Recently, I’ve been thinking about the fitness monitors that more and more people are wearing to monitor their health. Of course, it's less accurate to say that people wear fitness trackers to monitor their health, than that they do so to monitor the monitoring of their health by the media technologies they’ve allowed access to their bodies. That difference matters. And it matters particularly because algorithms, on which these technologies run, are making it necessary to rethink the idea of agency.
Fitness monitors work first through sensors that measure input from our bodies, principally measurements of movement, and then through algorithms that interpret that data to generate an output feedback. It’s the output feedback that we monitor when we use these devices to track our health. So a Fitbit wristband or Apple Watch tells us our heart rate, or how many steps we’ve walked, or how fast we’ve run, or how soundly we slept, and so forth, and we respond (or not) to that feedback with the belief that it offers an insightful guide to help us toward a healthier life.
Insofar as the feedback offered in response to a fitness tracker’s measurements influences human action—e.g., actually prompts you out of bed to walk around the room until you log the day’s 10,000th step before sleeping—these devices can be understood to act rhetorically. If the algorithms driving fitness monitors can influence people, and if the process of exerting that influence can be understood as rhetorical, then in some ways these algorithms must exhibit a kind of rhetorical agency. The question is, what kind?
Carolyn Miller’s 2007 piece, “What Can Automation Tell us About Agency?,” is our best hope for an answer. Miller is the first rhetorician to recognize that automated technologies driven by algorithms challenge us to rethink what agency is and where it functions. For her, rather than “locate” rhetorical agency in a capacity to act rhetorically or in the effectivity of rhetorical action, as many have proposed we do, we should instead think of agency as a kind of kinetic energy attributed to the relationship between the two: between rhetor and audience, between capacity and effect.
Understanding rhetorical agency as kinetic energy might seem to "fit" fitness monitors perfectly, considering that these monitors inspire movement by measuring it. They're fundamentally kinetic. But if movement is both the necessary input for these algorithms to operate and that which the algorithmic output endeavors to inspire, then what agent function can be attributed to move-ability as such? In other words, movement needs to originate somewhere before the monitors and their algorithms can measure it, and hence before the algorithms can influence further movement. Is there not, then, a kind of rhetorical agency in potential energy as well?
Even if we follow Latour and attribute an agency function to an "actor network" (or, as I'm more inclined to do, follow Tim Ingold and call it a "creative entanglement"), the problem remains that we are not accounting for any originary sense of agency: for move-ability in the case of fitness trackers, but more generally for that ur-agency that sends agency's distributed capacities into motion to begin with. In a feedback system whereby human motion feeds a device’s sensors, which then feed output results back to the human, so that the human then moves or doesn’t move in response, thereby providing further input for the sensors, on and on, how can agency exist in any one node or in-between any of them?
An infinite loop has no start. Infinity has no middle. There is no in-between. Rhetorical agency, then, at least in this case, may well be the one that initiates or terminates the loop itself. In a world of algorithmic rhetoric, where algorithms play an increasingly prevalent role in mediating and influencing human affairs, that’s a powerful thought to remember.