September 24, 2021

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Thomas Jefferson Tracked His Steps Long Before The Apple Watch

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Wearables can save lives, but they also dehumanize us in the process. Much like ghosting or rating people with stars, combating an overwhelming sense of objectification seems to be an ongoing struggle in the 21st century.

The 1927 film Metropolis immortalized a similar sense of dehumanization as a result of 20th century factory work, but have the Apple Watch and the Fitbit finally turned us into full-on cyborgs? Elon Musk claims that we already are, and he isn’t entirely wrong: we can track our heart rate, our steps, our calories, our sleep cycles—even the temperature of our skin. A heartbeat is no longer a poetic testament to the majestic nature of being, it’s just another stream of data to download and parse.

However, wearable technology presents more than a mere philosophical threat; numerous studies have noted our fraught relationship with these trendy fitness trackers. A 2018 research article found that wearables like the Apple Watch and the Fitbit create an unsustainable standard of health that is more regulated by cultural norms than the natural instincts one has when they listen to their own body.

To have some perspective, we have to recognize that wearable technology isn’t new. Before Thomas Jefferson furiously exchanged battle raps with Alexander Hamilton, he rocked a pedometer on the candlelit streets of Virginia. With a wearable strapped to his waistband, the philandering founding father got his steps in. Colonists had bigger issues than closing their rings, so it’s not like he was screenshotting his daily activity and posting it to IG. But, if Jefferson tracked his fitness with a wearable in the 1700s, it’s hard to imagine the downfall of civilization stemming from a Fitbit.

Jefferson’s stats weren’t collected and stored in a massive database, but that doesn’t mean Americans hadn’t tracked their steps before there was an America. This fact should give us pause, and ultimately perspective, when we debate the threat of wearables. In fact, pedometers were already a thing before Jefferson brought the mechanical device back from France. Seriously, how could the country that enriched our lives with lingerie and the baguette ever do us wrong?

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Wearable technology is by no means new, and neither are its harmful effects. Tracking health data can result in mental health issues, including eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. Forcing yourself to hit fitness targets each and every day can lead to burnout and a negative self-image that is hard to shake. Much like Instagram, a nagging wearable can fast become a sinister reminder of everything you’re not.

After centuries of tracking health data, why are we suddenly so concerned in 2021? Is it a reflection of the time, or have the advancements in wearable technology put them in another, more threatening category? Even if our Fitbits do reduce us to a stream of data—that mighty stream can save our lives when we show symptoms of heart disease and give an insomniac the tools they need to finally get some much-needed rest. Given how much fitness trackers encourage users to play an active role in their wellness, this real-life sci-fi storyline may be more utopian than dystopian.

Some of our fear surrounding modern wearable technology must come from a romanticized rendition of the past—the same past where humans were free from the woke restrictions of cancel culture. There’s an inherent and problematic nostalgia baked into this argument. As shows like Mad Men and recent political events suggest, America has only ever been truly great for an elite few. Even with Covid, modern life is much more tolerable for more of us than it has ever been before.

Just as advancements in technology have improved upon Jefferson’s pedometer, modern economics have made wearables more widely available, too. As long as you have $100, which still isn’t the case for everybody in the United States, you can access a depiction of yourself in data. Like a pointillist painting by Georges Seurat, you now have a self-portrait made up of data points in your pocket. That’s pretty dope.

However, in the wake of Google’s recent acquisition of Fitbit, users are understandably concerned about their privacy. (The purchase wasn’t as bone-chilling as Google’s acquisition of the most anxiety-inducing robotics company on Planet Earth, Boston Dynamics, in 2013. Thankfully, they sold that company off less than four years later.) It’s totally rational to be concerned about Google, and not only because they curiously retired the phrase “Don’t be evil” from their code of conduct in 2018. If we’re already in a tizzy over Google tracking our searches, the prospect of our sleep cycles and heartbeats living in their cloud should feel way less appealing than Google+ ever did.

To be fair, the fear of being singled out of billions of users may be more narcissistic than rational. Google cares about us as individuals as much as they care about paying their fair share in taxes. To Google, we’re no more human than a CPU in a server farm; as long as we don’t overheat, the $1.4 trillion company will continue to thrive.

Theo Miller is the founder and CEO of Hit Start Media and the co-host of Techlash. This week, we discuss the quantified self with Alexandra Zatarain from Eight Slee‪p‬. Listen to the podcast on Spotify.

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