One of the greatest challenges in teaching media today is the emphasis on ephemeral, individual, and increasingly haptic experiences with emerging technologies. From the fleeting Snapchat and Instagram “stories” that disappear in twenty-four hours, to swiping, sorting, and “liking” the endless stream of content on social media, new media platforms and technologies cannot be divorced from the experiences they generate. Pinning down the “text” of these micro-encounters and interactions is particularly difficult in the space of the humanities classroom. How do you close read a #hashtag? How do you perform visual analysis on YouTube’s auto-play feature? While the sheer variety and speed of emerging technologies necessitate continued adaptation for instructors, this article offers an example of how phenomenological description can be used to ground classroom discussions of ephemeral media.
In the spring of 2019, with the support of the Film Studies program at Michigan State University, students in my “Ordinary Media” course received a Fitbit to use throughout the semester. Students used these devices over the course of fifteen weeks to complete a series of assignments on topics ranging from data privacy to technology and embodiment. This article focuses on the phenomenological description assignment and provides reflections from students that assess its learning outcomes.
The phenomenological description assignment was designed to help students reflect on the impact of the Fitbit on their bodies and day-to-day lives. Coupled with a lecture and discussion of the phenomenological method, students completed a description of an experience using the device (full assignment instructions can be found in the appendix). The primary goals of the writing assignment were as follows:
- encourage students to attend to the embodied experience of using a wearable fitness tracker;
- reflect on how these experiences impact their ordinary habits and behaviors, as well as broader perceptions of health, wellness, and productivity;
- develop a new set of writing skills that can be applied to other ephemeral media experiences.
To prepare students to complete the assignment, I provided a short lecture on the method of phenomenological description, which included a brief summary of the history of phenomenology and the key principles of the philosophical movement. The main section of my lesson highlighted the following:
- Subjective description, or the importance of highlighting your located, subject position in the act of describing. In order to highlight the difference between more rationalist modes of description and phenomenology, I asked students to offer me a description of an object in the classroom. Most automatically began to offer the “facts” about the object—the material, quantity, size, etc. I used this as an opportunity to highlight the differences between this approach and phenomenological description: how to alter their language to emphasize their particular perspective of an object: how much of the object can they see? How does the light hit the surface of the object?
- Embodiment, or the way phenomenology has emphasized the importance of attending to the often-overlooked bodily aspects of sensation, movement, and perception. I brought in examples of phenomenological writings from theorists, including the description of learning to play the piano and shaving to illustrate how the descriptive method can be used to draw attention to habits and behaviors we take for granted (see appendix). We discussed the strange language used in these examples as a way to highlight how phenomenology often seeks to draw attention to embodied experiences that are often difficult to describe from a subjective point of view. How do you describe the sensation of a blade pulling across your skin, or the pressure you use to press your finger to a piano key?
The submissions were evaluated based on the following criteria:
- the use of descriptive language, particularly the ability to narrate an experience that their reader could imagine as they move through the paper;
- the specificity of the written experience, with a focus on small scale details like sensation, movement, and emotions;
- the use of examples and detail to think more broadly about their experiences in the reflection section of the paper.
Learning Outcomes According to Students
Writing my phenomenological description was a very strange experience. Not only was I forced to think about the way I interacted with the Fitbit, but I was also tasked with putting into words the feelings that had been creeping in the back of my mind since receiving the device. Although it was easier than anticipated to do so, it still took a long time for me to work up the nerve to dissect my feelings surrounding the Fitbit. Not only because I suspected that many of those feelings would be negative, what with the current climate surrounding security and private information, but also because of how it might make me feel about myself. And indeed, I was not entirely pleased with what I discovered about myself. The act of observing myself through a phenomenological lens revealed to me just how much I had normalized through the use of the Fitbit that I would have found alarming in anybody else. Through this normalization I allowed the device to affect me deeply. The level to which I allowed my mental state to be determined by the Fitbit was very disturbing and I didn’t know how to react to the news that I could be controlled by something so simple. All in all, however, I’m happy that I took part in this as I believe it is important for everyone to look inside of themselves and ask how it is that we are affected by the technology we allow into our lives.
Like some of the other fiction writers in the class, the phenomenological description assignment was a routine practice of skills we use every day. For most people, it is strange to write about what I feel, especially in a writing form such as phenomenological description, which is very interested in minute physiological and mental events. However, this came easily to me, and I made a point of helping explain the style to some of my struggling peers. It is obvious why a person who does not write often should have trouble with this assignment, but I was surprised to find that other writers in the class had trouble as well. A classmate explained that this is not the creative writing they are used to—there is a difference between personal accounts (phenomenological descriptions) and third-person fiction stories. Every classmate I talked to agreed that while this was an uncomfortable assignment, it is constructive. Of course, it is uncomfortable to look within, but self-reflection is important. While I have written like this before the assignment, I never thought so much about my analysis, or even appreciated my writing and experiences so much. I would write the things I felt in detail but never treat them as scientific data of some sort. This is where the greatest aspect of phenomenological descriptions lies: Placing value on immediate physiological experiences in a collegiate classroom setting is a great way to validate your own experiences.
Revisions and Adaptations
For most instructors, purchasing Fitbits for students is likely cost-prohibitive and an unlikely option based on classroom spending restrictions. I have previously run versions of the step-counting and self-quantification lessons using free smartphone apps. Numerous free pedometers are available through the Android and Apple Apps Store, including Argus (Azimo 2019), Strava (Strava Inc. 2019), Pacer (Pacer Health Inc. 2019), and StepsApp (StepsApp GmbH 2019). Most of these platforms also include competition and community-sharing features. Moreover, most Android and iPhones come with built-in health and activity-tracking apps that track steps and activity.
While this project focused on the experience of wearable fitness trackers, the phenomenological description assignment can be used to analyze a wide range of ephemeral media and technology. For example, I have used a similar assignment to analyze binge-watching television. Other possible applications include scrolling through social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok; digital gaming experiences; virtual reality; and other wearable technologies, including sleep monitors, heart rate monitors, and meditation apps. Moreover, though this assignment was focused on embodiment and technology, phenomenological description could be used to reflect on a range of other topics, including gender, race, and technology, ablism and technology, governmentality and neoliberalism, and surveillance.
Appendix 1 – Phenomenological Description Paper Instructions
Phenomenological Description Assignment
At least 1000 words, double-spaced
For this assignment, you will be required to write a phenomenological description of an experience with your Fitbit. This assignment is composed of 2 parts: a phenomenological description and reflection. (Note: While I have these two sections separated here, you do not have to break your paper into two sections. Feel free to weave these two parts together.)
Part 1: In 500 words or more, provide a rich, subjective account of your experience, drawing upon the principles covered in our lecture in week 5. Try to create a description that allows your reader to imagine your experience as they read. I’d encourage you to use evocative, even strange, language to convey feelings, sensations, and affects. For example, you might ask yourself, “how would I describe the sensation of walking?” Focus on how to convey an account that acknowledges your unique embodied experience. Remember that phenomenology often aims to bring previously unconscious activities into consciousness. How does the Fitbit similarly force attention to your body and activities? I’ve provided 3 examples of phenomenological descriptions to provide additional inspiration/guidance (posted on D2L).
Part 2: In 500 words or more, attend to these types of questions to reflect on your experience using the Fitbit thus far. Draw upon specific examples to support your response. How has the Fitbit changed or influenced the way you relate to your bodily habits or activities? If you haven’t made any changes, reflect on why that may be and perhaps offer thoughts on features that would cause you to change. If you have used specific notification features, goal markers, or competition elements, how have these structures impacted your everyday activities? How has the device impacted you over time? Have you noticed a change in your use of the device from the start of the semester to now? What kinds of feelings has the device produced? Anxiety? Apathy? Anger? Frustration? Where are these feelings located and how do they impact your understanding of health, sense of your body, or productivity? Are there moments when your bodily sensations contradict the data provided in the app? How does this contradiction impact your perception of those sensations or the device/app? Even if you dislike your Fitbit or haven’t used it, offer a reflection that really examines why this is the case: do not simply dismiss it. Ideally, your reflection should focus on how these devices have impacted your body, feelings of wellbeing or productivity, or mental health. (The next assignment will be more focused on “self-knowledge” through quantification.)
You will be graded on your paper’s clarity of writing, your use of language to communicate an experience (it should feel as though I’ve stepped into your shoes), and the use of specific examples in your reflection section.
Phenomenological Description Examples
Epstein, Jean. “Magnification and Other Writings.” October 3 (Spring 1977): 9.
Young, Iris Marion. “Pregnant Embodiment.” In On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays, 49–51. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Sudow, David. Ways of the Hand, 12–16. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
Appendix 2 – Sample Student Phenomenological Description Paper #1
The Fitbit and Agency
Every morning, save for special occasions, begins the same. I get up; typically I am tired, but I am complete. I eat breakfast and watch an episode of whatever show I am currently watching; These activities improve my morning mood, but are not requisites for being complete. And finally I make sure I have all the belongings I’ll need that day before heading out the door; these belongings are irrespective of me, even if I do place them in a backpack which I “wear.” The objects would continue to serve their purpose whether or not I’m holding them.
The Fitbit, however, disrupts this process. The Fitbit serves no purpose when detached from me. All the Fitbit will ever accomplish, all it will ever be worth, is fundamentally tied to what I do while wearing it. However, it is not a part of me, as I am a complete and functioning person without it. If I walk a thousand steps on my way to class, the Fitbit does not have any hand in that. So as I prepare to walk out the door and decide to put on my Fitbit, it is as if I am shackling myself. With every step, I feel the Fitbit on my wrist and am conscious of my activity being monitored, even if it is technically I who is (or will later be) doing the monitoring.
Often times in science fiction the future has been defined by the introduction of technology to the human body, with various pieces of tech being integrated to heighten our senses. The technology is seen as a part of the body because it gives humans greater agency over what they can accomplish with said body. If the goal of the Fitbit was at least in part to make one feel like a cyborg, it has failed. For I never feel as though I have greater agency while wearing the Fitbit. Instead, I feel as though I am a slave to the Fitbit, where instead of it working for me, I am working for it (here the metaphor of the shackle feels very appropriate). Every decision to eschew physical activity—be it taking the bus, skipping a workout, or taking an elevator—evokes a definite feeling of guilt or doubt, as though I can feel the Fitbit grow heavier on my wrist while I am motionless. I am never unaware of the Fitbit’s presence on my wrist, but it is never harder to ignore than when I am choosing not to walk.
The agency I lose when I put on the Fitbit is always missed. From the moment every morning when I see it on the kitchen counter and am reminded that I should wear it, to the moment I return at the end of the day and finally remove it, I am incomplete. And the fact that this process of subtraction through addition is one I choose to participate in everyday shows how thorough this lack of agency is. Because simply owning a Fitbit—to have the opportunity to subject myself to a loss of agency—is a privilege that should not be held with contempt for fear of appearing ungrateful.
As I’ve discussed, the Fitbit feels like an obligation that I must attend to on a daily basis. However, if the purpose of a Fitbit is to encourage healthy living practices, one could argue that it’s working. I often walk now in situations when I previously would have taken the bus, most frequently on my way back from class. I am also no much more aware of how active I am, or rather, how inactive I am. Ever since the Fitbit brought my attention to my inactivity on the weekends, I have tried to be more active on those days. I say tried because, as the data shows, the weekend is still my lowest days of productivity unless I have work, something that is out of my control.
There is another side to this coin, however. Being more aware of my activity has not had an overall positive effect on my mental health, as I have become much more self-conscious about my health. I feel regular amounts of shame and guilt when I look back on a day of inactivity and I often compare my average days to my most productive days, causing me to feel as though I am not doing enough.
However, many of these negative aspects disappear when participating in weekly challenges. My naturally competitive nature regularly takes over my senses whenever I participate in a competition and I become far more concerned with compering myself to others than myself. While this does not sound optimal—after all, comparing oneself to others on social media sites is a huge issue in my generation and is a largely negative influence on our mental health—it is far healthier than comparing myself to my own personal bests.
I can readily admit that there are people out there who are both more athletic than I am and more dedicated. However, if I judge myself to be, for the sake of argument, the seventh most athletic person in a competition, and I manage to finish fifth, it feels like a tremendous accomplishment. This grants me the opportunity to witness incremental personal growth, something that is both very helpful to my self-image and also highly motivating to keep going.
As a bonus, I believe this has a ripple effect in which those who saw themselves as more athletic than me yet finished behind me in a competition experience renewed determination to reclaim their perceived standing. This is a mutually beneficial source of motivation for everyone in a competition as it allows for frequent opportunities to grow to new heights or make up for previous setbacks.
Interestingly, when considering the comradery and friendship that emerges as a result of the competitions, the Fitbit is almost redeemed for the negative impact it has previously had on my mental health. In this way, it seems as though the impact that the Fitbit has on me is determined by how I use it, allowing me to reclaim the agency it had previously taken from me.
Appendix 3 – Sample Student Phenomenological Description Paper #2
I grew up in a digital atmosphere where data control and privacy were seldom discussed. The “Terms of Service” are a tedious read that I was never encouraged to read. My first encounter with digital privacy was as a twelve-year-old, excited to join Facebook and completely ignorant of the conditions. I opened my door to the possibilities of the digital world and didn’t even mind who walked in. How could I know what any of this meant? In the following teen years, I signed up for Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, various games and services. Who were all these people walking into my house? I was never taught to care. I’ve heard a lot of precautionary tales about the dangers of carelessly indulging in the digital world, but I was never taught any safe practices. I had no conception of who had access to what information.
Prefacing the course with an overview of privacy in the digital age feels like a gift, rather than a necessity. I wouldn’t have questioned the Fitbit “Terms of Service” if I wasn’t told that it’s a responsible practice. The Privacy Paradox Challenge felt like wake-up call which would drastically the way I engage with digital services. While I did download the “Privacy Badger” web tool (admittedly, without researching it much!), the most I have done to alter my practices is reading the condensed versions of terms of services and occasionally worrying about where my data is. A light slap on the face from a brief podcast series is not nearly enough to alter a formative decade of digital nonchalance.
Being aware of what data I was giving away is only half of the story. Even when I address the terms of services, I have been trained to be immodest about where my information goes. Fitbit has access to your location, though it anonymizes it—but it is a simple reverse-process to align data with a specific person. Did I care that this information could be used in a trial? I had never committed a crime and did not intend to commit a crime, so I shrugged this off. Fitbit could sell my information to health care providers, essentially deciding whether I get health care. Did I care? I’m young and healthy, so it shouldn’t be a problem, right? I was faced with a decision—do I try out this interesting technology, which takes the same type of information I’ve already divested to shadier companies, or stand up for my digital privacy? In the following paragraphs, I’ll discuss my experience using the Fitbit.
My exposure to the Fitbit was comprised of watching my mother cheer when hitting her 10,000-step goal on her device, and some commercials I didn’t pay much attention to. To me, it was a device for middle-aged or overweight people trying to get back in shape—why should I, a perfectly youthful and skinny teenager, consider this as a part of my life? My attention to the device faded for a few years until we were provided one for the course. I can’t track how my opinion changed, but I was excited to try one on, and wore it immediately. Once I wore it, my conception drastically changed—it was no longer for unhealthy people, it was for people. It is does not provide health, it provides a sense of awareness of fundamentals actions—how much sleep do I get? How much do I walk? It was compelling.
When looking at the functions of the device, I was most interested in the sleep tracker. Fortunate enough to have a high metabolism and no serious health conditions, I didn’t pay much attention to my well-being except for a dogmatic insistence on getting eight hours of sleep every night. After a few nights sleeping with the wristband, I looked at the results—I only get six-and-a-half hours of sleep every night? I try to resist dramatic statements, but I couldn’t help feeling that a little part of my world was turned upside down. What am I doing for one-and-a-half hours a day that isn’t sleeping? I investigated the sleep data and realize that time was lost to being “awake / restless.” I didn’t question how I could fix this. It must have been a few particularly distressing days I had recorded (or I must have unknowingly changed my habits), because after another week with the device, I was averaging seven-and-a-half hours a day. The Fitbit was telling me what my activity looked like, and the app often encouraged me to walk more or change my habits and try new features, but I never considered them. The white screen and simple graphics of the app encouraged a feeling of simplicity and because of this (as well as laziness and a general lack of curiosity) I chose a simple approach to the technology—I see how much I walk and how much I sleep.
One night, after a few weeks wearing the device, I was under my covers, ready to sleep, but found I could not sleep and instantly identified the wristband as the reason why. I did not know why but felt a strong wave of anxiety emanating from the device. I was faced with a choice—do I track how much sleep I get (which in this case, felt like it would be very little) or do I get the sleep, but not have the data to prove it to myself? I unhinged the wristband and threw it onto the ground. I forgot about the Fitbit for a week.
As for the wristband, my first impression was that it was difficult to latch on. What a fuss! Once it was on, thought, I admired how it made my arm appear slimmer. Wow, I feel fitter already! It certainly encourages a fit lifestyle. But it’s winter in Michigan and I am almost always wearing long sleeves that cover the device. It is turned from a stylish item to an obnoxious rubber band. When putting on or taking off layers, it pulled my arm hairs and tugged my clothing. I’ve gotten used to it since.
When the step challenge was proposed, I quickly voiced my interest. I was not so interested in trying to compete with others, but instead I wanted another way to interact with my classmates. I was uninterested and remain uninterested in the bigger community features the app offers. I didn’t care to see how much another person had walked or what goals they had achieved. I was simply excited to taunt my fellow classmates and professor. The “taunt” button is not as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. It is as simple and bland as pressing “taunt.” There is no character to the taunt. It cannot be simple teasing, it cannot be intimidation. It feels as devoid of character as Facebook’s “poke” feature. I had to type out my intended effect in the chat. After the first day of watching my classmates establish previously unfathomable step count leads, I was aware that, with my typical day, I had no chance of winning. I briefly considered changing my habits to seriously compete, but I dismissed the idea of winning, and continued taunting my classmates and engaging in the chat. It was still good fun! It’s a lot more exciting (to me) to receive a lighthearted light-blue notification that someone has passed another person than an Instagram notification showing who my newest anonymous follower is.
I found our discussion in the classroom improved as our usage increased. Before the competition, we shared how we used the device and my classmates’ lifestyles were compelling and often very different than mine. The step competition encouraged me and other peers to put the wristband back on and the discussions became more fruitful, though under the conditions of a challenge.
Appendix 4 – Sample Student Phenomenological Description Paper #3
As I extend my reach, my hand is open, each finger with a slight bend. My eyes are fixated on the circular shape of the black band as it lays still on the platform of my desk. The extension of my reach is halted and a space between my thumb and index finger close in on the band. The texture of a smooth rubber material against my flesh stimulates my fingertips. The forced pressure of the clinch so tight that I wonder if an imprint shall remain upon releasing it. My left hand swims underneath as the band sweeps gently across the skin on top, altering in shape as it displays its flexibility and making its way to its rightful position on my wrist. I pinch the near end of the object with my index finger placed on the stiff, silver ballpoints. I then rotate my wrist counterclockwise until I reach a 180-degree motion. I pause. I extend my other fingers to the opposite end of the band to bring forth the series of inscribed holes. I scan the indents mentally, considering the proper fit to which it will hold onto my wrist upon its locking. I apply pressure into the holes until I hear the sound of it snapping into place. I rotate my wrist clockwise until it is returns to its original place.
I raise my opposite hand up and towards the top of the band where the tracker resides. My index finger falls onto it. Keeping the rest of my hand still, I tap the tracker twice. Five circular symbols quickly illuminate one after another traveling from one end to another. The lights go away for a split second and return, some holding onto the light while one flashes. This signifies to me a coded system of leveling. I now estimate when the proper time should be that I remove the tracker to restore it with new energy given the amount of illuminated circular symbols. The symbols disappear. My elbow extends and my arm draws downward to hang parallel with the rest of my body. I reach into the pocket stitched onto my pants to retrieve my phone. I pull it out and level it in front of my eyeline perspective. My thumb sweeps the screen until I locate the necessary application. As my thumb comes down on the curved rectangular logo display, the imagery changes to a display of statistics. In the top left-hand corner, an icon of the object resides with a refreshing symbol rotating rapidly. Underneath, a loading bar extends, signaling the synchronization of the object and prompting an estimated wait time simultaneously. As I undergo a routine motion of raising one foot, returning it to the floor, and repeating, the statistics alter. The alignment of the numerical values with the motions of my physical movement create a feeling of satisfaction.
When I first was given the Fitbit, I wasn’t sure if I was immediately willing to incorporate it with my daily life. I was interested in the features and capabilities it had to offer, but my main dissatisfaction revolved around having to wear the wristband every day. It honestly took me a couple of weeks to start wearing it due to this comfortability issue. But, once I put it on, I realized that the fitting wasn’t so bad because of the many adjustment options you are given. Automatically, I felt a sense of personal obligation to try to reach the 10,000-step goal. Around this time of year, the amount of physical activity I complete on a daily basis is very unpredictable. Most of my movement comes from walking to and from class from my dorm on campus—unless I decide to take the bus.
The Fitbit has definitely motivated me at times or at least made me feel accountable when it comes to making decisions around my daily habits. When I first started tracking my steps, I would go to the gym and play basketball for over an hour just to boost up my step numbers and test out the system overall. Also, now when I wake up, I instantly think about my Fitbit when I have to decide whether to take the bus or walk to class. Reaching that step goal is just so satisfying to me. I remember when I first hit it, I took a picture on snapchat and uploaded it to my story to show my friends that I was about to reach my step goal for the first time. It felt like a moment worth sharing…and to brag a little. But, the buzzing alert it sends me sometimes confuses me because I also have the same alert synched up to my text and call notifications, which have been a huge help since I always have my phone on vibrate and sometimes don’t feel it go off when it’s in my pocket.
I also enjoy how it records my distance covered. Whenever I run on a treadmill, I always focus on distance covered rather than time duration, so having this Fitbit technology at the palm of my hand provides that feature throughout my entire day and not just at the gym. One of the features that took me a while to start tracking was my sleep and the reason for that is the same comfortability issue I had in the beginning. It’s safe to say that I’ve been taking baby steps with fully incorporating the Fitbit into my daily life. But, all it took was forgetting to take it off one night and seeing the statistics in the morning to get me hooked. There’s just something about seeing quantitative data collected on your routine movements that feel so unconscious. It makes me feel more in tune with how I move throughout the day. With that being said, one of the most reoccurring thoughts I have about the Fitbit is what it’s going to be like when I no longer have it. Is it going to make a true impact on my habits to the point where I have to purchase a new one to sustain my sanity?