My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives has now been released by Polity Press. In the book, I draw on feminist new materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture as well as analyses of popular culture and findings from my empirical studies talking to people about their personal data. I argue that personal data are more-than-human phenomena, invested with diverse forms of vitalities, and reveal the significant implications for data futures, politics and ethics. The book is a companion to my previous Polity book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.
My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives is due for publication next month. Below is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter, in which I explain my theoretical approach.
The phenomenon of personal digital data poses a challenge at an ontological level. Personal data blur and challenge many of the binary oppositions and cultural boundaries that dominate in contemporary western societies. Personal data are both private and public. They could be considered to be owned by, and part of, the people who have generated them, but these details are also accessed and used by a multitude of other actors and agencies. At a deeper level, personal data challenge the ontological boundaries between the binary oppositions of Self/Other, nature/culture, human/nonhuman, and living/dead. Discussions of how digital data about and for people are incorporated into everyday lives must therefore grapple with the problem of how we conceptualise the idea of ‘the human’ and life’ in relation to the digital data that are generated by and for humans. Because digital data are associated with non-human entities such as digital devices and software, and because they are often viewed as non-material entities, they are often de-humanised and de-materialised in discourses. The oft-used term ‘big data’, for example, tends to portray large digital datasets as de-personalised and anonymous, even though these datasets are often comprised of very intimate and sensitive details about people and their lives. Alternatively, explanations of how people collect and make sense of their own data are often reduced to individualised models of cognition or behavioural psychology, removing the sociocultural, sensory and affective dimensions of how people generate and respond to these details about themselves …
In what follows, I examine the interplay of human and nonhuman affordances associated with digital technologies – devices, software and the digital data they generate – and the agential capacities that are opened up or closed off as these things assemble. I ponder the questions of who benefits from these agential capacities, and in whose interests they operate. Here again, affective forces are central to the engagements of humans with these nonhuman things and the capacities that are generated by their gatherings. I address how human-data assemblages can generate agential capacities that empower and vitalise actors in the assemblage; but can also expose them to vulnerabilities and harms.
This approach recognises the entanglements of personal digital data assemblages with human action, reaction and understanding of the world. Personal digital data assemblages are partly comprised of information about human action, but their materialisations are also the products of human action, and these materialisations can influence future human action. While digital data assemblages are often conceptualised as immaterial, invisible and intangible, I contend that they are things that are generated in and through material devices (smartphones, computers, sensors), stored in material archives (data repositories), materialised in a range of formats that invite human sensory responses and have material effects on human bodies (documenting and having recursive effects on human flesh). The primary analytical focus is understanding what personal data assemblages allow bodies to do, and how they come to matter in people’s lives.
Feminist new materialism also calls into question and problematises how we might define and materialise personal data. While the literatures on datafication and dataveillance tend to assume that personal data are digital artefacts that are primarily materialised in two-dimensional visual formats as the outcomes of humans’ encounters with digital technologies, an emergent body of scholarship in what has been termed ‘posthuman’ or ‘post-qualitative’ inquiry (Lather and St. Pierre 2013; MacLure 2013) contends that data about humans can be any kind of matter, both organic and inorganic. Human flesh, bones, tissue, blood, breath, sweat or tears, human sensory and affective responses and reactions, objects that people use as part of their mundane routines, or artworks and creative writing outputs, for example, are among the materialisations of and participants in human experience that can be viewed and treated analytically as ‘data’ (Koro-Ljungberg et al. 2017; Taylor et al. 2018).
Drawing on this perspective, I argue that examining the multitude of media (loosely defined) that are used to represent personal data, including arts-based and three-dimensional approaches, is one way of working towards a different way of thinking about their onto-ethico-epistemological aspects. Expanding the definition of what materials can be treated as personal data works to highlight the performative, embodied, multisensory, affective and agential dimensions of human-data assemblages. Not only does this perspective acknowledge the more-than-human worlds of personal data, it also highlights the more-than-digital dimensions of these assemblages.
In this book, I take up calls by Barad (in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012) and Braidotti (2018) for a critical posthuman studies that incorporates an affirmative ethics. For Braidotti (2018), the mutable and distributed nature of human agency offers a politics that is able to challenge current fears and preoccupations. Cartographies of power relations and their associated entitlements, agencies and capacities can provide detailed ways of thinking through and with political practices and subjectivities. They help to think differently about figurations of human action, belief and practice, their implications, boundaries and limitations, and how new modes of being and acting can be configured and political change effected.
Central to my argument is that in the face of the continuing de-personalisation and de-humanisation of details about people’s bodies and lives that have been rendered into digital data, a new onto-ethico-epistemological position should be developed that reinvests human-data assemblages with different meanings and reconceptualises what we mean by ‘personal data’ – and indeed, how we think about and treat our ‘data selves’. In so doing, we can begin to think more seriously and deeply about what is at stake when human-data assemblages are de-personalised and de-humanised. If these new ways of thinking are taken up, they have significant that go to the core of selfhood, social relations and embodiment as they are enacted in more-than-human worlds.
In making my argument in the pages of this book, I seek to engage in what Barad (2007) refers to as ‘diffractive methodology’, which attempts to work with different bodies of research and theory to generate new insights. As she notes, it is the diffractive patterns of resonances and dissonances that make entanglements of matter and meaning visible. For Barad, diffractive thinking goes beyond critique to ethical engagements, involving reading insights through one another: ‘Diffractive readings bring inventive provocations; they are good to think with’ (Barad in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012: 50). In the spirit of a diffractive approach, this book’s content is intentionally interdisciplinary and eclectic. While I work principally with feminist new materialism theory, relevant perspectives offered from scholarship in the anthropology of material culture, digital sociology, media studies, internet studies, cultural studies, information studies, archival studies, human-computer interaction studies, education, archaeology and cultural geography are also included.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of these perspectives and begins to explore how they might be taken up to theorise the more-than-human worlds of human-data assemblages. In Chapter 3, I address the ways in which personal data as a phenomenon is materialised in words, images and three-dimensional representations, including provocations and interventions from design- and arts-based approaches that offer alternative ways of thinking about personal data. In Chapters 4 and 5, I draw on empirical material from several research projects I have conducted since 2015 to provide insights into how people conceptualise and live their personal data (details of these projects are provided in the Appendix.) Chapter 4 discusses how people enact and make sense of their personal data and identifies the relational connections, affective forces and agential capacities generated by doing data. Chapter 5 reviews the ways in which the tension between the sharing ethos of participatory digital media and the dystopian imaginaries that circulate concerning the ‘internet knowing too much’ about people are dealt with in everyday data concepts and practices. In the Final Thoughts section, I present my vision for how a new ethics of caring about and living with our data selves might be developed.
I did an interview recently with Rafael Grohmann about my new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives (out from Polity in October). He has now translated it into Portuguese and published it on his blog DigiLabour: available here.
Below are the original English questions and my written responses.
RG: What does data selves mean in a more-than-human perspective?
DL: A more-than-human perspective acknowledges that humans are always already part of nonhuman relations. Humans and nonhumans come together in assemblages that are constantly changing as humans move through their worlds. From this perspective, digital devices and software assemble with humans, and personal data are generated in and with these enactments. These data assemblages are more-than-human things. People live with and co-evolve with their personal data – they learn from data and data learn from them in a continually changing relationship.
RG: How can feminist materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture help us understand datafication?
DL: In previous work, I have suggested the digital devices can be considered to lively, as can digital data. Building on this approach, I use feminist new materialism and the anthropology of material culture to investigate these dimensions of datafication and dataveillance further. The feminist new materialism scholars I draw on in the Data Selves book are Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennett and Karen Barad. These scholars share an interest in the affective forces, vitality and distributed nature of agencies as they are generated with and through more-than-human assemblages. Scholars in the anthropology of material culture such as Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam have also called attention to the lively agencies of humans and nonhumans when they gather together. They focus on how humans respond to, learn about and make sense of their worlds when engaging in embodied and sensory encounters with nonhumans. Ingold describes this as ‘being alive to the world’.
In developing my theoretical approach in Data Selves, I found these perspectives helpful in thinking through what Barad calls the ‘onto-ethico-epistemological’ dimensions of datafication and dataveillance. These perspectives have not yet been taken up to any great extent in thinking about datafication and dataveillance. This is the project I am pursuing. It allows for a non-normative ethical approach to datafication and dataveillance that acknowledges the constantly emergent and dynamic nature of lively data selves and the embodied, multisensory and affective dimensions of how humans live with and learn from their data.
RG: In your forthcoming book, do you talk about data selves and quantified self in world of work?
DL: I don’t discuss the workplace to any great extent in Data Selves. In in my previous book The Quantified Self there was quite a bit of discussion of self-tracking in the workplace. Data Selves differs from The Quantified Self in including a lot of discussion of my empirical research projects that I have conducted over the past few years – indeed, since writing The Quantified Self – which involves people discussing their self-tracking practices and their understandings and use of personal data. My research participants didn’t talk much about their data practices in the context of the workplace, apart from some references on the part of some people to using productivity tools. Those who were active self-trackers were predominantly tracking their body weight, fitness, food or calorie intake, sleep and finances.
RG: In the last year, many books on the same subject have been published, such as David Beer, Shoshana Zuboff, Taina Bucher, Tarleton Gillespie, José van Dijck and Thomas Poell. What is the difference of your book, in theoretical and conceptual terms?
DL: My book differs in several ways: 1) in using more-than-human theory to analyse datafication and dataveillance; 2) in discussing findings from my own empirical research into self-tracking and people’s understandings and practices related to their personal data; and 3) including a greater focus on the multisensory dimensions of data materialisations and sense-making, including how artists and critical designers have sought represent personal data or critique datafication and dataveillance in novel ways.
RG: After a few years since your book Digital Sociology, for you, what is the future research agenda of digital sociology?
DL: I have become increasingly interested in more-than-human theory since writing Digital Sociology and also in postqualitative research as well as innovative methods for social inquiry, including experimenting with design- and arts-based methods. Taking these perspectives and methods into new directions for me constitutes the future agenda of digital sociology.
- Lupton, D. (2018) Fat (revised 2nd edition). London: Routledge.
- Lupton, D. (2018) Lively data, social fitness and biovalue: the intersections of health self-tracking and social media. In Burgess, J., Marwick, A. and Poell, T. (eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage, pp. 562-578.
- Lupton, D. (2018) Digital health and health care. In Scambler, G. (ed), Sociology as Applied to Health and Medicine, 2nd Houndmills: Palgrave, pp. 277-290.
- Lupton, D. and Smith, GJD. (2018) ‘A much better person’: the agential capacities of self-tracking practices. In Ajana, B. (ed), Metric Culture: Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices. London: Emerald Publishing, pp. 57-75.
- Lupton, D. (2018) 3D printing technologies: a third wave perspective. In Michael Filimowicz, M. and Tzankova, V. (eds), New Directions in Third Wave HCI (Volume 1, Technologies). Springer: London, pp. 89-104.
- Lupton, D. (2018) Towards design sociology. Sociology Compass, 12(1), online, available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/soc4.12546/full
- Lupton, D., Pink, S., Heyes Labond and Sumartojo, S. (2018) Personal data contexts, data sense and self-tracking cycling. International Journal of Communication, 11, online, available at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5925/2258
- Pedersen, S. and Lupton, D. (2018) ‘What are you feeling right now?’ Communities of maternal feeling on Mumsnet. Emotion, Space & Society, 26, 57-63.
- Lupton, D. and Turner, B. (2018) ‘I can’t get past the fact that it is printed: consumer attitudes to 3D printed food’. Food, Culture and Society, online ahead of print: doi: org/10.1080/15528014.2018.1451044
- Lupton, D. (2018) ‘I just want it to be done, done, done!’ Food tracking apps, affects and agential capacities. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 2(2), online, available at http://www.mdpi.com/2414-4088/2/2/29/htm
- Lupton, D. (2018) How do data come to matter? Living and becoming with personal data. Big Data & Society, 5(2), online, available at https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951718786314
- Lupton, D. and Maslen, S. (2018) The more-than-human sensorium: sensory engagements with digital health technologies. The Senses and Society, 13(2), 190—202.
- Salmela, T., Valtonen, A. and Lupton, D. (2018) The affective circle of harassment and enchantment: reflections on the ŌURA ring as an intimate research device. Qualitative Inquiry, online ahead of print, org/10.1177/1077800418801376
- Thomas, G., Lupton, D. and Pedersen, S. (2018) ‘The appy for a happy pappy’: expectant fatherhood and pregnancy apps. Journal of Gender Studies, 27(7), 759-770.
- Maslen, S. and Lupton, D. (2018) “You can explore it more online”: a qualitative study on Australian women’s use of online health and medical information. BMC Health Services, 18(1) online, available at https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-018-3749-7
- Lupton, D. (2018) ‘Better understanding about what’s going on’: young Australians’ use of digital technologies for health and fitness. Sport, Education and Society, online ahead of print, doi:1080/13573322.2018.155566
- Lupton, D. and Turner, B. (2018) Food of the future? Consumer responses to the idea of 3D printed meat and insect-based products. Food and Foodways, online ahead of print, doi:1080/07409710.2018.1531213
- Lupton, D. (2018) 3D printing. In Ritzer, G. (ed), The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Online. Available at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781405165518.wbeos1072
The second edition of my book Fat has now been published, with a great new cover. This version is twice as long as the first edition. Each chapter has been revised and updated and there is a lot more material in the new edition on how digital material represents fat bodies (for example, memes, GIFs, YouTube, hashtags, selfies and social media platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram).
My author’s preface to the second edition is below. The link to the book on Google Books is here, which provides a preview of more content.
The first edition of Fat was completed in 2012, a time at which academic interest in understanding the discourses, practices and politics around fat bodies had been intensifying for some years. Several years later, this topic of study remains a fulcrum where various issues and controversies concerning identities and embodiment converge and intensify. To some extent, the panic about the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ has died down, perhaps due to the news media losing interest and other health issues receiving policy attention. Meanwhile, the views of fat activists have made greater ingress into public debates about obesity; if remaining subject to controversy or denial. Some of the topics I covered in the first edition have become more complex, with new research paying greater attention to the intersectoral aspects of fat embodiment: how social class, ethnicity or race, sexual identity, age and geographical location shape experiences. Further discussion has sparked up around the question of who can speak about or advocate for fat people or engage in critical analyses of obesity politics – must they be fat-identifying people or can others participate in these debates?
Since I wrote the first edition, as part of a turn towards the visual in popular culture, the representation of human bodies of all shapes and sizes have received greater levels of coverage in new digital media forums. These media offer many more opportunities for self-representation and for body positive and fat activists to draw attention to their causes. However, the fit and thin body continues to dominate in these forums as the ideal body type, often around the ‘fitspiration’ label. Social media allow the vilification and stigmatizing of fat people to intensify and be more easily distributed to ever-larger audiences. New digital media and devices promote a culture of intensified self-monitoring and measuring of bodies, and comparing them against norms. Many more apps and wearable devices have come onto the market, aimed at encouraging and helping people to count calories and track their physical activity and body weight in the interests of conforming to these ideals. These media, therefore, have made bodies of all sizes ever-more visible and subject to private monitoring and public display. These issues and topics all receive attention in this second revised edition.
I have revised and significantly expanded my book Fat (it is now double the length) for its second edition, due to be published mid-year. The book now includes much more material on new digital media and devices, and how they are used to contain, control and portray fat embodiment (often in very negative ways).
Here’s an excerpt from new material I have added to my chapter addressing the transgressive fat body, focusing on memes, GIFs and stock images.
My Google search for ‘fat memes’ found memes that not only stigmatize fat bodies, but are blatantly abusive and often cruel. Just some examples I came across include unflattering images of fat people with texts such as ‘I’m fat because obesity runs in my family. No-one runs in your family’, ‘I’m lazy because I’m fat and I’m fat because I’m lazy’ and ‘Sometimes when I’m sad I like to cut myself … another slice of cheesecake’. When I looked for ‘fat’ GIFs on the GIFY platform, here again were many negative portrayals of fat people, including cartoon characters like Homer Simpson as well as real people, again engaging in humiliating bodily performances. Many of these GIFs showed people jiggling their abdomens or dancing to demonstrate the magnitude of their flesh, belly flopping into swimming pools, eating greedily, smeared with food and so on. Here again, fat white men predominated as targets of ridicule.
Many companies now offer stock images for others to use to illustrate news articles, blog posts or reports. Searching for stock images online for ‘fat people eating’ returns a series of photographs and drawings that invariably depict the types of food consumed by fat people as archetypal high-calorie, fat-laden or fast food. Fat women, men and children are shown biting into or gazing at foods such as hamburgers, pizzas, French fries, fried chicken or cream cake, often with a look of greed on their faces and reclining on an over-stuffed armchair or sofa. Some of these people are scantily dressed or wearing clothes that reveal their large stomachs. One image even transposes a fat man with a hamburger, so that his body becomes the hamburger, topped with his head. Another depicts a hamburger as a hungry beast with a gaping maw consuming a man so that all that can be seen of his body is his legs. Some people are shown with links of sausages around their necks. The words used to describe these images are telling, as in these descriptions: ‘photo of a fat couch potato eating a huge hamburger and watching television’, ‘overweight woman greedily biting sweet cake’.
These types of images emphasize the enticements offered by foodstuff that are portrayed in popular and medical cultures as ‘unhealthy’ and ‘fattening’, pandering to greed and self-indulgence. These foods are depicted in some extreme cases as overwhelming human bodies, both in terms of expanding the size of bodies (and particularly of bellies) and in rendering humans helpless and devoured by their lust for these foods. It is as if these foods are controlling humans through the intensity of people’s desire to consume (and be consumed by) them.
Similar sentiments and images can be found in memes about food, regardless of whether the people represented in them are fat or not. These memes often display a high level of ambivalence about experiencing the desire for the ‘wrong’ foods, the pleasure of eating them and the guilt or self-hatred that may result from indulgence. Such food memes may depict large helpings of ‘junk’ foods with people viewing them with hungry expressions. Others dispense with any images of food itself, and simply show people looking eager or happy, and words such as ‘When people ask when I want to eat. Every day. All day. Anywhere. Anytime’, or ‘I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and eat it.’ Animals (especially cats) are used to stand in for people, as in the meme showing a cat desperately clawing its way through a venetian blind and the words, ‘Did somebody say food?’, and another featuring a close-up of a cat with its mouth stuffed with food, captioned ‘I regret nothing. Nothing.’ In these memes, whether or not food is shown, the dominant feelings that are expressed are the insatiable longing for food and the lack of control people have over their appetites, to the point that they are overwhelming.
My new book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives has now been published with Routledge (link to the book is here). I have included excerpts from the book on this blog as I was writing it: see here, here, here and here.
I did a Q&A session for Routledge, in which I explained some of the background to the book and give some advice for aspiring writers in my field. There is also a link to view the introductory chapter (see here).
A book I co-edited with Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson has now been published with Routledge, entitled The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education. Here’s the link to the book on Amazon. We have wonderful contributions from researchers in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, the USA and Canada.
This is the list of contents:
- The Digital Academic: Identities, Contexts and Politics: Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
- Towards an Academic Self? Blogging During the Doctorate: Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
- Going from PhD to Platform: Charlotte Frost
- Academic Persona: The Construction of Online Reputation in the Modern Academy: David Marshall, Kim Barbour and Christopher Moore
- Academic Twitter and Academic Capital: Collapsing Orality and Literacy in Scholarly Publics: Bonnie Stewart
- Intersections Online: Academics Who Tweet: Narelle Lemon and Megan McPherson
- Sustaining Asian Australian Scholarly Activism Online: Tseen Khoo
- Digital Backgrounds, Active Foregrounds: Student and Teacher Experiences with ‘Flipping the Classroom’: Martin Forsey and Sara Page
- A Labour of Love: A Critical Examination of the ‘Labour Icebergs’ of Massive Open Online Courses: Katharina Freund, Stephanie Kizimchuk, Jonathon Zapasnik, Katherine Esteves, Inger Mewburn
- Digital Methods and Data Labs: The Redistribution of Educational Research to Education Data Science: Ben Williamson
- Interview – Sara Goldrick-Rab with Inger Mewburn
- Interview – Jessie Daniels with Inger Mewburn
I have written many times on this blog about my own experiences of using social media and other digital tools for academic work and my research focusing on how other academics are doing this.
One of the people I have encountered along the way is Mark Carrigan, an early career British sociologist. Appropriately enough, we first met on Twitter a few years ago, around the time I began experimenting with various digital tools for professional purposes. Since then, we have had many discussions there and on other online forums, as well as by email, about using social media in universities (and a couple of in-person meetings as well). Mark has now written a book on Social Media for Academics. It is the first book I know of to present a ‘how-to’ manual combined with reflections on the wider implications of academic social media engagement.
Mark is a great example of someone who has strategically used social media while still in the very early stages of his career (completing his doctorate) to create a high profile for his work. He has now built on this experience not only to work in various positions involving promoting academic journals, departments and organisations, but to produce this book. In its chapters, Mark employs a casual, chatty style to painlessly introduce readers to the art of academic social media.
The book is distinctive because Mark’s sociological training allows him to contextualise the social, cultural and political implications of academic social media use. Yes, he offers a multitude of helpful tips and advice about how best to communicate online, what platforms and tools are the most effective, how to develop your own voice, how online engagement helps in promoting one’s research and reaching wider audiences outside academia, building networks, curating interesting material you have found on the internet, finding time to use social media and so on. But there are also reflections offered on what academic social media means for professional identities and for academic work in general. In addition there are many pithy remarks drawing on Mark’s observations, for example, of the awkwardness that sometimes accompanies the experience of colleagues meeting in the flesh after having developed a hitherto purely online relationship, or the potential pitfalls of live-tweeting conferences or writing a tweet or blog post in haste and anger that then becomes widely circulated well after the initial irritation has subsided.
This book is highly recommended for higher degree students and faculty staff members who are interested in the possibilities of academic social media for both research and teaching, as well as researchers interested in future directions for the university workplace and academic identities.
Last year I guest-edited a special issue of the open-access sociology journal Societies that focused on critical perspectives on digital health technologies. The collection includes my editorial and another article I contributed (on the topic of apps as sociocultural artefacts), as well as eight other articles from scholars based in the UK, Australia, Finland, the USA and Sweden. Individual contributions may be accessed on the journal’s website here, and now the whole collection is available as an open access book PDF (or can be purchased as a hard copy), both available here.
The following outline of the special issue/book’s contents, an edited excerpt taken from my editorial, provides an overview of its contents.
The articles in this special issue build on a well-established literature in sociology, science and technology studies and media and cultural studies that has addressed the use of digital technologies in health and medicine… Several of these topics are taken up in the articles published in this special issue. All the authors use social and cultural theory to provide insights into the tacit assumptions, cultural meanings and experiences of digital health technologies. The articles cover a range of digital health technologies: devices used for the self-tracking of body metrics (Ruckenstein; Till; Rich and Miah; Lupton); social media platforms for discussing patients’ experiences of chronic disease (Sosnowy) and experiences of pregnancy and early motherhood (Johnson); health and medical apps (Till; Johnson; Christie and Verran; Lupton); telehealthcare systems (Hendy, Chrysanthaki and Barlow); and a digital public health surveillance system (Cakici and Sanches). While some articles focus on globalised digital media (Cakici and Sanches; Rich and Miah; Till; Lupton), others engage more specifically with a range of sociocultural groups, contexts and locations. These include Aboriginal people living in a remote region of Australia (Christie and Verran) and Australian mothers in urban Sydney (Johnson) as well as research participants in Helsinki, Finland (Ruckenstein), the United States (Sosnowy) and England (Hendy, Chrysanthaki and Barlow).
Understandings and experiences of selfhood and embodiment as they are generated and experienced via digital health devices are central preoccupations in the articles by Ruckenstein, Rich and Miah, Till, Lupton, Sosnowy and Johnson. Ruckenstein’s study of self-trackers found that they often conceptualised their bodies and their physical activities in different ways when these were being monitored and rendered into digital data. The data that were generated by these devices proved to be motivational and to give value to some activities (like housework) that otherwise lacked value or new meaning to functions such as sleep (which when digitised and quantified became viewed as a competence). Ruckenstein found that the digital data tended to be invested with greater validity than were other indicators of bodily wellbeing or activity, such as the individual’s physical sensations.
All of the above authors comment on the ways in which digital health devices such as wearable self-tracking devices, social media platforms, apps and patient support websites work as disciplinary tools. They invite users to conform to the ideals of healthism (privileging good health above other priorities) and the responsible self-management and self-monitoring of one’s health and body, including avoiding exposure to risk. Rich and Miah use the concept of “public pedagogy” to describe the socio-political dimensions of digital health technologies as they are employed to educate people about their bodies and promote self-management. As Johnson notes, for women who are pregnant or have the care of young children, this sphere of responsibility is extended to the bodies of others: the foetus or child. And as Till’s article emphasises, when employees are “encouraged” to engage in self-tracking, the ethos of responsibility extends from personal objectives to those of employers.
Ruckenstein, Till and Sosnowy also highlight the digital labour involved for people who engage with social media or self-tracking apps as part of their personal health or fitness practices. Sosnowy’s interviews with women with multiple sclerosis who blog about their condition emphasise the work involved in such engagement as an “active patient”. Till’s analysis of digital exercise self-tracking points to the appropriations of people’s labour by other actors for commercial reasons.
The article by Hendy, Chrysanthaki and Barlow moves in a somewhat different direction. Using ethnographic cases studies, they look at the managerial issues involved with implementing telehealthcare in English social and health care organisations. Their focus, therefore, is not on the recipients or targets of digital health technologies but rather those who are attempting to institute programs as part of their work as managers. These authors’ contribution highlights the messiness of introducing new systems and practices into large organisations, and the resistances that may emerge on the part of both workers and the targets of telehealthcare programs. Cakici and Sanches’ article also takes an organisational perspective in addressing a European Commission co-funded project directed at syndromic surveillance, or the use of secondary sources to detect outbreaks and patterns in diseases and medical conditions. Digital data are increasingly being use as part of syndromic surveillance: Google Flu Trends is one such example. Cakici and Sanches’ analysis highlights the role played by human decision-making and the affordances of digital technologies in structuring what kinds of data are retrieved for syndromic surveillance and how they are interpreted.
While there are as yet few detailed ethnographic accounts of how people are implementing, adopting or resisting contemporary digital health technologies, there are even fewer that investigate the use of these technologies by members of cultural groups outside the global North. The article by Christie and Verran takes a much-needed diversion from perspectives on white, privileged groups to Aboriginal people living in a remote part of Australia. As they argue, the concepts on health, illness and the body that are held by this cultural group differ radically from the tacit assumptions that are invested in mainstream health and medical apps. Any app that is developed to assist in health literacy that is targeted at this group must incorporate culturally-appropriate modes of communication: positioning people within their cultural and kinship networks of sociality, for example, rather than representing them as atomised actors.
The articles collected here in this special issue have gone some way in offering a critical response to digital health technologies, but they represent only a beginning. Many more compelling topics remain to be investigated. These include research into the ways in which lay people and healthcare professionals are using (or resisting the use) of social media, apps and self-monitoring devices for medicine and health-related purposes; the implications for medical power and the doctor-patient relationship; how citizen science and citizen sensing are operating in the public health domain; the development of new digital health technologies; the implications of big data and data harvesting in medicine and healthcare; the spreading out of health-related self-tracking practices into many social domains; the unintended consequences and ethical aspects of digital technology use and their implications for social justice; and data security and privacy issues.