Call for abstracts – Digital Food Cultures symposium

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I am convening a one-day symposium on Digital Food Cultures, to be held at the University of Canberra on Friday 20 October 2017. If you are interested in presenting at this symposium, the call for abstracts is now out.

This symposium is directed at the social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of representations and practices related to using digital technologies for food production, consumption, preparation, eating out, promoting healthy diets or weight loss, marketing, ethical consumption, food activism and environmental and sustainability politics.

Topics may include, but are not limited to food-related apps, online videos, GIFs and memes, other platforms, digital food-related games, wearable devices, digital food data and 3D printed food technologies.

I plan to edit a special journal issue from selected symposium papers.

Please send abstracts (with your name, university affiliation and title of paper) of 150-200 words to me by 1 June 2017 at deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au.

Digitising female fertility and reproduction

Over the past few months, I have been working on writing about the findings of several research projects addressing the topic of digital technologies directed at female fertility and reproduction. These projects involve:

1) a critical content analysis of fertility and reproduction-related software and devices (especially apps);

2) an online survey of 410 Australian women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps; and

3) focus groups and interviews with Australian and British women about their use of these technologies (these are still in progress).

Several outcomes have now been published drawing on these findings. They include a report (with Sarah Pedersen from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen) outlining the findings of the online survey (this can be accessed here), an article on the gamification and ludification of pregnancy in apps (with Gareth Thomas from Cardiff University, available here) and a book chapter on the concept of the reproductive citizen and the range of digital technologies that are directed at helping women to monitor and regulate their fertility and reproduction (available here). Edit: two other articles have now been published: one based on the survey findings (here), and another on the pregnancy app study (here).

Some of the key findings are:

  • The survey showed that pregnancy and parenting apps were very popular among the survey respondents – three-quarters of the respondents (who were either pregnant or who had a baby in the past three years at the time of the survey) said that they had used at least one pregnancy app, while almost half had used at least one parenting app.
  • Googling information about pregnancy is very common among pregnant women, for whom too much information about pregnancy appears never to be enough (this finding emerged in the focus groups). They tend to invest their trust in the first few search findings that come up on their search engine, reasoning that because this is evidence of popularity, then these websites must be credible.
  • Despite the popularity of pregnancy and parenting apps, few women are contemplating the validity of the information presented in them, or demonstrated concern about the data security and privacy of the personal information that the apps may collect (this was evident in both the survey and the focus groups).
  • This genre of software is intensifying an already fervid atmosphere of self-surveillance, attempts at management and control and self-responsibility in which female fertility and reproduction are experienced and performed.
  • Stereotypical concepts of idealised female fertile and pregnant bodies are reproduced in apps and other software. They use highly aestheticised images and the promise of rational calculation and monitoring to seek to contain and control women’s fertility and reproduction.
  • Women in their fertile years – and particularly those contemplating pregnancy or already pregnant – are part of a highly commodified demographic. The information that they generate from their online practices possess a new form of value, biovalue, as part of the bioeconomy of personal health and medical data.

Edited book ‘Beyond Techno-Utopia: Critical Approaches to Digital Health Technologies’ now out

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.

The cultural specificity of digital health technologies

Digital health technologies configure a certain type of practising medicine and public health, a certain type of patient or lay person and a specific perspective on the human body. The techno-utopian approach to using digital health technologies tends to assume that these tacit norms and assumptions are shared and accepted by all the actors involved, and that they are acting on a universal human body. Yet a cursory examination of surveys of digital health technology use demonstrates that social structural factors such as age, gender, education level, occupation and race/ethnicity, as well as people’s state of health and their geographical location play a major role in influencing how such technologies are taken up among lay people or the extent to which they are able to access the technologies.

An American study of the use of some digital health technologies using representative data collected by the National Cancer Institute in 2012, for example, found no evidence of differences by race or ethnicity, but significant differences for gender, age and socioeconomic status (Kontos et al. 2014). Female respondents were more likely to use online technologies for health-related information, as were younger people (under less than 65) and those of higher socioeconomic status. People of low socioeconomic status were less likely to go online to look for a healthcare provider, use email or the internet to connect with a doctor, track their personal health information online, using a website to track to help track diet, weight or physical activity or download health information to a mobile device. However they were more likely to use social media sites to access or share health information. Women were more likely than men to engage in all of these activities.

While there is little academic research on how different social groups use apps, market research reports have generated some insights. One report showed that women install 40 per cent more apps than men and buy 17 per cent more paid apps. Men use health and fitness apps slightly more (10 per cent) than women (Koetsier 2013). A Nielsen market report on the use of wearable devices found that while men and women used fitness activity bands in equal numbers, women were more likely to use diet and calorie counter apps (Nielsen 2014).

As these findings suggest, gender is one important characteristic that structures the use of digital health technologies. The digital technology culture is generally male-dominated: most technology designers, developers and entrepreneurs are male. As a result, a certain blindness to the needs of women can be evident. For example, when the Apple Health app was announced in 2014, destined to be included as part of a suite of apps on the Apple Watch, it did not include a function for the tracking of menstrual cycles (Eveleth 2014). Gender stereotypes are routinely reproduced in devices such as health and medical apps. As I noted in my study of sexuality and reproduction self-tracking apps, the sexuality apps tend to focus on documenting and celebrating male sexual performance, with little acknowledgement of women’s sexuality, while reproduction apps emphasise women’s over men’s fertility.

App designers and those who develop many other digital technologies for medical and health-related purposes often fail to recognise the social and cultural differences that may influence how people interact with them. Just as cultural beliefs about health and illness vary from culture to culture, so too do responses to the cultural artefacts that are digital health technologies. Aboriginal people living in a remote region of Australia, for example, have very different notions of embodiment, health and disease from those that tend to feature in the health literacy apps that have been developed for mainstream white Australian culture (Christie and Verran 2014). It is therefore not surprising that a review of the efficacy of a number of social media and apps developed for health promotion interventions targeted at Aboriginal Australians found no evidence of their effectiveness or benefit to this population (Brusse et al. 2014).

Few other analyses have sought to highlight the cultural differences in which people respond to and use digital health technologies. This kind of research is surely imperative to challenge existing assumptions about ‘the user’ of these technologies and provide greater insights into their benefits and limitations.

Quantifying the sexual and reproductive self

I have just had an article accepted for publication in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality, to be published in a special issue on medical and health technologies. The article looks at mobile smartphone apps for self-tracking and quantifying sexual and reproductive functions and activities. A pre-print version is available here.

This is the abstract for the article:

Digital health technologies are playing an increasingly important role in healthcare, health education and voluntary self-surveillance, self-quantification and self-care practices. This article presents a critical analysis of one form of these technologies: mobile apps used to self-track features of users’ sexual and reproductive activities and functions. After a review of the content of such apps available in the Apple App Store and Google Play store, some of their sociocultural, ethical and political implications are discussed. These include the role played by these apps in participatory surveillance, their configuration of sexuality and reproduction, the valorising of the quantification of the body in the context of neoliberalism and self-responsibility and issues concerning privacy, data security and the use of the data collected by these apps. It is contended that the apps represent sexuality and reproduction in certain defined and limited ways that work to perpetuate normative stereotypes and assumptions about women and men as sexual and reproductive subjects. Furthermore there are significant ethical and privacy implications emerging from the use of these apps and the data they produce. The article ends with suggestions concerning ‘queering’ such technologies in response to these issues.

Update : This article has now been published – details here.