This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.
Faded from use, and pigmented in such an of-the-moment lavender that the color’s prominence in the zeitgeist seems particularly notable merely for its omission from one of Pantone’s yearly lists. On its underside, the woven band graduates into shades of ochre where it meets the wrist. Depending on which wrist it has met, it leaves behind a blotchy irritation that requires a topical salve before I clean the components as best I can, switch wrists, and repeat the inevitable process.
I received the FitBit as a gift a few years ago. I had moved back to Philly to be closer to family. A few years before that I was seated in a bustling Manhattan emergency room corridor, waiting on a lone chair—unmoored and haphazardly positioned to address the overflow of ailing bodies.
The discomfort of proximity, so unextraordinary then, is pronounced under our present condition. Discomfort arising within six-feet of a stranger and sometimes still when those strangers aren’t wearing their recommended face-coverings. Conversely, the space we don’t share with anyone—at home, on our computers, and in our mundane routines—compounds any feeling of isolation in quarantine.
More so than the initial, ambiguous goal of fitness, this FitBit has helped me reweave a semblance of social fabric. I used to be so invested in my routine as an athlete that workouts were both social events and occasions around which everything else was scheduled. Gradually, and certainly more quickly than those patterns were established, they were replaced by those of a working adult. Long hours on the field practicing are now never-enough hours sitting in front of a computer screen. The heart pumping satisfaction of a sprint down the field subbed out for the cortisol surge of generalized anxiety.
I rely on the Fitbit even more now, employing all its functionality. It provides a feeling of comfort to track everything from floors climbed to water consumed. I’ve gulped glasses down for that sense of achievement that comes after recording them in the app and watching the ring of cerulean reach further around its curve, closer to completing the circular orbit, and the daily recommendation of sixty-four ounces. Every morning I check how long I’ve slept, because sometimes even though I’ve been in bed for much longer, it says I only earned a score of fair with five hours rest. It also tracks how many steps I’ve taken, but on occasion, it buzzes in celebration after recording a workout even though I’ve been sitting still.
It had been a deep vein thrombosis behind the throbbing pressure in my left leg, while I sat in NYU Langone—a revelation that shook my confidence in how far I could push my body and made me question what not to take for granted in the future. Further removed from our support networks, and abiding our new-normal social distance protocols, I notch the band a little tighter. I make sure the sensor is in constant contact, because this Fitbit has now become a coach, a teammate, a coworker, and sort of friend.
unMUTE Group Statement
Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?
Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.
On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?
If you’re curious, please unMUTE.