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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

The Internet of Things

Last night's discussion in my Digital Humanities seminar was based primarily on the concept referred to as the “internet of things,” an idea that refers to the general connectivity of the material world to the digital. iPhones, Smart TV’s, refrigerators that let you know the milk expired, Amazon dash buttons, Nest climate control systems, and a billion other things that we interact with on a day-to-day basis keep us tethered to the World Wide Web. But, that’s not all...these devices, sensors, and handy-dandy programs also take something from us often without us ever realizing it—data.

Connectivity. Resistance is Futile.

My light bulb moment in the reading for this week occurred when it clicked for me that data of any kind is a real commodity. Greenfield made this apparent when he described how many companies or individuals collect data from various sources without even having a clear intent or use for it...yet.

That’s the key.

Let’s say there are some kind of motion sensor cameras in a local park to monitor safety. These cameras may also collect and store data pertaining to what kinds of activities people do in the park, what they eat or drink, and maybe even the kinds of shoes they wear. It’s not difficult to see how these points of reference could help various companies tune ad campaigns to specific types of consumers. All it takes is the right opportunity for the purchase or implementation of such data to make it valuable.

Many critics of the “data-fication” of the universe (to be a bit dramatic) suggest that this commodification of raw information promotes a society of zero privacy and dehumanization. They’re not wrong. But I prefer to take the stance of a reserved kind of engagement, one that allows for exploration, open-mindedness, as well as critique.

For example, one of the areas Greenfield explored as a subset of the internet of things was the Quantified Self movement. This delineation reflects the portion of the population who participate in any kind of self-measurement for the purpose of improving health, productivity, efficiency, or quality of life. This movement can be reduced to one device—the Fitbit.

So...much...DATA! It's over 9000!!!

The Fitbit can be thought of as a metonymical object, one that stands in for any kind of personal device, wearable, or other means of collecting data about the human body. This data is collected and visualized for users who want to better understand trends regarding their nutrition, exercise, or sleeping habits. Ideally, this data helps users make changes to their habit-practices or to “optimize” their routines.

In a less than ideal scenario, however, this kind of Quantified Self mentality conditions users toward a Modernist-Positivist line of thinking about their bodies. Even the encouragement of terms like personal “optimization” blur the lines between wellness and efficiency in such a way that suggests some final end goal. From a traditional martial arts perspective, I find this extremely problematic.

My current dissertation research centers around a concept explored in Debra Hawhee’s 2004 book Bodily Arts, the Ancient Greek portmanteau phusiopoiesis. This idea translates roughly to the “art of becoming” or the “process of making one’s body.” This insistence on growth as an active process is, I argue, central to the understanding of Daoist rhetorical underpinnings central to martial arts practice.

The core philosophy of what I identify as true wellness is the belief that health, fitness, and personal development is a life-long process—not an end goal, result, or product. Some of the most impactful and awe-inspiring martial artists I’ve ever met are Grand Masters, people who have achieved the highest possible honor in the Tae Kwon Do community...but they are committed to the philosophy of life-long learning. Grand Master "Dragon" Kim, for example, only ever describes his skill level as "ok." He constantly reminds students that there are always new heights to reach for, new goals to set, and new accomplishments to attain.

I hope that one day I can shatter a solid wall of ice with my foot and still see the long road of progress ahead of me.

So why am I making a stink about wearables and what does it really have to do with Tae Kwon Do? Well, the fact is, wearable digital technology and the quantified self is a reality for modern Tae Kwon Do practice, especially at the highest levels of competition. And, as you might expect, it’s begun to create a sports culture very different from the one outlined in texts like Grandmaster Richard Chun’s Advancing in Tae Kwon Do describing the values of traditional promise practice.

Beginning after the 2008 games, Olympic Tae Kwon Do sparring started to revolve around electronic scoring systems involving chest protectors and instep guards with embedded sensors. These sensors connect to a simple screen displaying each competitor's score in real time during the match. Over the years, high level sparring has changed dramatically as this scoring technology and technical rules have evolved.

While digital scoring technologies are lauded by some as a way to remove human bias from scoring a match, they can be exploited by players who understand the glitches of the system. For example, one generation of electronic chest protectors was much more sensitive to the friction of a foot dragging across its surface than a more penetrating blow. This meant that some competitors could be rewarded with points for sloppier technique (even if it were intentionally so) as compared to other fighters who did not receive points for clearly powerful kicks.

As this example illustrates, the technology changed the game. So much so, in fact, that the Olympic Tae Kwon Do rules committee has been adjusting competition regulations and standards ever since to try and compensate. I plan to research the specifics of this phenomenon more in-depth in the future, perhaps even as a project for this class, so stay tuned for more!

In short, I think its important for martial artists to keep a critical eye on any new technologies which change their practice, from safety equipment to training accessories and beyond. For me, it's not appealing to train in such a way just to win a match. Some competitors, especially the younger generation (the digital natives of Tae Kwon Do if you will), may not know any better. Its important that as a community of practitioners we stay true to ourselves, our traditions, and to our art. This is not to say we should avoid all new technologies or changes--Tae Kwon Do is a living art, after all--but, as Greenfield reminds us, approach the internet of all things, even the internet of martial arts "energetically and in good faith" but "with an unusually strong leavening of skepticism" (62).

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