been used without the customer’s consent (10).

Time, borrowing and lending steps. 

In a culture of 'learning analytics’ and the pitfalls of data harvesting, if any new meaning is to be ascribed to step-counting through pedometric devices it may involve the re-inscribing of stepcount data to other uses, other routes, journeys, diversions and cultures of lending and borrowing. 

Walking is often described by artists and writers as a thinking process – the idea of using proxies and avatars (as we have in the S Project) who walk our steps but on different trajectories- opens up a dual walking/thinking space, where the every day A to B routes may parallel the long distance avatar journeys and walking meanings may interpolate between the quotidian and the symbolic. In our S Project walks for example, we may be on the school run, while our avatar crosses the Bering Straight or food shopping while walking across East Iceland. The presence of the two narratives within the same step count opens up an interesting temporal proposition; 

The histories of the ‘non spaces’ which often make up the point to point practical journeys are now also spaces of presence and non presence. The ‘non spaces’ designated by Marc Auge – transitional zones such as Supermarkets and Airports are rapidly being by-passed through digital means, enabling non presence (i.e. online deliveries of shopping and video calls replacing distant meetings) (11). The idea of ‘Junktime’ is an extension of this – a recent article by Hito Steyerl outlines an ethical position for 'non-presence’ in a contemporary art world which places increasing demands on artists to ‘be there’ in person. Her position is developed through Heidegger’s expression of Dasein

“The point is: people use proxies in order to deal with the Terror of Total Dasein or an economy of presence based on the technologically amplified scarcity of human attention and physical presence.” (12)

‘Junktime’ is the fragmented result of trying to be present in all spaces. Henri Lefebvre writes about ‘constrained time’ or ‘compulsive time’ through moments somewhere in-between work and leisure, including travel and time for official formalities. Of course schools runs, dog walks and domestic tasks can’t really be designated as 'non’ or 'junk time’ – they can be complicated and relational, more so, we would argue due to the repetitiveness of their use, but the model still holds as they are not licensed spaces of either productivity or pleasure. 

Studying the emerging and marginal forms of digital media use in everyday life, Bjorn Nansen states:

‘the pedometer participates in mediating and (re)configuring the meaning and rhythm of this in-between time in a way that reshapes physical activity, as well as experiential and embodied modes of comportment… this questions the possibility of an in-betweenness to time as it blurs distinctions between the rhythms of times and places – there is less of a temporal demarcation between the free time of leisure, the enforced time of work, the dead time of commuting, and the liberating time of play or exercise.’ (13)

Step counting in its compulsiveness, represents an erosion of the idea of; ‘in between time’ altogether; the back and forth of the commuter; the steps while shopping or at the park that become ‘useful’ in the sense that they add to a step count in exactly the same way as playing; getting lost; and working or setting out to dérive the city. The mundane/domestic walk may reside in the same territory through this egalitarian model as the highhanded psychogeographical game or the epic walking adventure. 

Backyard Running - Carly Butler 2016. Digital photograph

Backyard Running - Carly Butler 2016. Digital photograph

There may be something in the everyday and embodied repetitive and self consciously performative practice of counting and recording steps which makes ‘every day’ walking slip out of the net set for it by the demands of the dérive; we can challenge the masculine walking histories which suggest that interesting moments can only happen if the everyday is left behind. 

We are not advocating for the purchase of these heavily marketed devices – and readily attest to the problematic (governmental/health/marketing nexus) already mentioned, but find the act of counting steps and the possibilities of lending and borrowing steps as a re-appropriation of the devices intended use, to be an intriguing one. Nansen further states ’the pedometer extends walking practices and routines from monochronicity and modularization to polychronicity and modulation’ (ibid). This polychronicity and modulation could swing two ways: towards a neoliberal culture of population monitoring perhaps, but also, through the self aware act of lending steps to other uses by avatars and others we may abstract linear time into a further splitting and create the possibility of being in more than one place at once – to be going somewhere and going nowhere, to be able to travel without ‘inserting’ ourselves physically into a distant landscape and maybe in a small way, de-stabilise an established and stale male centric techno-political walking framework.


References & Notes

(1) There are a number of examples of travelling without leaving home or travel by proxy in literature, notably ‘A Journey around my room’ by Xavier De Maistre, and Proust’s flights of allegory and metaphore in ‘In Search of Lost Time’, also Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja, where the character vicariously (and dubiously) lives through Nadja’s vision of the world to subvert his quotidian existence. Contemporary examples include the agoraphobic photographer who uses street View to travel the world. (Available online).

(2) Da Vinci’s Step counter was invented to measure the steps of Roman soldiers – (Roman’s used steps to measure distance – the Roman Mile was around 1000 paces or 2000 adult steps – his device was worn around the waist, with a lever reaching to the thigh, when the leg moves, the lever rotated the cogs and counted the steps.For further information see Step Counting: A Review of Measurment considerations and Heath Related Applications. Sports Medicine Aukland. 2016. David R Bassett, Lindsay P Toth, Samuel R LaMunion and Scott E Crouter.

(3) Others credited with inventing similar devices include Jean Fernel, a French craftsman, in 1525 or Robert Hooke, (an English scientist) in 1674, or Hubert Sarton, in 1778.

(4) Fitbit Community (2016). Available Online.

(5) Nansen, B (2008) Step-counting: The Anatomo- and Chrono-politics of Pedometrics In: Continuum, University of Melbourne. 

(6) BBC News (2018 Amazon scrapped 'sexist AI’ tool. Available online.

(7) Invisible Women, Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for Men - Caroline Criado Perez.

(8) Williams, R (2016) Women more likely to own an iPhone than men. In: The Telegraph. Available online.

(9) Jegtvig, S (2014) Placement and speed affect accuracy of new pedometers. In: Reuters. Available online.

(10) Weinstein, M (2016) What Your Fitbit Doesn’t Want You to Know. In: Huffpost. Available online.

(11) Auge, M (1995) ‘Non Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity’. Available online.

(12) Steyerl, H (2010) The Terror of Total Dasein. In: Dis. Available Online.

(13) Nansen, B (2008) Step-counting: The anatomo- and Chrono-politics of Pedometrics. In: Continuum.

Cognitive Sensations - Project Highlights!

Cognitive Sensations - Project Highlights!

Hito Steyerl, Surveillance & the Digital Image

Hito Steyerl, Surveillance & the Digital Image