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.

Who owns your personal health and medical data?

09/01/15 -- A moment during day 1 of the 2-day international Healthcare and Social Media Summit in Brisbane, Australia on September 1, 2015. Mayo Clinic partnered with the Australian Private Hospitals Association (APHA), a Mayo Clinic Social Media Health Network member to bring this first of it's kind summit to Queensland's Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre. (Photo by Jason Pratt / Mayo Clinic)

Presenting my talk at the Mayo Clinic Social Media and Healthcare Summit (Photo by Jason Pratt / Mayo Clinic)

Tomorrow I am speaking on a panel at the Mayo Clinic Healthcare and Social Media Summit on the topic of ‘Who owns your big data?’. I am the only academic among the panel members, who comprise of a former president of the Australian Medical Association, the CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, the Executive Director of a private hospital organisation and the Chief Executive of the Medical Technology Association of Australia. The Summit itself is directed at healthcare providers, seeking to demonstrate how they may use social media to publicise their organisations and promote health among their clients.

As a sociologist, my perspective on the use of social media in healthcare is inevitably directed at troubling the taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin the jargon of ‘disruption’, ‘catalysing’, ‘leveraging’ and ‘acceleration’ that tend to recur in digital health discourses and practices. When I discuss the big data phenomenon, I evoke the ‘13 Ps of big data‘ which recognise their social and cultural assumptions and uses.

When I speak at the Summit, I will note that the first issue to consider is for whom and by whom personal health and medical data are collected. Who decides whether personal digital data should be generated and collected? Who has control over these decisions? What are the power relations and differentials that are involved? This often very intimate information is generated in many different ways – via routine online transactions (e.g. Googling medical symptoms, purchasing products on websites) or more deliberately as part of people’s contributions to social media platforms (such as PatientsLikeMe or Facebook patient support pages) or as part of self-tracking or patient self-care endeavours or workplace wellness programs. The extent to which the generation of such information is voluntary, pushed, coerced or exploited, or indeed, even covert, conducted without the individual’s knowledge or consent, varies in each case. Many self-trackers collect biometric data on themselves for their private purposes. In contrast, patients who are sent home with self-care regimes may do so reluctantly. In some situations, very little choice is offered people: such as school students who are told to wearing self-tracking devices during physical education lessons or employees who work in a culture in which monitoring their health and fitness is expected of them or who may be confronted with financial penalties if they refuse.

Then we need to think about what happens to personal digital data once they are generated. Jotting down details of one’s health in a paper journal or sharing information with a doctor that is maintained in a folder in a filing cabinet in the doctor’s surgery can be kept private and secure. In this era of using digital tools to generate and archive such information, this privacy and security can no longer be guaranteed. Once any kind of personal data are collected and transmitted to the computing cloud, the person who generated the data loses control of it. These details become big data, part of the digital data economy and available to any number of second or third parties for repurposing: data mining companies, marketers, health insurance, healthcare and medical device companies, hackers, researchers, the internet empires themselves and even national security agencies, as Edward Snowden’s revelations demonstrated.

Even the large institutions that are trusted by patients for offering reliable and credible health and medical information online (such as the Mayo Clinic itself, which ranks among the top most popular health websites with 30 million unique estimated monthly visitors) may inadvertently supply personal details of those who use their websites to third parties. One recent study found that nine out of ten visits to health or medical websites result in data being leaked to third parties, including companies such as Google and Facebook, online advertisers and data brokers because the websites use third party analytic tools that automatically send information to the developers about what pages people are visiting. This information can then be used to construct risk profiles on users that may shut them out of insurance, credit or job opportunities. Data security breaches are common in healthcare organisations, and cyber criminals are very interested in stealing personal medical details from such organisations’ archives. This information is valuable as it can be sold for profit or used to create fake IDs to purchase medical equipment or drugs or fraudulent health insurance claims.

In short, the answer to the question ‘Who owns your personal health and medical data?’ is generally no longer individuals themselves.

My research and that of others who are investigating people’s responses to big data and the scandals that have erupted around data security and privacy are finding that concepts of privacy and notions of data ownership are beginning to change in response. People are becoming aware of how their personal data may be accessed, legally or illegally, by a plethora of actors and agencies and exploited for commercial profit. Major digital entrepreneurs, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, are in turn responding to the public’s concern about the privacy and security of their personal information. Healthcare organisations and medical providers need to recognise these concerns and manage their data collection initiatives ethically, openly and responsibly.

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.

Personal digital data as a companion species

Update: I have now published a journal article that brings this post together with the following post on ‘eating’ digital data – the article can be found here.

While an intense interest in digital data in popular and research cultures is now evident, we still know little about how humans interacting with, making sense of and using the digital data that they generate. Everyday data practices remain under-researched and under-theorised. In attempting to identify and think through some of the ways in which critical digital data scholars may seek to contribute to understandings of data practices, I am developing an argument that rests largely on the work of two scholars in the field of science and technology studies: Donna Haraway and Annemarie Mol. In this post I begin with Haraway, while my next post will discuss Mol.

Haraway’s work has often attempted ‘to find descriptive language that names emergent ontologies’, and I use her ideas here in the spirit of developing new terms and concepts to describe humans’ encounters with digital data. Haraway emphasises that humans cannot be separated from nonhumans conceptually, as we are constantly interacting with other animals and material objects as we go about our daily lives. Her writings on the cyborg have been influential in theory for conceptualising human and computer technological encounters (Haraway, 1991). In this work, Haraway drew attention to the idea that human ontology must be understood as multiple and dynamic rather than fixed and essential, as blurring boundaries between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, Self and Other. She contends that actors, whether human or nonhuman, are never pre-established; rather they emerge through relational encounters (Bhavnani and Haraway, 1994). The cyborg metaphor encapsulates this idea, not solely in relation to human-technology assemblages but to any interaction of humans with nonhumans.

This perspective already provides a basis for thinking through the emergent ontologies that are the digital data assemblages that are configured by humans’ interactions with the software and hardware that generate digital data about them. Haraway’s musings on human and nonhuman animal interactions (Haraway, 2003, 2008, 2015) also have resonance for how we might understand digital data-human assemblages. Haraway uses the term ‘companion species’ to describe the relationships that the human species has not only with other animal species but also with technologies. Humans are companion species with the nonhumans with which they live alongside and engage, each species learning from and influencing the other, co-evolving. Haraway refers to companion species as ‘post-cyborg entities, acknowledging the development of her thinking since her original cyborg exegesis.

This trope of companion species may be taken up to think about the ways in which humans generate, materialise and engage with digital data. Thrift has described the new ‘hybrid beings’ that are comprised of digital data and human flesh. Adopting Haraway’s companion species trope allows for the extension of this idea by acknowledging the liveliness of digital data and the relational nature of our interactions with these data. Haraway has commented in a lecture that she has learnt

through my own inhabiting of the figure of the cyborg about the non-anthropomorphic agency and the liveliness of artifacts. The kind of sociality that joins humans and machines is a sociality that constitutes both, so if there is some kind of liveliness going on here it is both human and non-human. Who humans are ontologically is constituted out of that relationality.

This observation goes to the heart of how we might begin to theorise the liveliness of digital data in the context of our own aliveness/liveliness, highlighting the relationality and sociality that connect them.

Like companion species and their humans, digital data are lively combinations of nature/culture. Digital data are lively in several ways. They are about life itself (details about human’s and other living species), they are constantly generated and regenerated as well as purposed and repurposed as they enter into the digital knowledge economy, they have potential impacts on humans’ and other species’ lives via the assumptions and inferences that they are used to develop and they have consequences for livelihoods in terms of their commercial and other value and effects.

Rather than think of the contemporary digitised human body/self as posthuman (cf. Haraway’s comments on posthumanism in her interview with Gane, 2006), the companion species perspective develops the idea of ‘co-human’ entities. Just as digital data assemblages are comprised of specific information points about people’s lives, and thus learn from people as algorithmic processes manipulate this personal information, people in turn learn from the digital data assemblages of which they are a part. The book choices that Amazon offers the, the ads that are delivered to them on Facebook or Twitter, the returns that are listed from search engine queries or browsing histories, the information that a fitness trackers provides about their heart rate or calories burnt each day are all customised to their digitised behaviours. Perusing these data can provide people with insights about themselves and may structure their future behaviour.

These aspects of digital data assemblages are perhaps becoming even more pronounced as the Internet of Things develops and humans become just one node in a network of smart objects that configure and exchange digital data with each other. Humans move around in data-saturated environments and they are able to wear personalised data-generating devices on their bodies, including not only their smartphones but objects such as sensor-embedded wristbands, clothing or watches. The devices that we carry with us literally are our companions: in the case of smartphones regularly touched, fiddled with and looked at throughout the day. But in distinction from previous technological prostheses, these mobile and wearable devices are also invested with and send out continuous flows of personal information. They have become the repositories of communication with others, geolocation information, personal images, biometric information and more. They also leak these data outwards as they are transmitted to computing cloud servers. All this is happening in real-time and continuously, raising important questions about the security and privacy of the very intimate information that these devices generate, transmit and archive (Tene and Polonetsky, 2013).

The companion species trope recognises the inevitability of our relationship with our digital data assemblages and the importance of learning to live together and to learn from each other. It suggests both the vitality of these assemblages and also the possibility of developing a productive relationship, recognising our mutual dependency. We may begin to think about our digital data assemblages as members of a companion species that have lives of their own that are beyond our complete control. These proliferating digital data companion species, as they are ceaselessly configured and reconfigured, emerge beyond our bodies/selves and into the wild of digital data economies and circulations. They are purposed and repurposed by second and third parties and even more actors beyond our reckoning as they are assembled and reassembled. Yet even as our digital data companion species engage in their own lives, they are still part of us and we remain part of them. We may interact with them or not; we may be allowed access to them or not; we may be totally unaware of them or we may engage in purposeful collection and use of them. They have implications for our lives in a rapidly growing array of contexts, from the international travel we are allowed to undertake to the insurance premiums, job offers or credit we are offered.

If we adopt Haraway’s companion species trope, we might ask the following: What are our affective responses to our digital data companion species? Do we love or hate them, or simply feel indifferent to them? What are the contexts for these responses? How do we live with our digital data companion species? How do they live with us? How do our lives intersect with them? What do they learn from us, and what do we learn from them? What is the nature of their own lives as they move around the digital data economy? How are we influenced by them? How much can we domesticate or discipline them? How do they domesticate or discipline us? How does each species co-evolve?

References

Bhavnani, K.-K. & Haraway, D. (1994) Shifting the subject: a conversation between Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Donna Haraway, 12 April 1993, Santa Cruz, California. Feminism & Psychology, 4, 19-39.

Gane, N. (2006) When we have never been human, what is to be done?: Interview with Donna Haraway. Theory, Culture & Society, 23, 135-58.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of NatureLondon: Free Association.

Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Tene, O. & Polonetsky, J. (2013) Big data for all: Privacy and user control in the age of analytics. Northwestern Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property, 11, 239-73.

Managing and materialising data as part of self-tracking

Like many other forms of digital data, self-tracking data have a vitality and social life of their own, circulating across and between a multitude of sites. In a context in which digital data are culturally represented as liquid entities that require management and containment, part of the project of managing the contemporary body is that of containment of the data that one’s body produces. As discursive representations of self-tracking and the quantified self frequently contend, personal data are profligate: it is only right that one should seek first, to collect these data, and second, to manage and discipline the data by aggregating them, representing them visually, and making sense of them.

Shifting forms of selfhood are configured via these digital data assemblages, depending on the context in and purpose for which they are assembled. As the digital data produced by self-tracking are constantly generated and the combinations of data sets that may be brought together on individuals are numerous, personal data assemblages are never stable or contained. They represent a ‘snap-shot’ of a particular moment in time and a particular rationale of data practice. The data assemblages are always mutable, dynamic, responsive to new inputs and interpretations. They thus represent a type of selfhood that is distributed between different and constantly changing data sets. Self-tracking assemblages are constantly created and recreated when information about individuals is derived via digital technologies and then reassembled for various purposes.

Bodies and selves are always multiple, in whatever context they find themselves. However for self-trackers, this multiplicity is foregrounded in ways that may not have occurred in previous eras. If they are reviewing their personal data regularly, they cannot fail to be confronted with the shifting data assemblages that serve to represent their bodies and their selves. Part of the data practices in which they are invited to engage as part of self-tracking culture, therefore, is the negotiation and sense-making around the hybridity and vitality of their data assemblages.

To gain meaning from these data sets, self-trackers or third parties who seek to use their data must engage in sense-making that can interpret these data and gain some purchase on their mutating forms. An important element of self-tracking practices for many people is the visualisation or presentation of their personal data. The notion that data can be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing when presented in appropriate formats pervades data science in general: Gregg (2015) refers to this phenomenon as the ‘data spectacle’. The generation of digital data visualisations can be, variously, acts of work, creative expression and the presentation or performance of selfhood, with the latter an element in particular of self-tracking practices.

In the ‘show-and-tell’ ethos of the Quantified Self movement, finding compelling visual modes to demonstrate the patterns in one’s data is a central feature. The Quantified Self website is full of demonstrations by members of their data, including videos of their ‘show-and-tell’ presentations and still images of their visualisations. Collecting and aggregating personal data, therefore, are part of a range of practices involving self-knowledge and self-expression. By showing one’s data to others in a visually interesting and explanatory graphic, a self-tracker is achieving both self-knowledge and self-expression. Self-tracking becomes performative, both for the insights that a self-tracker may achieve about her or his life but also in terms of the aesthetics of the data that she or he may be able to curate.

The aesthetic elements of data visualisations involve affective responses that may include both pleasure and anxiety (McCosker and Wilken 2014). Indeed McCosker and Wilken (2014) refer to the tendency in data visualisation circles towards the fetishising and sublimity of ‘beautiful data’ as part of exerting mastery over the seemingly unlimited and thus overwhelming amounts of big digital datasets. Extending this logic, the physical materialising of digital data in the form of a 2D or 3D data materialisation may offer a solution to the anxieties of big data. When it is one’s personal data drawn from one’s own flesh that is being manifested in a material digital data object, this may provoke a sense of mastery over what may be experienced as a continually data-emitting subjectivity. The liquidity, flows and force of personal digital data become frozen in time and space, offering an opportunity to make sense of one’s data.

Edit (12 December 2015): More on this topic can be found in my book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

References

Gregg, M. (2015) Inside the data spectacle. Television & New Media, 16 (1), 37-51.

McCosker, A. and Wilken, R. (2014) Rethinking ‘big data’ as visual knowledge: the sublime and the diagrammatic in data visualisation. Visual Studies, 29 (2), 155-164.

Towards a sociology of 3D printing

As a digital sociologist, I have become fascinated by the social and cultural implications of 3D printing technologies. Few sociologists or any other critical academic commentators have begun to investigate how 3D printing is beginning to affect society. Yet as 3D printing technologies move into an expanding realm of contexts, there is much opportunity to analyse their effects. Not only are these technologies having an impact on industrial manufacturing and the distribution of goods, makers, artists and designers are taking them up in intriguing ways. 3D printing is being used in medicine and dentistry, public relations and marketing and in fan cultures. These technologies are being introduced into schools and incorporated into the curriculum. As the price of 3D printers falls, they will become an addition to more households. There are significant environmental and legal issues in relation to how they are used, including questions about intellectual property.

As part of my initial explorations into the sociology of 3D printing, last week I published two pieces on these technologies. One was an article for The Conversation, in which I discussed the phenomenon of the 3D self replica. This is a figurine that can be made of a person using the digital data derived from 3D scanning software. The technologies to generate these artefacts are rapidly moving into a range of leisure domains, including sporting events, shopping centres, airports, concerts and amusement parks as well as fan cultures and marketing programs. 3D printed self replicas can even be made at home using a software package developed for the Xbox Kinect game box and a home 3D printer. Some commentators have referred to these replicas as ‘3D selfies’ because they involve the production of a personal likeness. In the article I speculated about the ways in which people may start to use these figures as markers or mementos of their bodies and social relationships.

The second piece was an academic article that discusses the use of 3D printing of what I entitle ‘digital body objects’ for medical and health-related purposes. The article explores the use of non-organic materialisations of people’s body parts for medical purposes as well as the fabrication of self-tracked bodily data into objects. Here is the abstract: the full paper can be accessed here:

The advent of 3D printing technologies has generated new ways of representing and conceptualising health and illness, medical practice and the body. There are many social, cultural and political implications of 3D printing, but a critical sociology of 3D printing is only beginning to emerge. In this article I seek to contribute to this nascent literature by addressing some of the ways in which 3D printing technologies are being used to convert digital data collected on human bodies and fabricate them into tangible forms that can be touched and held. I focus in particular on the use of 3D printing to manufacture non-organic replicas of individuals’ bodies, body parts or bodily functions and activities. The article is also a reflection on a specific set of digital data practices and the meaning of such data to individuals. In analysing these new forms of human bodies, I draw on sociomaterialist perspectives as well as the recent work of scholars who have sought to reflect on selfhood, embodiment, place and space in digital society and the nature of people’s interactions with digital data. I argue that these objects incite intriguing ways of thinking about the ways in digital data on embodiment, health and illnesses are interpreted and used across a range of contexts. The article ends with some speculations about where these technologies may be headed and outlining future research directions.

These initial forays into a sociology of 3D printing represent merely a small component of possible avenues for theorising and research into the social impact of this technology. What I am particularly interested in at the moment is the implications for people’s data practices, or how the material objects that are generated from 3D printing technologies act as ‘solidified’ personal data. Future writings will investigate these issues in greater depth.

New project on fitness self-tracking apps and websites

My colleague Glen Fuller and I have started a new project on people’s use of fitness self-tracking apps and platforms (such as Strava and RunKeeper). We are interviewing people who are active users of these devices, seeking to identify why they have chosen to take up these practices, what apps and platforms they use, how they use them and what they do with the personal data that are generated from these technologies. We are interested in exploring issues around identity and self-representation, concepts of health, fitness and the body, privacy, surveillance and data practices and cultures.

The city in which we live and work, Canberra, is an ideal place to conduct this project, as there are many ardent cyclists and runners living here.

See here for our project’s website and further details of the study.

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.

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

 

Call for papers: Big Data Cultures symposium

I am convening a one-day symposium to be held on Monday 15 September 2014 that addresses the social, cultural, political and ethical issues and implications of the big data phenomenon. It will be held by the News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, Australia.

A keynote speaker will open proceedings (details to be confirmed), but paper abstracts from any interested contributors are invited for consideration. Appropriate topics may include, but are not limited to, the following areas:

– privacy, security and legal issues
– how big data are changing forms of governance and commercial operations
– big data ecosystems
– the open data/citizen data movement
– data hactivism and queering big data
– public understandings of big data
– surveillance and big data
– creative forms of data visualisation
– self-tracking and the quantified self
– data doubles and data selves
– the materiality of digital data
– the social lives of digital data-objects
– algorithmic identities and publics
– code acts
– responses to big data from artists and designers

Abstracts of 150-200 words should be submitted to me (deborah.lupton@canberra.edu.au) by 1 July 2014 for consideration for inclusion in the symposium. Please contact me if you require any further information.