Feeling data – the role of touch in data sense

I have had an article accepted for publication in a special issue on haptic media in New Media & Society. In the article, I discuss the ways in which people’s engagements with their personal digital data can be facilitated with the use of touch, by generating three-dimensional materialisations of their data.

The introduction to the article is below. The PDF of the entire author’s accepted version is here: Lupton 2017 Feeling data – touch and data sense.

People’s encounters and entanglements with the personal digital data that they generate is a new and compelling area of research interest in this age of the ascendancy of digital data. The emergence of novel modes of generating digital data about humans and their activities and movements has the potential for new ways of learning about and conceptualising bodies, selves and social relations. The experience of everyday life in many parts of the world is now increasingly datafied – rendered into digital data forms. People’s interactions online, their use of mobile and wearable devices, and other ‘smart’ objects and their movements in sensor-embedded spaces all generate multiple and constant flows of digital data, often about intensely personal actions and preferences, social relationships, and bodily functions and movements. They are encouraged to take the opportunity to view and reflect on this information and use it to optimise their lives, improve their health and wellbeing, contribute to their memories or achieve self-knowledge (Lupton, 2016b; 2016a; Nafus and Sherman, 2014; Selke, 2016). In response to the continual data streams and traces generated about them, people are learning to come to terms with how their personal information is generated and what meanings and value it offers them. They are now called upon to engage with a variety of forms of information about themselves and to confront the complexities of how these data are used by others.

Responding to personal data is a highly sensory experience, involving people to engage in complex negotiations between assessing the information they receive from their embodied senses and that generated from digital devices. The ways in which their personal details are translated from digital data into material form are important to people’s sensory engagements with their data. Most discussions of personal digital data materialisations have focused on two-dimensional visual renderings: data visualisations that are primarily designed to be looked at. This article is intended as a contribution towards understanding the sensory dimensions of personal digital data, with a particular focus on the haptic. I explore the topic of how personal digital data and their circulations can be made more perceptible and therefore interpretable to people with the use of three-dimensional materialisations that invite not only viewing but also touching and handling, and in some cases, the senses of hearing, taste and smell as well. I argue that these forms of data materialisation are potentially integral to new modes of understanding and incorporating personal data into everyday life, living with and alongside these data.

The discussion is structured into several parts. In the first part, I review some of the relevant literature on human embodiment, the senses and digital technologies, establishing the theoretical basis that is further developed in the article. This is followed by a discussion of how the ontologies of personal digital data may be theorised. I then introduce the notion of data sense, drawing attention to the sensory dimensions of how people interpret their data. I then discuss the ways in which personal digital data can be fabricated into three-dimensional forms using 3D printing technologies – data physicalisations – so that they can be experienced and responded to in multisensory ways. I provide examples of objects created from personal digital data that can be handled, displayed as decorative artefacts, worn on the body as jewellery and even eaten. Finally, I address the politics of personal data and their materialisations. The concluding comments raise some directions for further research emerging from this discussion.