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’ve set up a new website for my project ‘Living with Personal Data’. I’ve reblogged this first post from this project here. The project can be followed by going to the Home page and scrolling down to provide your email to subscribe.
The Living with Personal Data project has just kicked off. We have appointed a Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Ashleigh Watson, to begin working on the project. While we are waiting for our ethics approval, Ashleigh is updating our literature review. In conjunction with the Vitalities Lab led by Deborah Lupton, we are running several pop-up methods workshops in the next few months to experiment with the innovative methods we will be using in our fieldwork, which will include home visits with people living in Sydney, and hands-on workshops with diverse groups of Australians.
I am giving some talks in Copenhagen and London next month. Here is the schedule for those who might want to come along.
- 11-12 June: Keynote at the Digitally Engaged Patient conference, University of Copenhagen
- 13 June: Presentations at King’s College London (in-conversation on smart technologies and global health) and LSE Department of Media and Communications (in-house seminar about my new book Data Selves)
- 14 June: Keynote at the Surveillance in the 21st Century event, Royal Holloway, University of London
VITALITIES LAB NEWSLETTER
Number 2, 29 April 2019
The Vitalities Lab is led by SHARP Professor Deborah Lupton, Centre for Social Research in Health and Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney. Further details here.
- Lupton, D. (2019) Towards a more-than-human analysis of digital health: inspirations from feminist new materialism. Qualitative Health Research, online first. doi.org/10.1177/1049732319833368
- Maslen, S. and Lupton, D. (2019) Enacting chronic illness with and through digital media: a feminist new materialist approach. Information, Communication and Society, online first. doi: 1080/1369118X.2019.1602665
- Lupton, D. and Leahy, D. (2019) Reimagining digital health education: the critical pedagogical and research possibilities of storyboarding. Health Educational Journal, doi:1177/0017896919841413
- Lupton, D. (2019) ‘It’s made me a lot more aware’: a new materialist analysis of health self-tracking. Media International Australia, doi:org/10.1177/1329878X19844042
- Deborah Lupton: ‘The internet both reassures and terrifies’: using the story completion method for health research. Presentation for the Centre for Social Research in Health Seminar Series, 2 April 2019
- Deborah Lupton: ‘”Smart” health promotion: a perspective from digital sociology’. Invited presentation at a sub-plenary on smart health promotion, International Union for Health Promotion and Education World Conference, Rotorua, New Zealand, 10 April 2019
- Deborah Lupton: ‘The more-than-human worlds of self-tracking for health and fitness’. Keynote at the World Congress of the Sociology of Sport, Dunedin, New Zealand, 24 April 2019
- 6 May: Deborah will be holding a Vitalities Lab in-house pop-up methods workshop using the ‘New Metaphors’ inspiration cards
- 7 May: Deborah is presenting a workshop on ‘Increasing your academic visibility’. Registration is free and open to all. Further details here.
- 13 May: Deborah is the convenor and one of the panel speakers at the UNSW Grand Challenges Event ‘Shaping our digital future’. Registration is free and open to all. Further details here.
- The Vitalities Lab has a doctoral research stipend worth $30,000 annually for four years for a domestic candidate who meets UNSW Sydney requirements for doctoral admission and wishes to pursue a project related to the Lab’s research directions. Contact Deborah Lupton (firstname.lastname@example.org for further details).
- Research practicums are also available for international doctoral students who are pursuing their studies at a university outside Australia to spend a period of time as a visiting researcher at the Vitalities Lab under Deborah Lupton’s supervision. Tuition fees apply. Further details are available here.
AoIR Preconference Workshop: Re/imagining Personal Data
- Tuesday 1 October 2019, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
- 9.30 am-12.30 pm (followed by catered lunch)
Organisers: Deborah Lupton (UNSW Sydney), Larissa Hjorth (RMIT) and Annette Markham (Aarhus University)
Overview: This half-day workshop involves a selection of hands-on arts- and design-based activities to invite participants to re/imagine personal digital data. Participants will be able to experiment with innovative methods of eliciting creative and more-than-representational responses to personal data and generating speculative imaginaries about the futures of data. These methods can be used for teaching purposes or research projects.
We will be using these activities to explore and respond to these key questions:
- What do personal data do?
- How best can we use them?
- What is our relationship with our personal data?
- Which data do we want to keep and protect and which do we want to discard or forget?
- What are our affective and sensory engagements with these data?
- What are the futures of personal data?
Participants at all levels of research experience are invited to attend, including postgraduate students and people working outside the university sector.
Registration and lunch are free, but places are strictly limited.
Please contact Deborah Lupton, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney (email@example.com ) as soon as possible with an email noting that you’d like to register to secure your place.
Please note that this workshop follows the Data Futures conference, 30 September 2019, also to be held at UNSW Sydney (details here), and precedes the Association of Internet Researchers Conference taking place in Brisbane (details here).
Photo credit: “I Love Data” She Wept. Bixtentro, Flickr. CC BY 2.0
- 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
I am currently working on analysing interviews from my newest research project ‘Facebook and Trust’. This project was designed in response to the huge publicity given to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal in March this year. I was interested in investigating how Australian Facebook users were using the platform in the wake of the scandal and what their feelings were about how Facebook make use of the personal information that is uploaded.
Following the scandal, numerous news reports claimed that large numbers of Australians were deleting their Facebook accounts as part of the #DeleteFacebook trend. As one report contended,
Many Australians are for the first time discovering just how much Facebook knows about them and many are shocked, leading them to quit the platform.
A Pew survey of US adults conducted soon after Cambridge Analytica found that around a quarter of respondents had deleted the Facebook app from their phone in the past 12 months, and more than half had adjusted their privacy settings The survey did not ask directly about why the respondents had taken these measures, and as the time-frame related to the past year there may have been other reasons that these respondents had taken these actions (for example, different controversies over ‘fake news’ or poor content moderation on Facebook that have also received high levels of news media publicity).
Indeed, it is interesting to compare these findings with a previous Pew survey undertaken at the end of 2012, in which over two-thirds of the respondents who were current Facebook users said that they had sometimes voluntarily taken a break from using the platform and one-fifth who said they were not current Facebook users had used the platform at one time but had stopped using it. Those who had taken an extended break or had stopped using Facebook referred to reasons such as not wanting to expend too much time on the platform or finding the content overly personal, trivial or boring. As this survey suggests, some Facebook users have long had ambivalent feelings about using the platform.
There are no reliable statistics that I can find on how many Australians have deleted their Facebook account post-Cambridge Analytica. According to the Social Media Statistics Australia website, which provides a monthly report on Australians’ use of social media, in September 2018 approximately 60% of Australians (across the total population, including children) were active Facebook users, and 50% of Australians were logging on once a day. A similar proportion of Australians were regular YouTube users: both platforms had 15 million active monthly users. Next in order of popularity were Instagram (9 million users per month), Snapchat (6.4 million), WhatsApp (6 million), Twitter (4.7 million), LinkedIn (4.5 million) and Tumblr (3.7 million).
In terms of age breakdown, the site reports that in September 2018, Australians aged 25 to 39 years were the largest group of Facebook users (6.1 million), followed by those aged 40 to 55 (4.1 million), 18 to 25 (3.5 million), 55 to 64 (1.6 million) and 65 years and over (1.2 million). Less than a million of Australians aged 13 to 17 years used Facebook,
I compared the report for February 2018 (the month before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was publicised) and May 2018 (soon after the scandal) with the figures for September 2018. The website reports that in both February and May 2018, there were 15 million monthly active Australian users, just as there were for September 2018. So if large numbers of Australians have deleted their accounts, this is not showing up in these data.
The interviews I am currently analysing should cast some light on how Australian Facebook users have responded (if at all) to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other privacy-related issues concerning the personal information they upload to Facebook. I’ll provide an update on the findings once I finish working through the interviews.
I am currently completing my new book, with the working title of Data Selves, to be published by Polity. Here is an excerpt from a chapter that looks at personal data materialisations.
We have to work hard to find figures of speech and ways of thinking to encapsulate the ontology of digital data. The concept of digital data, a first glance, appears to describe a wholly immaterial phenomenon that does not engage the senses: there seems to be nothing to look at, touch, hear, smell or taste. The metaphors and other figures of language employed to describe digital data are attempts to conceptualise and make sense of these novel forms of information and their ontologies. Even as digital technologies continue to generate and process detailed information about people’s bodies, social relationships, emotions, practices and preferences, prevailing discourses on these data tend to de-personalise and de-humanise them. The use of the term ‘data’ to describe these details signals a way of viewing and treating them, presenting these aspects as raw materials, ripe for processing and exploitation to make them give up their meaning (Räsänen and Nyce 2013; Gitelman and Jackson 2013). Once they have become defined and labelled as ‘data’, these details about people’s lives tend to be imagined as impersonal, scientific and neutral. They have been extracted from their embodied, sensory and affective contexts, rendered into digitised formats and viewed as material for research, management or commercial purposes.
The term ‘data’ is closely associated with ‘information’. Information as a term is subject to a wide range of (often debated) definitions in the academic literature. It usually involves the assumption that there are structures, correlations and patterns involved in the organisation and communication of meaning. Information tends to be imbued with the pragmatic meanings of rational thought-processes and material that can contribute to acquiring and using knowledge. It has use and value based on these attributes (Buckland 1991). Digital data, as forms of information that have been collected and processed using digital technologies, are often portrayed as more accurate and insightful than many other information sources (Lupton 2015; Kitchin 2014). Many references to big data represent it as anonymised massive collections of details that are valuable commodities, open to profitable exploitation. The World Economic Forum’s report (2011) describing big data as ‘the new oil’, ‘a valuable resource of the 21st century’ and a ‘new asset class’ is an influential example of this metaphor.
Metaphors of fluidities also tend to be employed when describing digital data. Digital data are popularly imagined to stream, flow and circulate in the ephemeral digital data economy, emitting imperceptibly from digital devices, flying through the air to lodge in and move between computing clouds as if comprised of vaporised water. Many metaphors of digital data use words and phrases that denote overwhelming power and mobilities, again often referring to large bodies of uncontrollable water; the data ‘deluge’, ‘flood’, ‘ocean’ and even ‘tsunami’ that constantly appear in popular accounts of big data in particular. These figures of speech are used to denote feelings of being overwhelmed by large, powerful masses of data (‘big data’) that appear to be difficult to control or make sense of in their volume. Still other metaphors represent data as ‘exhaust’, ‘trails’ or ‘breadcrumbs’, denoting the by-products of other interactions on digital networks. These metaphors suggest a tangible, perceivable form of digital data, albeit tiny, that require effort to discern and give up their value (Lupton 2015).
The terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ have long been used in descriptions of data, however these data are generated. These terms refer to the degree to which the data can be used for analysis: clean data are ready for use, dirty data sets require further processing because they are incomplete, outdated, incorrect or obsolete. Portrayals of the affordances of digital data on the body/self, in their emphasis on objectivity and neutrality – or what might be described as their ‘cleanliness’ – denote a view of information about oneself that privileges such ‘clean’ data over what might be contrasted as the ‘dirty’ data that the body produces from sensual experience. Human cognition, memory, perception and sensation are ‘weak’ because they are ‘unscientific’. They are borne of fallible fleshly embodiment rather than the neutral, objective data that are generated by computer software and hardware.
Data have also been referred to as ‘raw’, suggesting that they are materials that are untouched by culture. It is assumed that by working on ‘raw’ data, data scientists transform these materials into useable commodities. Part of this transformation may involve ‘cleaning’ ‘dirty data’. Boellstofff (2013) uses the term ‘rotted data’ to describe the ways in which the materiality of data can degrade (for example, damaged hard drives that store data), but also how data can be transformed in unplanned or accidental ways that do not follow algorithmic prescriptions. Here again, these metaphors of ‘raw’, ‘cooked’ and ‘rotted’ draw attention the materiality of data and the processing, deterioration and recuperation that are part of human-data assemblages.
In her essay on digital data, Melissa Gregg (2015) employs a number of other metaphors that she devised to encapsulate the meanings of data. Data ‘agents’ suggests the capacities of data to work with algorithms to generate connections: matches, suggestions and relationships between social phenomena that otherwise would not be created. Gregg gives the examples of recommendation sites and online dating services, which connect strangers and their experiences with each other in ways that were previously unimaginable. She goes on to suggest that ‘In these instances, data acts [sic] rather more like our appendage, our publicist, even our shadow’ (Gregg 2015). Gregg also employs the metaphor of data ‘sweat’ (another liquid metaphor) in the attempt to emphasise the embodied nature of data, emerging or leaking from within the body to the outside in an uncontrolled manner to convey information about that body, including how hard it is working or how productive it is. Data ‘sweat’, therefore, can be viewed as a materialisation of labour. She then suggests the concept of data ‘trash’ (similar to the ‘exhaust’ metaphor mentioned above). Data ‘trash’ is data that is in some way useless or potentially polluting or hazardous: Gregg links this metaphor with the environmental effects generated by creating, storing and processing data in data centres. Both the metaphors of data ‘sweat’ and ‘trash’ suggest the materiality of digitised information as well as its ambivalent and dynamic status as it moves between ascriptions of high value and useless or even disgusting by-product.
An analysis of images used to represent big data in online editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post (Pentzold et al. 2018) found that they tended to fall into several categories in the attempt to visually represent big data: using large-scale numbers, interpretive abstract renditions, showing numbers or graphs on smartphone or computer screens, images of data warehouses and devices that generate data, robots, datafied individuals and meteorological imagery such as clouds. A dominant visual image involved photographic images of people working in the big data industry, such as data scientists, ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ (overwhelmingly male) and logos of internet companies. These images served as visual surrogates to represent the immateriality of big data. The researchers compared these images with those found on a general Google image search for ‘big data’ and also on Wikipedia and the image platforms Fotolia, Flickr and Pinterest. They noted that the images they found on these platforms were very homogeneous, featuring the colour blue, the words ‘big data’ written large, binary numbers, network structures and surveillant human eyes. These kinds of descriptions suggest that big datasets (including those drawn from people’s lives and experiences) are natural resources that are unproblematically open to exploration, mining and processing for profit. The personal details about people contained within these massive datasets are reimagined as commodities or research material. It is telling that the human elements of these images largely include men working in data analytics rather than the range of people who generate data or who may make use of their own data as part of their everyday lives.
In these types of portrayals, the status of personal data as human, or at least partly human entities is submerged in the excitement about how best to exploit these details as material commodities. Their liveliness is represented in ways that suggest their economic potential as nonhuman organic materials (streams, flows, oil, clouds, breadcrumbs). Yet conversely, another dominant discourse about personal data, which is particularly promulgated by the data profiling industry and civil society privacy advocates, is that these details are all-too-human or even excessively human: intensely intimate and revealing of people’s uniquely human characteristics. Proponents of the ‘Internet of Me’ make claims such as:
Now imagine tech working in your body at the biological level. Your body could express itself on its own, without you having to be in charge, to deliver more happiness, better health, whatever you truly need and want.
These sociotechnical imaginaries position devices and data as working together with human bodies in ways that devolve agency to the device. ‘You’ no longer have to be ‘in charge’ – instead, the device takes over. Other imaginaries around the Internet of Me configure the idea of personal cloud computing, in which all people’s personal data go to a centralised cloud computing repository where they will be able to access all their data.
When I performed my own Google image search using the term ‘personal data’, the images that were returned by the search again featured the colour blue, male figures and binary numbers. Notably, several images showed a pen and a paper form with the words ‘personal information’ at the top, perhaps as an attempt to respond to the immateriality of digitised information by rendering it in analogue forms with which many people would be familiar. Images using locks and keys as metaphors were also dominant, suggesting the value of personal data but also how closed they are to people who may want to make use of them. When I used the search term ‘personal data privacy’, new images were introduced in addition to those appearing under ‘personal data’. These included images of spy-like or Big Brother surveillance figures and also images showing human hands protectively attempting to cover computer keyboards or screens, as if to elude the gaze of these spying figures as people used their devices.
One online article on the Internet of Me features an image in which a human body is comprised of many different social media and other internet platform icons as well as coloured dots representing other data sources. Instead of an assemblage of flesh-bone-blood, the body is completely datafied and networked. The interesting thing is that this body is represented as an autonomous agent. The networks that generate data and keep the body vibrant and functioning are internal, not externalised to networks outside this socially alienated body. Data flows are contained within elements of the body rather than leaking outside it to other bodies. This suggests an imaginary in which the Internet of Me is neatly contained within the envelope of the body/self and thus able to control ingress and egress. This is an orderly closed system, one that confounds both utopian and dystopian imaginaries concerning the possibilities and risks of one’s body/self being sited as just one node in vast and complex networked digital system.
In contrast, a series of 2018 British advertisements for the BBH London & Experian data analytics company used the ‘data self’ concept in an attempt to humanise data profiling and emphasise the similarities of these profiles to the people from whom they are generated. Six versions of this ad featured photographs of comedian Marcus Brigstoke and his ‘data self’, a person who looked exactly like him. As one of the ads, headlined ‘Meet your Data Self’ claimed: ‘Your Data Self is the version of you that companies see when you apply for things like credit cards, loans and mortgages. You two should get acquainted’. One of the ads, headlined, ‘What shape is your Data Self in?’, showed the comedian looking at his doppelganger lifting a heavy barbell. The copy read ‘If your Data Self looks good to lenders, you’re more likely to be approved for credit. That’s a weight off. Get to know your Data Self at Experian.com.uk.’ Another ad asked ‘Is your Data Self making the right impression?’, depicting the comedian, dressed in casual clothes, shaking hands with his more formally dressed (in suit and tie) data self. Notably, this person and his ‘data self’ was a white, youngish man, excluding representatives from other social groups.
The ontological status of personal data, therefore, constantly shifts in popular representations between human and nonhuman, valuable commodity and waste matter, nature and culture, productive and dangerous. In both modes of representation, the vibrancies of digital data – their ceaseless production, movements, leakages – are considered to be both exciting and full of potential but also as dangerous and risky. Personal data assemblages are difficult to control or exploit by virtue of their liveliness.
Boellstorff, T. (2013). Making big data, in theory. First Monday, 18(10).
Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(5), 351.
Gitelman, L., & Jackson, V. (2013). Introduction. In L. Gitelman (Ed.), Raw Data is an Oxymoron (pp. 1-14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gregg, M. (2015). The gift that is not given. In T. Boellstorff, & B. Maurer (Eds.), Data, Now Bigger and Better! (pp. 47-66). Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.
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Digital technologies for health-related topics and practices such as websites, online discussion forums, social media, content-sharing platforms, mobile apps and wearable devices are now available as a means for young people to learn about and promote their health, physical fitness and wellbeing. Young people are often assumed to be ardent users of digital health technologies by virtue of having been born into the age of new digital media. Thus far, however, few social research studies have directed attention to the details of how and why young people use digital technologies for health-related purposes and how other, non-digital sources also contribute to the ways in which they learn about their bodies and health and engage in practices to support their health and wellbeing.
The Young Australians and Digital Health Project, a qualitative interview-based study of 30 young Australians (aged 16 to 25 years) was designed to address these issues. The participants were recruited to ensure equal numbers of female and male participants and a spread of ages, ethnic backgrounds and geographical locations across Australia. The interviews took place in April-May 2018. Participants were asked a series of questions relating to how and why they sourced health and medical information and support, and which of these they found most and least useful and helpful. They were asked if anyone had recommended that they use digital health technologies and whether they had any concerns about their personal health data privacy and security. The final question had a future-oriented perspective, asking participants to imagine and describe an ideal digital health technology for their everyday needs.
The interview questions and analysis of transcripts of participants’ responses were designed to draw attention to the affordances of the actors involved (human and nonhuman), relational connections between these actors, affective forces and agential capacities. The affordances of fleshly human bodies include their sensory perceptions, emotional responsiveness, embodied expertise, memory and the ability to learn and to move in certain ways. The affordances of nonhuman objects such as digital technologies relate to the design features of these technologies and what they potentially allow people to do with them. Relational connections include the ways in which humans interact with and respond to other humans, as well as with nonhumans, and how these relationships contribute to or generate bonds and affects.
As the table below shows, all participants said that they sought information from doctors and other healthcare providers, and most also turned to advice from friends and family members. Very few young people used books for health information, but pamphlets were still read by around a third of participants (usually picked up in doctors’ surgeries while waiting for a consultation). In terms of digital tools and resources, search engines were used by everyone, with health websites a close second. All the participants said that they were routinely online throughout the day and were accustomed to searching the internet as a habitual practice for various purposes. They generally searched between once or twice a week or once a month for health-related topics.
Youtube, online discussion groups and social media groups were fairly well-used, but by less than half of the participants. Participants noted that these sources were often found from an initial search using Google Search. Only five of the 30 participants said that they had signed up to My Health Record (Australia’s nationwide patient electronic medical record), with the remainder noting that they had not heard of it.
Sources of health and medical information used currently
|Number of respondents (n=30)|
|doctors and other health care providers||30|
|friends and family||21|
|online discussion forums||12|
|social media groups||10|
|digital exercise games (e.g. Wii Fit)||8|
|electronic medical record (My Health Record)||5|
|physical activity platforms (e.g. Strava)||6|
The convenience, accessibility and detail and diversity of information offered by digital media and devices were valued by the participants.
So I would initially just google my query and do a little bit of research on my own but then I would take my problems to a doctor and they would have more detail and more answers for me. I would usually just look up, kind of, symptoms and triggers for certain things. I would mainly just look up information, possibly finding a solution on my own. I like going online for the ease of use, ease of access, variety of information available, all that kind of stuff. (male, 24 years)
The young people also appreciated being able to source others’ personal experiences online by using online discussion forums, social media groups and viewing people’s stories on YouTube. They felt connected to the physically distant others they encountered online through their sharing of experiences and affective responses on these platforms.
Well, probably I just read forums to find information on the forums, the one thing I find useful is that they have allowed people to express their own feelings with different kinds of diseases. And I find that if it relates to me, then I guess it doesn’t make me feel so alone – knowing that what I’m going through, someone else is going through it with it. (male, 24 years)
Apps and wearable devices (mostly Fitbits) were used for mental health and wellbeing and booking medical appointments, as well as for self-tracking sleep, heart rate, steps and other physical activities, and menstrual cycles. Digital exercise games such as Wii Fit and physical activity platforms like Strava were the least used of all the technologies listed. Few participants who did use them did so regularly, with several participants noting that exercise games were too time-consuming to set up.
Doctors were highly valued as the pre-eminent source of health information authority because of their training and expertise. Young people noted that it could be difficult to distinguish between different opinions and details about health and illness expressed online, requiring them to assess which sources were most valid and reliable. By comparison, a doctor’s expertise was individualised to patients’ specific needs and they could offer knowledgeable interpretations based on their training. Young people could then defer to this expertise.
I guess online there’s a lot of different opinions on what something – like, if you think you’ve got a cold or something like that then you go online and I guess you’re not really qualified yourself to go, this is actually what symptoms I’m experiencing and this is what it actually is. Whereas I feel like if you go to a doctor they’re able to pinpoint it quite well. (female, 22 years)
The participants highly valued the capacity of digital technologies to generate detailed information about their bodies and health states and imagined new technologies that would be able to achieve even more detailed personalisation and customisation. However, they expressed little knowledge or concern about how their personal health data may be exploited by other actors or agencies, despite the fact that the interviews took place a matter of weeks after the Facebook/Cambridge Analytics personal data scandal. Several participants said that they had noticed that companies like Facebook and Google were monitoring their online searches and content for advertising purposes, but these practices were accepted as the norm for online engagement.
Obviously, Google, because they’re finding ways to link to merchandise, or that’s what I believe, personally. If I look up fitness they’ll say, “Oh look at this fitness gear; why don’t you buy it?” I think it’s just society today – I can’t really stop it. (female, 18 years)
The participants’ accounts highlight the importance to this demographic group of the relational and affective dimensions of seeking health-related advice and information. While all the participants went online routinely and regularly to find advice and information, particularly because the internet affords convenience, ready access and a wealth of diverse opinions, it was evident that their connections and relationships with other people, both face-to-face and digitally mediated, were very important. Other key affordances offered by digital technologies included offering material that could be viewed anonymously and unobtrusively.
Feeling understood by and connected to other people was an agential capacity generated through various combinations of humans with each other and with technologies. The ideal digital health technologies that were imagined by the participants also evoked the affordances of convenience and accessibility. These imaginaries also suggested the importance to young people of technologies that could ‘know’ and ‘understand’ them better than those they had already tried.
In summary, these findings highlight that gaining a better knowledge of bodies, illness and healthcare and feeling more in control of health and wellbeing states were important to the young people. They valued face-to-face as well as online relationships and personal connections with other people for providing information and support, including family members and friends as well as medical professionals.
These were the vibrancies that animated the participants’ enactments of seeking and finding health information and support, that kept them googling, reading the content of websites, social media platforms and online forums, watching videos and using apps and wearable devices. While the young people’s consumption of this content may overtly appear to be passive, given that they tended to view rather than create online content, the young people were actively making sense of the material they were accessing and gathering, deciding how relevant or valid it was for their needs, how they would respond to it and whether they needed to seek further advice from doctors or others.