I recently wrote about the ‘Captivations of the Algorithmic Ego’ where I focussed on social media and the new digitised imago. Here, I’d like to reflect on a related but arguably even more insidious phenomenon, one which targets the real of the body not via the image or indeed the signifier, but via the number: I am referring to the practices of ‘self-tracking’ made possible by devices such as the FitBit Tracker.

This miniature computer can be worn on the wrist like a watch or discretely clipped to clothing. Its purpose is to translate the body’s activities into a series of data-streams measuring variables such as steps per day, heart rate, calories burned, and quality of sleep. It enables users to closely monitor their own physiology in the form of numbers that go up and down, but also to micro-manage their ‘health’[1] by marshalling the resulting data into regimes of self-improvement. New targets for steps taken or calories burned can be set which then stimulate new patterns of behaviour. This is partly done through condescendingly Pavlovian incentives, such as graphics of celebratory fireworks when targets are met. Fundamentally though, it is achieved through iterative feedback-loops whereby data measures behaviours and behaviours are then shaped by data, in a supposedly virtuous circle. The resulting quantifiable changes are experienced as fitness ‘gains’ or healthy ‘progress’. In this way, users can enjoy beating a ‘personal best’ which is ‘personal’ thanks only to a technological prosthesis provided by the Other of the market. In fact, the FitBit comes with a demanding default target of 10,000 steps per day, a number which has been criticised for its arbitrariness. Yet this arbitrariness is surely the very form of its power: as with the managerial logic of targets generally, the goal is not to represent or reflect an empirical reality at all, but rather to stimulate a better, leaner and more productive ‘reality’ through the extraction of enhanced performance.

In its recourse to numbers rather than signifiers, the FitBit Tracker might appear to resolve an old problem. Lacan’s reading of Descartes shows that the modern subject has always struggled to reconcile res cogitans with res extensa, thinking substance with extended substance, language with the body; yet this division is also the basis of the subject of the signifier as well as of the real unconscious. In its postmodern form however, the newly informatised body appears to bypass this division by the signifier altogether, suturing it with the unifying purity of the number. Whereas the signifying chain brings with it lack, equivocation and metonymic slippage (but also desire), the number promises a one-to-one nomination and instrumentalization of the real.[2] No longer ‘I think therefore I am’, but ‘I step therefore I am’, or more simply still, ‘I count’. This is what the ‘bit’ in FitBit means: from the point of view of computer science, a bit is the smallest unit of information possible, often reducible to binary code – one or zero with nothing in between. Discounting the dimension of the parlêtre, the body is in this way measured, evaluated, and rendered not only predictable but perhaps even perfectible.

However, analysts working with the body of jouissance in the clinic know that it cannot be counted out so easily, that it returns contingently as what stops not being written. Unsurprisingly then, there have already been reports that these self-tracking devices are producing novel symptoms. For example, a technologically facilitated hypochondria which is putting additional strain on the UK’s National Health Service, with GPs experiencing an upsurge in appointments made by users of these devices concerned about imminent heart-attacks (as if the relentless injunction to count heartbeats in itself raises the pulse). It seems that the supposed unity of the number still calls forth signifying interpretations which carry that affect which does not deceive – anxiety. Just as paradoxically, a recent article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine has identified a new sleep disorder, terming it ‘orthosomnia’. This refers to a specific insomnia characterised by an obsessive search for the illusory target of ‘perfect sleep’ which FitBit data promises, even as it highlights one’s permanent failure to attain it. Hyper-attention to quantified sleep causes sleep itself to become elusive the more its purposes is wedded to the abstraction of the number. Is this not an excellent example of what Marie-Hélène Brousse has called the ‘statistical superego’?[3] Furthermore, the American Journal of Health Education has published the results of research with almost a hundred 13-14 year olds who were asked to wear FitBits solidly for eight weeks. It was found that these teenagers were significantly less motivated to undertake exercise after wearing these devices, and that when they did exercise, they experienced it as much less ‘fun’. The reasons? Firstly, because the digital targets were indeed arbitrary in relation to what was meaningful to them; and secondly, because ‘peer comparison’ (i.e., exposing one’s data to others as a supposed spur) in fact had a negative impact on autonomous, self-driven motivation. In this sense, the FitBit fits squarely within what Shoshana Zuboff has called ‘surveillance capitalism’ which “exiles persons from their own behaviour while producing new markets of behaviour prediction and modification”.[4]

Devices like the FitBit, then, testify to the attempt in our era (which Zuboff calls, with a nod to Freud, ‘information civilization’) to measure and evaluate absolutely everything. Behind this effort arguably lies a particular fantasy of the One, a fusional One that counts and then manages all of life without any remainder. Perhaps this is an old fantasy, but it was given new impetus when Crick and Watson famously conceptualised DNA in terms of code just as the technical conditions for computation were taking off, thereby turning not just the body but life as such into an information processor. It has been up to psychoanalysis to counter this fusional One through the clinic of, precisely, the one-by-one, thanks to which the singular subject’s relation to the One-all-alone of jouissance can provide some relief from the Other’s superegoic count.

Our analysands sleep not to count, but perchance to dream …


[1] I place ‘health’ in scare quotes to indicate its imaginary plasticity, moulded by, among other things, exactly the kinds of technologies I am referring to here. Take the New York-based health insurance company, Oscar. This tech company is challenging traditional health insurance companies by offering fitness trackers as part of their insurance products, the data from which is then fed back into health risk assessments to earn customers cheaper insurance. Exercise targets have been incentivised with Amazon vouchers … It is hard to imagine a clearer example of the neoliberalisation of health.

[2] See Miller, J-A. ‘L’ère de l’homme sans qualités’, La Cause freudienne – Politique Psy. No 57. June, 2004.

[3] Brousse, M-H. ‘Ordinary Psychosis in the Light of Lacan’s Theory of Discourse’, Psychoanalytical Notebooks: A Review of the London Society of the New Lacanian School. No. 19. July 2009, p.15.

[4] Zuboff, Shoshana, ‘Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization’, Journal of Information Technology. No 30. 2015, p.75.