Digital Health Stakeholder Workshop

Smart Technology Living Lab

Our inaugural living lab workshop on digital health was held in June 2017. Participants included representatives from the News & Media Research Centre and the University of Canberra Health Research Institute as well as from the Australian Digital Health Agency, the Australian Institute of Sport, ACT Health, Data61, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, the Health Care Consumers Association, Accenture, the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health, the Australian College of Midwives, HeadSpace, Accenture, the Australian Pharmacy Guild, the Women’s Centre for Health Matters and Ochre Health.

The workshop involved participants engaging in co-creation activities around two main questions:

  • What works in digital health now?
  • Where should digital health go in the future?

Participants worked together in groups to map digital health technologies and show the relationships between them and the people who used them. They considered what opportunities might be further developed in the digital health space, and created a…

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Fat, thin and fit bodies in digital media

 

I have just completed an introduction for a special issue of the journal Fat Studies on digital media and body weight, shape and size. Here’s an edited excerpt from the introduction. (Update: the introduction has now been published, and can be viewed here.)

Numerous researchers have called attention to the ways in which often very negative portrayals of fat embodiment circulate in the popular media. Despite the growing presence of attempts to counter these portrayals, online representations of fat bodies that seek to challenge accepted norms and engage in fat activist politics continue to be far outnumbered by those that continue to stigmatize and shame fat people and portray thin bodies as more desirable, healthy and attractive. A content analysis of the representation of “obesity” on YouTube (Yoo and Kim 2012) found that highly negative representations of fat people were common, as were those that attributed personal responsibility for body weight (such as showing fat people eating unhealthy food) and made fun of fat people. Another study of YouTube videos using the search term “fat” (Hussin et al. 2011) revealed that many highly-viewed videos included content that devalued fat people. Men were targeted for fat stigmatization twice as often as women, and white people were the targets far more frequently than other ethnic or racial groups. The antagonists engaging in active shaming or vilification of fat people were also overwhelmingly white men.

My own search for the term “fat people” on YouTube in September 2016 returned many top-ranked videos in which fat people are held up to ridicule and scorn. These bore such titles as “Fat People Fails,” featuring fat people falling over, breaking furniture or otherwise publicly humiliating themselves as well as “The Top Fattest People in the World,” and “Fat People Cringe,” all featuring fat bodies in the style of the freak show. These videos all have millions of views. A Google search for “fat memes” similarly 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.

Apps are another dominant media form that often focuses on the monitoring, representation and even gamification of human embodiment. As I have argued elsewhere, the ways in which game apps portray social groups can often reproduce and exacerbate negative or misleading stereotypes, including racism, sexism, healthism and norms of feminine embodiment privileging highly-groomed, youthful, physically fit and slim bodies (Lupton 2015, Lupton and Thomas 2015). When I searched the App Annie platform using the term “fat,” a plethora of apps portraying fat bodies in negative ways were identified. These included several game apps that represented fat people as ugly, greedy, lazy and gormless figures of fun who need encouragement to engage in weight-loss activities. Many other apps involve users (who are assumed not to be fat) manipulating images of themselves or others so that they look fat. These include “FatGoo”, marketed by its developers in the following terms: “Gaining weight is now fun! FatGoo is the ultimate app for creating hilarious fat photos of your friends and family.” Others of this ilk include “Fatty – Make Funny Fat Face Pictures,” “Fat You!,” “FatBooth” and “Fatify – Get Fat.” Another fat app genre is that which uses abusive terms to shame people into controlling their diet and lose weight. One example is “CARROT Hunger – Talking Calorie Counter.” It is marketed by its developer as a “judgemental calorie counter” which will “punish you for overindulging.” The app can be used to scan foods for their calorie content. If it judges food as too high in calories, users are abused with insulting epithets such as “flabby meatbags” and even tweets shaming messages about them to their Twitter followers. While such apps may be considered by some as harmless fun, they play a serious ideological role in stigmatizing and rendering abject fatness and fat people.

… Thinspiration is a profoundly gendered discourse. Far more female than male bodies feature in digital images tagged with #thinspiration or #thinspo. I noted earlier that white men tend to be targeted for ridicule in memes and GIFs. Interestingly, my search for “skinny” or “thin” memes and GIFs also hold up white male bodies to derision, this time drawing attention to thin men as lacking appropriate muscular strength. Many memes show half-naked thin men in body-building poses, seeking to highlight their lack of size. When skinny women are featured in memes and GIFS, it is usually in relation to women who falsely claim or complain about being fat or else are sexualized images of young women in swimwear displaying their lean bodies (often tagged in GIFs with #hot #beauty, #perfect and #sexy as well as #thin, #thispo or #skinny). Thin women, these memes suggest, are to be envied because they conform to conventions of female attractiveness. In contrast, thin men are deficient because they fail to achieve ideals of masculine strength and size. The fitspiration or fitspo terms are more recent, but they also take up and reproduce many of the ideals of thinspiration, and similarly have a strong focus on physical appearance and conventional sexual attractiveness. The bodies that are championed in fitspiration are physically toned, active, strong and fit as well as slim (but not emaciated), and are similarly eroticized, with both female and male bodies featuring (Boepple et al. 2016, Boepple and Thompson 2016, Tiggemann and Zaccardo 2016).

References

Boepple, L., Ata, R.N., Rum, R. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) Strong is the new skinny: a content analysis of fitspiration websites. Body Image, 17 132-135.

Boepple, L. and Thompson, J.K. (2016) A content analytic comparison of fitspiration and thinspiration websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 49 (1), 98-101.

Hussin, M., Frazier, S. and Thompson, J.K. (2011) Fat stigmatization on YouTube: a content analysis. Body Image, 8 (1), 90-92.

Lupton, D. (2015) Digital Sociology. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. and Thomas, G.M. (2015) Playing pregnancy: the ludification and gamification of expectant motherhood in smartphone apps. M/C Journal (5). Accessed 22 October 2015. Available from http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/1012.

Tiggemann, M. and Zaccardo, M. (2016) ‘Strong is the new skinny’: a content analysis of #fitspiration images on Instagram. Journal of Health Psychology, online ahead of print.

Yoo, J.H. and Kim, J. (2012) Obesity in the new media: a content analysis of obesity videos on YouTube. Health Communication, 27 (1), 86-97.

 

 

My current research projects (June 2016)

I am working on a number of different projects at the moment. Here’s a list.

Digitised Pregnancy and Parenting This project involves several different elements, including a survey completed by 410 women around Australia and focus groups with women in Sydney who at the time of the survey/focus groups were either pregnant or had given birth in the past three years. It also involves a critical analysis of pregnancy and reproduction apps and other digital devices for monitoring menstruation, fertility and pregnancy. Collaborators: Sarah Pedersen, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and Gareth Thomas, Cardiff University. Articles published so far from this project can be found herehere, here (OA), here, here, here (OA) and here (OA). Blog posts about it are here and here.

Public Understandings of Big Data A study using cultural probes in focus groups held in Sydney to explore what people understand about how their personal data are collected and used. Collaborator: Mike Michael, University of Sydney. Articles published so far from this project can be found here (OA) and here and a blog post here.

Small Technology, Big Data and the Business of Young People’s Health This is an Australian Research Council Discovery Project involving interviews with and observations of teachers in Australian schools about how they use digital technologies in school health and physical education as well as a critical analysis of these technologies. Collaborators: Michael Gard, University of Queensland, Deana Leahy, Monash University, Melbourne and Carolyn Pluim, Northern Illinois University, USA. I have published an article and blog post related to this project.

Fabricated Food: Consumer Responses to 3D Printed Food This study used an online focus group discussion format to invite Australians to tell use what they thought about food fabricated from 3D printing technologies. Collaborator: Bethaney Turner, University of Canberra. A chapter from this project can be found here (OA).

Fitness Activity Analytics This project involves interviews with people in Canberra who are self-tracking their fitness activities. Collaborator: Glen Fuller, University of Canberra.

Cycling Commuting Self-Tracking Another project on self-tracking, this time involving people in Canberra and Melbourne who monitor their cycling commutes. This project used digital ethnography methods. The participants were interviewed about their practices and we also videoed them show us how they prepared for a ride and completed a ride. The participants used a Go Pro mini camera mounted on their helmets to video one of their cycling commutes as well. Collaborators: Sarah Pink and Shanti Sumartojo, RMIT University, Melbourne and Christine Heyes Labond, University of Canberra.

Why Do People Self-Track? A third study on self-tracking practices. This one takes a broader view, using the method of semi-structured telephone interviews to talk to Australians who self-track about why and how they do so. Collaborator: Gavin Smith, Australian National University.

Self-Tracking and Automatised Bodies Again focusing on self-tracking, this project involves the formation of an international research network, involving regular workshops and developing collaborative research. It is funded by the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. Collaborators: Martin Berg, Professor Vaike Fors and Christopher Martin, Halmstead University, Sweden, Tom O’Dell, Lund University, Sweden, Sarah Pink, RMIT University and Minna Ruckenstein and Mika Pantzar, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Australians’ Use of Apps A survey of how Australians use apps: what types of apps they use, what devices they upload them to and how they use the apps. Collaborators: Scott Rickard and Sam Hinton, University of Canberra.

Digital Media, Food and Body Weight I am editing a special issue on digital media and body weight for the Fat Studies journal and working on a chapter about datafied bodies, food and digital technologies for a handbook on food and popular culture.

Digital Health: Critical Perspectives A sole-authored monograph to be published by Routledge, using sociocultural theory to cast a critical eye on a range of contemporary digital health technologies. Due for publication in 2017.

The Digital Academic An edited book, also for Routledge, bringing together contributors examining the implications of digital technologies for academic work and identities. Due for publication in 2017. Other editors: Inger Mewburn, Australian National University and Pat Thomson, Nottingham University, UK.

 

 

 

 

Call for abstracts for themed issue on body weight and digital media

I am editing a themed issue for Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society on the topic of body weight and digital media. Fat Studies is the first academic journal that critically examines theory, research, practices, and programs related to body weight and appearance.

If you are interested in contributing to this themed issue, please send me an article title and an abstract of 200-250 words outlining what you would propose to cover by 29 February 2016. Final submissions should be no longer than 7,000 words, including the abstract, all notes and references. Please email to deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au

In keeping with the journal’s emphasis on ‘body weight and society’, the themed issue will include contributions that address the following and related topics from a critical sociocultural perspective:

  • representations of body weight and size in the digital news media (and also how readers may comment on news reports online)
  • apps and wearable devices for weight control, physical fitness and energy expenditure
  • selfies and body size
  • the discussion and portrayal of such issues as weight loss, body size, fat activism, thinspo, fitspo, pro-ana, pro-mia and fat pornography and erotica in blogs, social media platforms and other websites
  • big data and body weight

If your abstract is accepted, the following deadlines apply:

  • Full papers by 31 May 2016
  • Revised final versions by 30 August 2016

 

Public understanding of personal digital data

One of the research projects I am conducting, with Mike Michael from the University of Sydney, is investigating the public understanding of digital data. We are experimenting with using novel methods (for sociologists at least!) in our project, which combines focus group discussions with cultural probes.

In the discussion groups, we wanted to go beyond the usual approach of simply asking questions of people. We wanted to invite people to think and work together playfully and creatively. We therefore decided to employ cultural probes to stimulate thought, discussion and debate, involving asking people to work together as a group or in pairs to generate material artefacts. Cultural probes are objects or tasks that are designed to be playful and provocative so as to encourage people to think in new ways about technologies. They are particularly valued for their ability to address intimate or controversial issues, to act as ‘irritants’ to engage people’s responses.

We asked people in our focus groups (held in Sydney) to engage in three collaborative tasks that we devised for them.

  1. The Daily Big Data Task. This task asked participants to work together as a group to draw a timeline on a huge piece of paper of a typical person’s day and adding the ways in which data (digital or otherwise) may be collected on that person.
  2. The Digital Profile Card Game. This task involved small groups to use cards with socio-demographic details on them to construct a profile of an individual, speculate about their characteristics and discuss how this information could be used.
  3. The Personal Data Machine. In this activity, participants were asked to work in pairs to design two data-gathering devices: one that they would find useful to use to collect any kind of data about themselves, and one for collecting data on another person. They were asked to write notes or make drawings describing their devices.

After each task the group came together to talk about the artefacts they had created or handled and what their implications were.

Earlier this year, we published a short piece in Discover Society that outlined some of our initial findings. A new article in the journal Public Understanding of Science, entitled ‘Toward a manifesto for the public understanding of big data’ has just been published. We are currently working on another article that presents our empirical work in greater detail.

In the ‘manifesto’ article, we pointed out that there are many intersections between research on the public understanding of digital data with the literatures on the public understanding of science and public engagement with science and technology. These are bodies of work that have been devoted to making sense of the intersections between how citizens engage with scientific knowledge, including not only consuming but producing this knowledge. Indeed, it may be contended that members of the public have been ‘prosumers’ of scientific knowledge long before the emergence of digital data (that is, both acting to consume and produce scientific information), particularly when they are engaging in citizen activism or citizen science initiatives.

There are many examples of citizens participating in activities that either contribute to or challenge accepted scientific beliefs. This critical approach has led to the development of a public engagement with science and technology model, in which ‘the public’ and ‘scientific expertise’ are not contrasted with each other. Rather, it is acknowledged that each draws their definitions from the other, contributing to hybrid assemblages of knowledges. The public are both the subjects and objects of scientific research and data, just as they are of digital data.

Our research project findings suggest that we may be seeing a transformation in attitudes in response to the controversies and scandals in relation to the use of people’s personal data that have received a high level of public attention over the past two and a half years, potentially reshaping concepts of privacy. What emerged from our focus groups is a somewhat diffuse but quite extensive understanding on the part of the participants of the ways in which data may be gathered about them and the uses to which these data may be put.

It was evident that although many participants were aware of these issues, they were rather uncertain about the specific details of how their personal data became part of big data sets and for what this information was used. While the term ‘scary’ was employed by several people when describing the extent of data collection in which they are implicated and the knowledge that other people may have about them from their online interactions and transactions, they struggled to articulate more specifically what the implications of such collection were.

On the other hand, when the participants were designing their ‘Personal Data Machines’, it was evident from their creations that they appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity not only to collect detailed information about themselves, but also on other people: partners, children and other family members and co-workers. Some imagined devices included those that monitored other people’s dreams or snooped on partners’ phone call metadata to check if they were unfaithful. Other people described a lie-detecting device, one that could track commercial competitors’ activities, another that revealed the salary of their workmates (so that the user could know if they were being fairly remunerated) and a dating device that could scan a prospective partner’s hand or face and reveal their financial assets and criminal record details.

In some cases, it seems, too much information is never enough. The seductions of data can be very appealing, not just for commercial enterprises or national security agencies.

 

Towards a new mode of self-tracking

In a conference paper and my forthcoming book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking Cultures, I identify five modes of self-tracking. What I call ‘private self-tracking’ is undertaken for voluntary and personal reasons that are self-initiated. ‘Pushed self-tracking’ involves encouragement for people to monitor themselves from other agencies, while the mode of ‘communal self-tracking’ relies on people sharing their personal information with others. ‘Imposed self-tracking’ involves moving from encouragement to requiring people to collect or engage with data about themselves, so that they may have little choice in doing so. The ‘exploited self-tracking’ mode represents the ways in which personal data may be used by other actors and agencies for their own purposes, either overtly or covertly.

Since writing the initial conference paper, developing these ideas in my book and also for a journal article based on the paper, I have added some thoughts about the possibilities for forms of self-tracking that go beyond these modes. As I argue, self-tracking conforms to a conservative political agenda that represents citizens as automated/autonomous subjects, ideally engaging in self-responsibilised practices of monitoring and life optimisation and emitting valuable ‘data exhausts’ for repurposing by other actors and agencies.

As yet, there has been little discussion of the ways in which self-tracking may be used for resistant or strategic political interventions – as means to challenge accepted norms and assumptions about selves and bodies rather than conforming to these norms and assumptions. Few commentators have drawn attention to how self-tracking highlights certain forms of information about specific kinds of individuals or social groups while it neglects or ignores others, and how idealised citizen subjects are configured via dominant self-tracking cultures while those who fail to meet these ideals are stigmatised or disciplined.

Nascent moves towards a more political use of self-tracking are evident in some citizen sensing initiatives, when they are used to expose or challenge assumptions about geographical areas, the social determinants of ill-health, the environment and living conditions in the effort to draw attention towards social inequalities, government neglect or environmental mismanagement.

There is ample further scope for alternative approaches to self-tracking as a form of knowledge production that seek to identify, record and highlight details of socioeconomic disadvantage or social stigma rather than simply perpetuating them, or to generate knowledge of others rather than being directed at serving the solipsism of self-knowledge. Resistant self-tracking efforts may serve to make visible forms of power relations, injustice and inequalities that are currently hidden from view. It is here that a new mode of self-tracking may develop. The possibilities for a new form of data politics that takes up these more critical and challenging practices are intriguing.

Digital technologies and data as sociomaterial objects

An excerpt from Chapter 2: ‘Theorising digital society’ from my book Digital Sociology (forthcoming, Routledge).

As sociologists and other social theorists have begun to argue, digital data are neither immaterial nor only miniscule components of a larger material entity. This perspective adopts a sociomaterial approach drawn from science and technology studies, an interdisciplinary field which has provided a critical stance on media technologies in general, and computerised technologies more specifically … In this literature, the digital data objects that are brought together through digital technologies, including ‘like’ or ‘share’ buttons, individuals’ browser histories, personalised recommendations and comments on social media posts as well as the hardware and software that structure the choices available to users, are assemblages of complex interactions of economic, technological, social and cultural logics (Mackenzie, 2005; Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, 2011; Caplan, 2013; Langois and Elmer, 2013). Representing digital phenomena as objects serves the purpose of acknowledging their existence, effects and power (Marres, 2012; Caplan, 2013; Hands, 2013; Langois and Elmer, 2013).

The cultural and political analysis of computer software is sometimes referred to as software studies. Writers in software studies place an emphasis not on the transmission or reception of messages, as in the old model of communication, but rather have developed a sociomaterial interest in the ways in which acts of computation produce and shape knowledges. Computer coding are positioned as agents in configurations and assemblages (Fuller, 2008), producing what Kitchin and  Dodge (2011) refer to as ‘coded assemblages’. Indeed the pervasive nature of software in everyday life is such that Manovich (2013: no page number given) argues that it has become ‘a universal language, the interface to our imagination and the world’. He contends, therefore, that social researchers should be conceptualising people’s interactions with digital technologies as ‘software performances’ which are constructed and reconstructed in real-time, with the software constantly reacting to the user’s actions.

… Digital data are also positioned as sociomaterial objects in this literature. Whereas many commentators in the popular media, government and business world view digital data as the ultimate forms of truth and accurate knowledge, sociologists and other social theorists have emphasised that these forms of information, like any other type, are socially created and have a social life, a vitality, of their own. Digital data objects structure our concepts of identity, embodiment, relationships, our choices and preferences and even our access to services or spaces.

There are many material aspects to digital data. They are the product of complex decisions, creative ideas, the solving and management of technical problems and marketing efforts on the part of those workers who are involved in producing the materials that create, manage and store these data. They are also the product of the labour of the prosumers who create the data. These are the ‘invisible’ material aspects of digital data (Aslinger and Huntemann, 2013).

Algorithms play an important role in configuring digital data objects. Algorithms measure and sort the users of digital technologies, deciding what choices they may be offered. Digital data objects aggregated together, often from a variety of sources, configure ‘metric assemblages’ (Burrows, 2012) or ‘surveillant assemblages’ (Haggerty and Ericson, 2000) that produce a virtual doppelganger of the user. Algorithms and other elements of software, therefore, are generative, a productive form of power (Mackenzie, 2005; Beer, 2009; Cheney-Lippold, 2011; Mackenzie and Vurdubakis, 2011; boyd and Crawford, 2012; Beer, 2013; Ruppert et al., 2013).

Scholars who have adopted a sociomaterial perspective have also highlighted the tangible physicality of aspects of digital technology manufacture and use. Despite the rhetoric of seamless, proficient operation that so commonly is employed to discuss the internet and ubiquitous computing, the maintenance that supports this operation is messy and contingent, often involving pragmatic compromises negotiations and just-in-time interventions to keep the system working. Geographical, economic, social, political and cultural factors – including such basic requirements as a stable electricity supply and access to a computer network – combine to promote or undermine the workings of digital technologies (Bell, 2006; Bell and Dourish, 2007; Dourish and Bell, 2007; Bell and Dourish, 2011). The materiality of digital hardware becomes very apparent when devices that are no longer required must be disposed of, creating the problem of digital waste (or ‘e-waste’) that often contains toxic materials (Gabrys, 2011; Miller and Horst, 2012).

Given the high turnover of digital devices, their tendency towards fast obsolescence and the fact that they are often replaced every few years in wealthy countries by people seeking the newest technologies and upgrades, vast quantities of digital waste is constantly generated. The vast majority of discarded digital devices end up in landfill. Only a small minority are recycled or reused, and those that are tend to be sent from wealthy to poor countries for scrap and salvaging of components. When they are outmoded and discarded, the once highly desirable, shiny digital devices that were so full of promise when they were purchased simply become another form of rubbish; dirty, unsightly and potentially contaminating pollutants (Gabrys, 2011). The electricity supplies that power digital technologies and digital data storage units themselves have environmental effects on humans and other living things, such as the release of smoke and particles from coal-fired electricity generating plants. ‘The digital is a regime of energies: human energy and the energy needed for technological machines’ (Parikka, 2013: no page given).

The materiality of digital objects is also apparent in debates over how and where digital data should be stored, as they require ever-larger physical structures (servers) for archiving purposes. Despite the metaphor of the computing ‘cloud’, digital data do not hover in the ether but must be contained within hardware. Furthermore, digital data are very difficult to erase or remove, and thus can be very stubbornly material. At the same time, however, if stored too long and not used, they may quickly become obsolete and therefore useless, if contemporary technologies can no longer access and make use of them. Digital data, therefore, may be said to ‘decay’ if left too long, and lost and forgotten, if they are not migrated to new technological formats. Digital memory is volatile because the technologies used to store and access data change so quickly. Analogue materials that are rendered into digital form for archival purposes and then destroyed may therefore be lost if their digital forms can no longer be used (Gabrys, 2011).

References

Aslinger B and Huntemann N. (2013) Digital media studies futures. Media, Culture & Society 35(1): 9-12.

Beer D. (2009) Power through the algorithm? Participatory web cultures and the technological unconscious. New Media & Society 11(6): 985-1002.

Beer D. (2013) Popular Culture and New Media: the Politics of Circulation, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bell G. (2006) ‘Satu keluarga, satu komputer’ (one home, one computer): cultural accounts of ICTs in South and Southeast Asia. Design Issues 22(2): 35-55.

Bell G and Dourish P. (2007) Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant vision. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 11(2): 133-143.

Bell G and Dourish P. (2011) Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

boyd d and Crawford K. (2012) Critical questions for Big Data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 662-679.

Burrows R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review 60(2): 355-372.

Caplan P. (2013) Software tunnels through the rags ‘n refuse: object oriented software studes and platform politics. Culture Machine, 14. (accessed 8 August 2013).

Cheney-Lippold J. (2011) A new algorithmic identity: soft biopolitics and the modulation of control. Theory, Culture & Society 28(6): 164-181.

Dourish P and Bell G. (2007) The infrastructure of experience and the experience of infrastructure: meaning and structure in everyday encounters with space. Environment and Planning B: Planning & Design 34(3): 414-430.

Fuller M. (2008) Introduction, the stuff of software. In: Fuller M (ed) Software Studies: A Lexicon. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1-13.

Gabrys J. (2011) Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Haggerty K and Ericson R. (2000) The surveillant assemblage. British Journal of Sociology 51(4): 605-622.

Hands J. (2013) Introduction: politics, power and ‘platformativity’. Culture Machine, 14. (accessed 5 February 2014).

Kitchin R and Dodge M. (2011) Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Langois G and Elmer G. (2013) The research politics of social media platforms. Culture Machine, 14. (accessed 8 August 2013).

Mackenzie A. (2005) The performativity of code: software and cultures of circulation. Theory, Culture & Society 22(1): 71-92.

Mackenzie A and Vurdubakis T. (2011) Codes and codings in crisis: signification, performativity and excess. Theory, Culture & Society 28(6): 3-23.

Manovich L. (2013) The algorithms of our lives. The Chronicle of Higher Education. (accessed 17 December 2013).

Marres N. (2012) Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Miller D and Horst H. (2012) The digital and the human: a prospectus for digital anthropology. In: Horst H and Miller D (eds) Digital Anthropology. London: Berg, 3-35.

Parikka J. (2013) Dust and exhaustion: the labor of media materialism. CTheory. (accessed 2 November 2013).

Ruppert E, Law J and Savage M. (2013) Reassembling social science methods: the challenge of digital devices. Theory, Culture & Society 30(4): 22-46.

 

Why should sociologists study digital media?

Why should sociologists be interested in the new digital media technologies? This is a question I have been thinking and writing about recently in developing my next book project on digital sociology (to be published by Routledge next year). Here are some of the reasons that have emerged in the literature:

  • Social life is increasingly being configured through and with digital media.
  • What counts as ‘the social’ is increasingly framed via digital media.
  • Digital media use and practice is structured through gender, social class, geographical location, education, race/ethnicity and age, all social categories with which sociologists have traditionally been interested.
  • Digital media are integral parts of contemporary social networks and social institutions such as the family, the workplace, the education system, the healthcare system, the mass media and the economy, again phenomena that have long been foci for sociological research and theorising.
  • Digital media configure concepts of selfhood, social relationships, embodiment, human/nonhuman relations, space and time – all relevant to sociological inquiry.
  • Digital media have instituted new forms of power relations.
  • Digital media have become central to issues of measure and value.
  • Digital media offer alternative ways of practising sociology: of researching, teaching and disseminating research.
  • Digital media are important both to ‘public sociology’ (engaging with people outside of academia) and ‘private sociology’ (personal identities and practices as sociologists) (see here for my previous post on this).
  • Digital media challenge sociologists’ role as pre-eminent social researchers: sociologists need to address this.
  • Digital media technologies can contribute to ‘live sociology’ and ‘inventive methods’, or new, creative ways of practising sociology.

As this list implies, digital sociology goes well beyond simply a focus on ‘the digital’. It raises major questions about what should be the focus and methods of contemporary sociological research and theorising. As such, sociologists writing about digital media are important contributors to debates about the future of sociology and how the discipline can remain vibrant, creative and responsive to new developments and social change.

Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.

Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.

In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).

Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.

Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).

Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).

Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.

This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).

References

Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.

Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.

Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.