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Fitbitters of the world, unite! How the Soviets invented fitness tracking

Health and fitness monitoring devices promise a future of good health and pre-emptive diagnosis. Not to mention reduced( for some) insurance premiums. So what connects our new preoccupation with personal productivity with the dogma of Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin?

At this years Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria, I happened upon a robot made of hacked and 3D-printed surgical components that they are able perform DIY keyhole surgery. Its builder, the Dutch artist Frank Kolman, was inspired by YouTube videos in which impoverished hackers and makers, largely without insurance, share medical tips-off and tricks. No money for bridgework? Try Sugru moldable glue.

A revolution is afoot in medication. And like all revolutions, it is composed of equal proportions inspirational advance and jaw-dropping social misfortune. On the plus side, there are the health and fitness promises inherent in the artefacts of a personal health surveillance industry all those Jawbone and Fitbits and Scanadu Scouts, iPhones and Apple Watches that promises to top $50 bn in annual sales by 2018. The devices arent particularly accurate( yet ), and more than half of them end up at the bottom of a drawer after six months. Still, DIY devices are already spotting medical problems before their users do, raising the likelihood of a future in which illness and medical conditions are treated long before the patient get sick.

On the minus side, there is Kolkmans terrifyingly practical robot, and its promise of a future in which DIY medicine is the only medicine the ordinary person can afford. The sunny western coast self-reliant rhetoric of the making and hacking and quantified self motions disguise the disturbing assumption that they can be a substitute for civic life.

We have been here before. Not much more than a century ago the Russian empire was a ramshackle agglomeration of colonies, held together by military force and hooch. There were no institutions for reformers to reform: no councils , no unions , no guilds , no professional bodies, few schools, few hospitals worth the name; in many places , no roads.

The Fitbit. Photo: Fitbit

The responsibility for improvement and reform unavoidably fell on the individual. Utopia was a personal quest in Nikolay Chernyshevskys novel What Is to Be Done ? according to Lenin, the greatest and most talented representation of socialism before Marx. Even more hysterical, Tolstoys The Kreutzer Sonata opts the prospect of human annihilation to its current unreformed( read: lustful) condition. Outside the library and drawing room, pre-revolutionary Russia floundered in a sea of cults, from machinism and robotism to primitive reticence, antiverbalism, nudism, social militarism, revolutionary sublimation, suicidalism One outfit called itself the Nothing, its members neither writing, reading or speaking.

Into this stew went the railways and the clock and all of a sudden self-regulation became easy and practical. In Leningrad in 1923, a theatre critic, Platon Kerzhentsev, founded the League of Time, in order to promote time-efficiency. Eight hundred time cells were put in in the army, mills, departments and schools. The Timists carried chronocards in order to monitor time-wasting, wasted motion and lengthy speeches. Without watches, they tried to guess the passageway of minutes and hours, and were awarded medals for spontaneous time discipline. They kept meticulous diaries of their every daily action. Lenin had the leagues personal productivity posters pasted up on the wall behind his desk.

Man will finally begin to really harmonise himself, Leon Trotsky prophesied in 1922: He will put forward the task to introduce into the movement of his own organs during run, stroll, play the highest precision, expediency, economy, and thus beauty.

The poet Alexei Gastev whose outlawing toothbrush-moustache and crew cut disguised a lot of mischief took Trotsky at his word. He constructed a social-engineering machine. This giant structure of pulleys, cogs and weights was a thing of no fathomable utilize whatsoever, yet Gastev insisted that a few hours workout would turn you into a new kind of human being. He rolled these machines out across the young Soviet Union, as a kind of mascot for his Central Insitute of Labour which, with Lenins personal backing, taught peasant workers how to behave in modern factories. A class at the Central Institute of Labour was a sort of drill practice: pupils stood before their benches in define postures, with places marked out for their feet. They rehearsed separate elements of each task, then combined them in a finished performance.( Judging by the sheer popularity of the class, and the speed of the institutes expansion, the class must have been quite enjoyable .)

Bernsteins kymocyclograph. Photograph: HANDOUT

Joining Gastev at the beginning of his career was the young Nikolai Bernstein, whose childhood spent assembling radios and build models of steam engines and bridges, defined him in good stead when it came to mechanically registering the movements of the human body. He developed a high-speed camera called the kymocyclograph. The shutter, a round plate with holes in it, rotated before the camera lens, so that the photographic plate would record multiple images, each uncovered a fraction of a second after its neighbour.( Motion-capture cinema, VR and all the other technologies that keep Gollum actor Andy Serkis on the talkshow circuit begin here .)

By the end of these studies, Bernstein had good evidence that motion could not be a simple matter of Pavlovian reflexes. His more nuanced model of motor answers amounted to a fully fledged theory of cybernetics, decades before Norbert Wiener coined the term in 1948.

The early Soviet Union met unprecedented amounts of data on human motion, fitness, behaviour and genetics, constructing it a world leader in the fields. A new kind of human being healthy, fit, psychologically integrated and free of heritable cancer seemed, for a few heady days in the 1920 s, an achievable aspiration.

Then, in 1927, a miner called Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov went to work in a mine. He was no superman, but he was energetic and intelligent, and he could see ways of organising his work crew to increase the amount of coal they were able to dig in a single switching. On 31 August 1935, it was reported that he had mined a record 102 tonnes of coal in four hours and 45 minutes 14 times his quota. Barely three weeks later, on 19 September, Stakhanov and his crew more than doubled this record.

Alexey Stakhanov explains his system to a fellow miner, 1936. Photo: Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images

Others rushed to follow Stakhanovs example, and newspapers and newsreels across the Soviet Union celebrated their efforts. In Gorky, construction workers in a auto factory forged nearly 1,000 crankshafts in a single transformation. A shoemaker in Leningrad turned out 1,400 pairs of shoes in a day. On a collective farm, three female Stakhanovites proven they could cut sugar beet faster than was thought humanly possible. Such employees were awarded higher pay, better food, access to luxury goods and improved accommodation. Stakhanovism soon became a mass movement. In factories and even in scientific institutes, wrote the American psychologist Richard Schultz, the workers names may be posted on a bulletin board opposite a bird, deer, rabbit, tortoise or snail relative to the speed with which they turn out their work. A great deal of prestige is attached to the shock brigade worker.

For as long as human being labour for others, their plenty will improve only in so far as their productivity rises. Investment beyond this point induces no sense. The Soviet Union of the 1920 s was an impoverished country dotted with institutes of labour, health and maternity clinics, mental health services, housing offices and countless censuses. Arriving to power at the end of the decade, Joseph Stalin replaced all this social engineering with, well, engineering. Magnitostroi, which is still the largest steelworks in the world, housed its workers in tents downwind of the chimneys. The construction of the White Sea Canal cost 12,000 lives around a 10 th of the workforce.

Drunk as we are on the illusion of personal control, we should remember that data percolates uphill toward the powerful, because they are the ones who can afford to exploit it. Today, for every worried-yet-well twentysomething fiddling with his Fitbit, there is a worker being cajoled by their employer into taking a medical test. The tests are aggregated and anonymised, and besides, the company is giving the worker a cut of the insurance savings the test will stimulate. So wheres the harm?

Joseph Stalin: imagine how he could have exploited your Fitbit data Photograph: Hulton Getty

Well, for a start, anonymising data is incredibly hard to do. The bigger the datapool, the easier it is to triangulate data sets and home in on an individual. And while people can get thrown in jail for this sort of thing, algorithms are a lot harder to police. Has the computer told no to your mortgage application? Well, sorry, but there may simply be no human to blamed: the machine has figured things out on its own.

An even bigger worry is the way that, in our smartphone-enabled and meta-data-enriched world, complete knowledge of human affairs is becoming increasingly possible, inducing redundant the entire gamble of the assurances. At that point the scope for individual self-determination shrinks to zero and we are living in the world of Andrew Niccols excellent 1997 movie Gattaca.

Unregulated wellness programmes are imploring to be used as tools of surveillance, and thats not because anybodys actually doing anything wrong. Its because we have taken control of our own data, while at the same time forgetting that data ultimtely belongs to whoever can induce the most employ of it.

And it need not even be a problem, unless the class in power decide to replace social engineering with, well, engineering, health services with making and hacking, and civic societies with a desert, littered with the grinning skulls of people who aspired to west-coast radical self-reliance and failed.

Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings, is published by Faber& Faber( 20 ).

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