Here’s a question for our times: If it’s not digital, does it exist?
Last month, I backpacked the Olympic National Park for the weekend with my brother-in-law and friends. It was a sensational two-day, loop of the Seven Lakes trail and High Divide.
I slowly, but surely, dragged my forty-something frame up 3000 vertical feet over 19 miles of beautiful, Tolkien-Middle-Earth-worthy vistas (surely qualifying as “Instagrammable”). And thinking, optimistically, through the not-immaterial pain and soreness, but also epic beauty, “Wow, I’m really going to crush all my FitBit competitors on number of steps today! Prepare to be taunted, boys and girls…”
Only to realize, near the end of the loop: I lost my FitBit somewhere out on the trail.
Thousands of steps, gone in a flash. Hard-earned over 19 miles. Back, aching. Legs sore. Mind swimming with beautiful, evanescent images of my iPhone app flashing triumphant green stars, confirming that I’d “Nailed It!!!”
Leading back to my original question: if it’s not digital, to the world of AI and the Algorithm, does it exist?
As all users of FitBit know all-too-well, if your steps are not automatically digitally recorded by the wristband interfacing with the system, they certainly do NOT exist. There’s no manual “override”. If you lose the hard-won steps by literally losing your Bit, it’s tantamount to a “dog ate my homework excuse” (or, with apologies to the movie Goodfellas: Business bad? “… Pay me.” Oh, you had a fire? “…Pay me”. Place got hit by lightning, huh? “…Pay me.").
You lost your FitBit? … Pay me.
So to my taunting/cheering pals on FitBit, it’s like the hike never occurred (but in the time it took me to order a new one, hopefully the absence of data did not evince erroneous suspicions of my death. No one asked, anyway).
Perhaps a better analogy is that it’d be a variant on the tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear it, and wondering whether it made a sound.
It’s the Schrodinger’s Cat of the Age of the Quantified, Digital Self. Schrodinger, of course, conducted the hypothetical 1935experiment in which a cat is placed in a sealed box along with a radioactive sample, a Geiger counter and a bottle of poison. If the Geiger counter triggers the smashing of the poison, the cat will be killed - even if it’s unobserved. But until it’s observed, the cat is theoretically dead and undead at the same time.
In addition to the loss of my FitBit, the cold air made my iPhone battery conk out, and then the whole device got pretty soaked in a rainstorm (not all backpack pockets are waterproof!)
But a funny thing happened along the way: being off, “digitally naked” so-to-speak, I haven’t felt as alive and free in quite a while. I actually got a bit lost. With no GPS to guide me, I resorted to asking random strangers encountered on the trail for guidance. It was OK. Everyone was cool. There were also a surprising amount of rangers in the backcountry too, looking out for everybody. And seriously – 6 black bears calmly munching blackberries within 100 yards! It wasn’t that big a deal. I felt really relaxed.
Even though it was non-existent to FitBit, the hike vividly unfolded. It was real. It was glorious. I *did* get the steps. The calories were burned. The memories were made.
It’s also safe to say that hiking is a way better mode of exercise to balance the ubiquity, sedentariness, and occasional ennui of our digital lives than any gym could ever provide. Look no further than the explosion of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese art of “forest-bathing”. Or the explosion in outdoor and wellness apparel like yoga leggings that have supplanted designer jeans (in fact, in the Japanese market, technical styles from Mizuno and sandal brand Keen have been cult favorites for decades).
Keeping balance between the digital and the human is essential to the future of work, the future of health and wellness, and certainly the future of sanity. The benefits of the balance are real. Futhermore, a telling anecdote surfaced from the Gen Z, digital native students participating in the recent Aspen Action Forum who spotlighted the digital gulf between youth and adults: “…though we’ve grown up accustomed to being surrounded by technology, we have the capability to realize that a balance between digital and analog is often more effective.”
So what of my ill-fate FitBit? It’ll probably left to totally deteriorate slowly over the centuries in the forest-floor duff in the Northeastern quadrant of Olympic National Park. And to any person who should discover it centuries from now in the future, it’s a thousand times more likely that a thousand year-old arrowhead stands a better chance of being understood for its utility.
And sadly, given its plastic constitution, it’ll probably last as long as a tool left on the surface of the moon. In the words of NASA’s Pete Conrad, at the precise moment he became the third man to step on the lunar surface, much smaller than Neil Armstrong: “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil but that’s a long one for me!”
So if, some days, you feel like a cat in a digital cage, go for a long hike. Without your devices.
Just don’t forget your FitBit.