Using feminist materialism to analyse app use

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I’ve been working with feminist materialism theories to understand how people take up and engage with digital media such as apps, social media and wearable devices. I’ve just had an article published, drawing from the Australian Women and Digital Health Project, which draws on a feminist materialism approach to present six vignettes from participants about their use and non-use of food tracking apps.

Here’s the abstract – the entire article is available open access here.

Food-tracking apps constitute a major category of the thousands of food-related apps now available. They are promoted as helping users monitor and measure their food consumption to improve their health or to lose weight. In this article, I present six vignettes drawn from interviews with Australian women about their use and non-use of food-tracking apps. The vignettes provide detailed insights into the experiences of these women and their broader sociocultural and biographical contexts. The analysis is based on feminist materialism theoretical perspectives, seeking to identify the relational connections, affective forces, and agential capacities generated in and through the human-app assemblage. The vignettes reveal that affective forces related to the desire to control and manage the body and conform to norms and ideals about good health and body weight inspire people to try food-tracking apps. However, the agential capacities promised by app developers may not be generated even when people have committed hope and effort in using the app. Frustration, disappointment, the fear of becoming too controlled, and annoyance or guilt evoked by the demands of the app can be barriers to continued and successful use. Sociocultural and biographical contexts and relational connections are also central to the capacities of human-app assemblages. Women’s ambivalences about using apps as part of efforts to control their body weight are sited within their struggles to conform to accepted ideals of physical appearance but also their awareness that these struggles may be too limiting of their agency. This analysis, therefore, draws attention to what a body can and cannot do as it comes together with food tracking apps.

Digital health promotion: possibilities and limitations

 

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Health and fitness content on Pinterest

 

On Tuesday I am giving an invited presentation at an event organised by VicHealth on the theme of ‘Harnessing the Power of Digital Technologies’. Some of the issues I’ll be focusing on include covering the different ways in which digital devices and software are used for health promotion, and what the social issues are. I’ll be drawing on my recent and current research projects looking at the social aspects of how people use digital health and self-tracking technologies (see my blog post summarising the findings of these projects here).

The critical sociological approach I’ll be advancing is discussed in a range of my publications over the past few years. The most recent of these publications include my book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, a chapter on wearable devices (available OA here), an article on what health professionals and healthcare consumers see as valuable about digital health and what its future may be (available OA here), a special journal issue I edited on self-tracking, health and medicine (the editorial for this is OA here) and an article reporting my research project on the use of social media by healthcare workers (available OA here).

Here are some of the points I’ll be making in my talk:

Among public health and health promotion professionals, social media campaigns and dedicated websites are popular forms of communicating with target groups. These approaches often take an individualistic and to-down approach, using old-style paternalistic health education and social marketing models of behaviour change and applying them to the new media contexts. They often fail to recognise that people are spontaneously and actively searching for information about health and medicine on the internet and using social media and apps to generate and share this information.

Health promotion professionals are competing for consumer engagement with a digital health ecosystem in which the commercial/corporate sector offers a far more compelling range of products. It was estimated last year that there are over 325,000 health and medical apps available on the major app stores. Social media are now a key site for the dissemination of health-related news and information. People use Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest to access and share information about health, medical care and physical fitness. A large range of blogs and discussion forums have been established for people to have a say on health-related matters and respond to others. Wearable devices like Fitbit and Apple Watch provide opportunities for people to monitor and measure their health and fitness levels.

Visual media have become important in people’s engagements online, including selfies, memes, GIFs and videos. YouTube offers countless videos made by consumers about their health and fitness experiences and insights. ‘Healthy lifestyle’ influencers on platforms like Instagram and YouTube have a huge reach and impact, particularly for young people. Hashtags like #fitspo, #cleaneating, #fitnessaddict, #iquitsugar, #wellness and #weightlossjourney are used to organise content and attract like-minded audiences. Communities that challenge mainstream health promotion messages and seek to promote resistant modes of embodiment use hashtags like #badfatty, #thinspo, #proana, #selfinjury and #blithe (used for content about self-harm, eating disorders and depression), particularly on Tumblr.

My research on how public health professionals use social media found that they recognised that these communication channels were important for consumer engagement and also found them beneficial to connect with other professionals working in their fields. However, they experienced many constraints such as lack of institutional knowledge about how best to use social media, rules about not using social media in the workplace, lack of access to the internet, or peers disapproving of social media. If they were working in a contentious or sensitive area of public health, these professionals had to consider the possibility of being attacked by members of the public on social media, or inadvertently saying the wrong thing publicly.

There is a need for a social perspective on digitised health promotion. The different ways in which social groups use and respond to digitised health promotion need to be considered (for example, attributes such as gender, age, social class, education level, ethnic/racial background, health status and geographical location). My research identifies several key differences between the different groups I have included. For example, women with young children use Facebook a lot for sharing information about pregnancy and childcare and to arrange in-person meetings. Young people, on the other hand, prefer YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat to access and share health information. My project on self-tracking cyclists found that they loved to use platforms like Strava to share their data and compete with and provide support to each other. In contrast, my project on everyday self-trackers, who monitored a range of attributes about their bodies and lives, and another of my projects on women’s use of digital health technologies, found that very few were interested in sharing their data with others beyond family members or their doctors.

Personal data privacy and security are important issues when discussing how digital technologies can be used for health promotion. Across my research projects, there was very little awareness of or concern about how internet companies and app developers collect, use and share people’s often very sensitive health-related information when they engage with these technologies. This included public health professionals, who were not considering these issues in relation to their work-related activities.

Some findings from my research on Australians’ use of digital health and self-tracking technologies

Today I am giving a keynote presentation at the Australian Telehealth Conference 2018 in Sydney. I am talking about the findings of four empirical projects I have conducted over the past three years on Australians’ use of digital health and self-tracking technologies.

Here are some of the key findings I will be discussing.

Women’s Use of Apps and Other Digital Media for Pregnancy and Parenting Project

This project involved two parts: an online survey completed by 410 women around Australia and a focus group study involving women living in Sydney. All participants were either pregnant or had at least one child aged 3 years or under at the time of the research.

The participants were keen users of Google Search, constantly using it to find information. They also often used pregnancy apps (three-quarters of the survey participants) and parenting apps (half of the survey participants). Facebook was popular as well, especially for establishing local mothers’ groups that included opportunities to meet face-to-face and share local knowledge. The participants valued websites and online discussion forums as ways of seeking and providing support 24/7. They sought information, reassurance and social connections through these digital media. For many women, digital media were life-lines at times when they were struggling with loneliness, anxiety and the significant demands of caring for babies and young children.

Publications from this project can be found here, here and here.

Self-tracking Cyclists Project

This project involved female and male commuting cyclists in Canberra and Melbourne who regularly used digital technologies (bike computers, apps, wearable devices, cycling platforms) to track their rides. We used GoPro cameras worn on the cyclists’ helmets to videotape one of their cycling commutes, and interviewed the participants while watching the video together. We were interested in how they incorporated the use of digital self-tracking into their everyday routines, and how they engaged with the data generated by these practices.

We found that most of the cyclists enjoyed tracking their rides to monitor their fitness or speeds, to compete against other cyclists or to document their personal bests on platforms like Strava. Some responded to their data in real-time as they cycled, particularly if they used a bike computer they could easily consult while in motion. These people found self-tracking to be motivating, giving them confidence and feelings of accomplishment when they could see that their speed or fitness were improving.

Publications from this project can be found  here, here, here and here.

Australian Self-Trackers Project

This project involved semi-structured telephone interviews with women and men across Australia who identified as a ‘self-tracker’ for any reason, using any kind of method, digital or non-digital.

The findings from this project demonstrated that while digital self-tracking technologies were popular, especially computer spreadsheets and apps, many people were using the time-honoured paper-and-pen form of recording their information, or even just committing details to memory. It was common for people to use a combination of these methods to track a range of indicators. The most popular aspects they were tracking were food/nutrition, physical fitness or activity levels and body weight, but tracking finances, blood pressure, sleep, work productivity, social relationships, medication, home energy use, chronic health conditions, moods and alcohol were also common. Unlike the self-tracking cyclists, few of these participants were interested in sharing their data with others, and few were motivated by competitive challenges. They saw self-tracking as a largely private endeavour, undertaken to  collect information as a way of ‘being responsible’ and exerting control over their health and lives.

The production of publications from this project is still in progress. One book chapter has been generated from it thus far and can be found here.

Australian Women and Digital Health Project

This project involved a combination of focus groups, face-to-face semi-structured interviews and telephone interviews with Australian women across a range of age-groups. They were asked to talk about which kinds of digital health technologies they used and which they found most valuable and useful.

Here again, the importance of Google Search as a tool to find health information was to the fore. Almost every participant said that they regularly googled to search for information.  They also used websites regularly for health information, often directed to them by searching online. In-person interactions with doctors or other healthcare professionals as well as family and friends were still important sources of health information, but the opportunity to go online at any time was highly valued by these participants. Many searched for health information on behalf of their family members (partners, children – even adult children – or elderly parents) as part of their familial caring roles. Traditional media (books, television, radio) were hardly mentioned at all as a source of health information, although pamphlets were still consulted quite often when women were waiting to see the doctor. These women valued the access they had online to international sources of information, but still placed a lot of importance on being able to find Australian-based information and information that was specific to their local area. It was notable that none of these women used a fitness platform like Strava, although calorie-counting apps and Fitbits were quite popular.

Analysis from this project is in progress.

Findings from across the projects

  • Websites and search engines (particularly Google Search) remain very important and highly-used sources of online health information.
  • The broader ecosystem of technologies, including non-digital as well as digital, needs to be acknowledged.
  • People are still not generally interested or concerned about who can access their personal health data generated from their online interactions or app use.
  • When participants were asked what their ideal digital health or self-tracking technology would be, the most common responses were for tools that could be readily customised and personalised, or which could bring a lot of information or functions together in the one place. This could be an app or a website/platform.
  • Factors such as people’s age, gender, caring responsibilities, working conditions, state of health, whether they are living with a disability, demands on their time and relationships and interactions with other people (both in person and online) are important contributors to their lived experiences of digital health and self-tracking technologies.
  • The biographical features of people’s lives also emerged as central: such turning points as hitting a landmark birthday, the birth of children, or developing a chronic illness were key factors in people making changes in their lives related to their use of digital media and devices for health.

Talks in Europe, November 2017

I am visiting Europe to give several talks in early November. Details are as follows:

Wednesday 1 November: Keynote presentation at the ‘Emotion and Affect in Dataified Worlds’ workshop, Helsinki, Finland.

Friday 3 November: Opening presentation with our Wellcome Trust grant research team at the ‘Researching Young People and Digital Health Technologies’ symposium we have organised, Manchester, UK (details here).

Monday 6 November:  Invited public lecture at the ‘Digital Health’ workshop, Malmo, Sweden.

Tuesday 7 November: Invited presentation at the ‘Challenges of Digital Health’ workshop, Orebro, Sweden.

Friday 10 November: Keynote at the ‘Monitoring the Self: Negotiating Technologies of Health, Identity and Governance’ conference, Helsinki, Finland (details here).

Four talks in Europe, June 2017

I’ll be giving four talks in Europe in June this year. Here are the details and the links to the events.

My publications in 2016

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Books

Lupton, D. (2016) The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Edited special issues

Digitised health, medicine and risk’, Health, Risk & Society (volume 17, issue 7-8), 2016 (my editorial for this issue is available here).

Book chapters

Lupton, D. (2016) Digitized health promotion: risk and personal responsibility for health in the Web 2.0 era. In Davis, J. and Gonzalez, A. M. (eds), To Fix or To Heal: Patient Care, Public Health, and the Limits of Biomedicine. New York: New York University Press, pp. 152—76. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital risk society. In Zinn, J., Burgess, A. and Alemanno, A. (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Risk Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 301—9. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) You are your data: self-tracking practices and concepts of data. In Selke, Stefan (ed.), Lifelogging: Digital Self-Tracking: Between Disruptive Technology and Cultural Change. Zurich: Springer, pp. 61—79. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital health technologies and digital data: new ways of monitoring, measuring and commodifying human bodies. In Olleros, F. X. and Zhegu, M. (eds), Research Handbook of Digital Transformations. New York: Edward Elgar, pp. 84—102. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) Personal data practices in the age of lively data. In Daniels, J., Gregory, K. and McMillan Cottom, T. (eds), Digital Sociologies. London: Policy Press, 335—350. (A preprint version is available here.)

Lupton, D. (2016) ‘Mastering your fertility’: the digitised reproductive citizen. In McCosker, A., Vivienne, S. and Johns, A. (eds), Negotiating Digital Citizenship: Control, Contest and Culture. London: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 81—93. (A preprint version is available here.)

Journal articles

Thomas, G.M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Threats and thrills: pregnancy apps, risk and consumption. Health, Risk & Society, 17(7-8), 495—509.

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital companion species and eating data: implications for theorising digital data-human assemblages. Big Data & Society, 3(1), online, available at http://bds.sagepub.com/content/3/1/2053951715619947

Lupton, D. (2016) Towards critical health studies: reflections on two decades of research in Health and the way forward. Health, 20(1), 49—61.

Michael, M. and Lupton, D. (2016) Toward a manifesto for ‘a public understanding of big data’. Public Understanding of Science, 25(1), 104—116.

Lupton, D. (2016) The diverse domains of quantified selves: self-tracking modes and dataveillance. Economy & Society, 45(1), 101—122.

Lupton, D. (2016) The use and value of digital media information for pregnancy and early motherhood: a focus group study. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 16(171), online, available at http://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-016-0971-

Lupton, D., Pedersen, S. and Thomas, G.M. (2016) Parenting and digital media: from the early web to contemporary digital society. Sociology Compass, 10(8), 730—743.

Lupton, D. and Pedersen, S. (2016) An Australian survey of women’s use of pregnancy and parenting apps. Women and Birth, 29, 368—375.

Sumartojo, S., Pink, S., Lupton, D. and Heyes Labond, C. (2016) The affective intensities of datafied space. Emotion, Space and Society, 21, 33—40.

Pedersen, S. and Lupton, D. (2016) ‘What are you feeling right now?’ Communities of maternal feeling on Mumsnet. Emotion, Space & Society, online ahead of print: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S175545861630010X

Lupton, D. (2016) Digital media and body weight, shape, and size: an introduction and review. Fat Studies, online ahead of print: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21604851.2017.1243392

Lupton, D. (2016) Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies. Leisure Studies, 35(6), 709—711.

 

 

Cycling self-tracking and data sense

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This week I am delivering a paper at the joint 4S (Society for the Social Studies of Science) and EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology) conference in Barcelona. The paper is in the track ‘Everyday analytics: the politics and practices of self-monitoring’. In the paper I discuss elements of my Living Digital Data research program and describe one of my research projects, which investigates the self-tracking practices of commuting cyclists who use digital devices to monitor their rides.

The research team (myself and Christine Heyes Labond from the University of Canberra and Sarah Pink and Shanti Sumartojo from RMIT Melbourne) conducted empirical research with 18 participants living in Canberra and Melbourne about their self-tracking practices. We used a combination of interviews, enactments of people getting ready for and completing their cycling trips and footage of the cycling trips themselves taken from the perspective of the cyclists (using a GoPro mini action camera mounted on their helmet).

Here are the slides from the paper, which outlines details of the project and some of the findings. Data sense 4S Barcelona

Lively devices, lively data and lively leisure studies

This is a foreword I wrote for a Leisure Studies special issue on digital leisure cultures (the link to the journal version is here).

In the countries of the Global North, each person, to a greater or lesser degree, has become configured as a data subject. When we use search engines, smartphones and other digital devices, apps and social media platforms, and when we move around in spaces carrying devices the record our geolocation or where there are embedded sensors or cameras recording our movements, we are datafied: rendered into assemblages of digital data. These personal digital data assemblages are only ever partial portraits of us and are constantly changing: but they are beginning to have significant impacts on the ways in which people understand themselves and others and on their life opportunities and chances. Leisure cultures and practices are imbricated within digital and data practices and assemblages. Indeed, digital technologies are beginning to transform many areas of life into leisure pursuits in unprecedented ways, expanding the purview of leisure studies.

These processes of datafication can begin even before birth and continue after death. Proud expectant parents commonly announce pregnancies on social media, uploading ultrasound images of their foetuses and sometimes even creating accounts in the name of the unborn so that they can ostensibly communicate from within the womb. Images from the birth of the child may also become publicly disseminated: as in the genre of the childbirth video on YouTube. This is followed by the opportunity for parents to record and broadcast many images of their babies’ and children’s lives. At the other end of life, many images of the dying and dead bodies can now be found on the internet. People with terminal illnesses write blogs, use Facebook status updates or tweet about their experiences and post images of themselves as their bodies deteriorate. Memorial websites or dedicated pages on social media sites are used after people’s death to commemorate them. Beyond these types of datafication, the data generated from other interactions online and by digital sensors in devices and physical environments constantly work to generate streams of digital data about people. In some cases, people may choose to generate these data; in most other cases, they are collected and used by others, often without people’s knowledge or consent. These data have become highly valuable as elements of the global knowledge economy, whether aggregated and used as big data sets or used to reveal insights into individuals’ habits, behaviours and preferences.

One of my current research interests is exploring the ways in which digital technologies work to generate personal information about people and how individuals themselves and a range of other actors and agencies use these data. I have developed the concept of ‘lively data’, which is an attempt to incorporate the various elements of how we are living with and by our data. Lively data are generated by lively devices: those smartphones, tablet computers, wearable devices and embedded sensors that we live with and alongside, our companions throughout our waking days. Lively data about humans are vital in four main respects: 1) they are about human life itself; 2) they have their own social lives as they circulate and combine and recombine in the digital data economy; 3) they are beginning to affect people’s lives, limiting or promoting life chances and opportunities (for example, whether people are offered employment or credit); and 4) they contribute to livelihoods (as part of their economic and managerial value).

These elements of datafication and lively data have major implications for leisure cultures. Research into people’s use of digital technologies for recreation, including the articles collected here and others previously published in this journal, draws attention to the pleasures, excitements and playful dimensions of digital encounters. These are important aspects to consider, particularly when much research into digital society focuses on the limitations or dangers of digital technology use such as the possibilities of various types of ‘addiction’ to their use or the potential for oppressive surveillance or exploitation of users that these technologies present. What is often lost in such discussions is an acknowledgement of the value that digital technologies can offer ordinary users (and not just the internet empires that profit from them). Perspectives that can balance awareness of both the benefits and possible drawbacks of digital technologies provide a richer analysis of their affordances and social impact. When people are using digital technologies for leisure purposes, they are largely doing so voluntarily: because they have identified a personal use for the technologies that will provide enjoyment, relaxation or some other form of escape from the workaday world. What is particularly intriguing, at least from my perspective in my interest in lively data, is how the data streams from digitised leisure pursuits are becoming increasingly entangled with other areas of life and concepts of selfhood. Gamification and ludification strategies, in which elements of play are introduced into domains such as the workplace, healthcare, intimate relationships and educational institutions, are central to this expansion.

Thus, for example, we now see concepts of the ‘healthy, productive worker’, in which employers seek to encourage their workers to engage in fitness pursuits to develop highly-achieving and healthy employees who can avoid taking time out because of illness and operate at maximum efficiency in the workplace. Fitness tracker companies offer employers discounted wearable devices for their employees so that corporate ‘wellness’ programs can be put in place in which fitness data sharing and competition are encouraged among employees. Dating apps like Tinder encourage users to think of the search for partners as a game and the attractive presentation of the self as a key element in ‘winning’ the interest of many potential dates. The #fitspo and #fitspiration hashtags used in Instagram and other social media platforms draw attention to female and male bodies that are slim, physically fit and well-groomed, performing dominant notions of sexual attractiveness. Pregnancy has become ludified with a range of digital technologies. Using their smartphones and dedicated apps, pregnant women can take ‘belfies’, or belly selfies, and generate time-lapse videos for their own and others’ entertainment (including uploading the videos on social media sites). 3D-printing companies offer parents the opportunity to generate replicas of their foetuses from 3D ultrasounds, for use as display objects on mantelpieces or work desks. Little girls are offered apps which encourage then to perform makeovers on pregnant women or help them deliver their babies via caesarean section. In the education sector, digitised gamification blurs leisure, learning and physical fitness. Schools are beginning to distribute heart rate monitors, coaching apps and other self-tracking devices to children during sporting activities and physical education classes, promoting a culture of self-surveillance via digital data at the same time as teachers’ monitoring of their students’ bodies is intensified. Online education platforms for children like Mathletics encourage users to complete tasks to win medals and work their way up the leaderboard, competing against other users around the world.

In these domains and many others, the intersections of work, play, health, fitness, education, parenthood, intimacy, productivity, achievement and concepts of embodiment, selfhood and social relations are blurred, complicated and far-reaching. These practices raise many questions for researchers interested in digitised leisure cultures across the age span. What are the affordances of the devices, software and platforms that people use for leisure? How do these technologies promote and limit leisure activities? How are people’s data used by other actors and agencies and in what ways do these third parties profit from them? What do people know about how their personal details are generated, stored and used by other actors and agencies? How do they engage with their own data or those about others in their lives? What benefits, pleasures and opportunities do such activities offer, and what are their drawbacks, risks and harms? How are the carers and teachers of children and young people encouraging or enjoining them to use these technologies and to what extent are they are aware of the possible harms as well as benefits? How are data privacy and security issues recognised and managed, on the part both of those who take up these pursuits voluntarily and those who encourage or impose them on others? When does digitised leisure begin to feel more like work and vice versa: and what are the implications of this?

These questions return to the issue of lively data, and how these data are generated and managed, the impact they have on people’s lives and concepts of selfhood and embodiment. As I noted earlier, digital technologies contribute to new ways of reconceptualising areas of life as games or as leisure pursuits that previously were not thought of or treated in those terms. In the context of this move towards rendering practices and phenomena as recreational and the rapidly-changing sociomaterial environment, all social researchers interested in digital society need to be lively in response to lively devices and lively data. As the editors of this special issue contend, researching digital leisure cultures demands a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective. Several exciting new interdisciplinary areas have emerged in response to the increasingly digitised world: among them internet studies, platform studies, software studies, critical algorithm studies and critical data studies. The ways in which leisure studies can engage with these, as well the work carried out in sub-disciplines such as digital sociology, digital humanities and digital anthropology, have yet to be fully realised. In return, the key focus areas of leisure studies, both conceptually and empirically – aspects of pleasure, performance, politics and power relations, embodiment, selfhood, social relations and the intersections between leisure and work – offer much to these other areas of enquiry.

The articles published in this special issue go some way to addressing these issues, particularly in relation to young people. The contributors demonstrate how people may accept and take up the dominant assumptions and concepts about idealised selves and bodies expressed in digital technologies but also how users may resist these assumptions or seek to re-invent them. As such, this special issue represents a major step forward in promoting a focus on the digital in leisure studies, working towards generating a lively leisure studies that can make sense of the constantly changing worlds of lively devices and lively data.

Self-tracking citizenship

An excerpt from Chapter 5 of my new book  The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

Nafus and Sherman (2014: 1785) contend that self-tracking is an alternative data practice that is a form of soft resistance to algorithmic authority and to the harvesting of individuals’ personal data. They argue that self-tracking is nothing less than ‘a profoundly different way of knowing what data is, why it is important, who gets to interpret it [sic], and to what ends’. However the issue of gaining access to one’s data remains crucial to questions of data control and use. While a small minority of technically proficient self-trackers are able to devise their own digital technologies for self-tracking and thus exert full control over their personal information, the vast majority must rely on the commercialised products that are available and therefore lose control over where their data are stored and who is able to gain access.

For people who have chronic health conditions, for example, access to their data can be a crucial issue. A debate is continuing over the data that are collected by continuous blood glucose monitoring and whether the patients should have ready access to these data or only their doctors. As one person with diabetes contends on his blog, older self-care blood glucose-monitoring devices produce data that patients can view and act on immediately. Why should the information generated by the newer digitised continuous blood glucose monitors be available only to doctors, who review it some time later, when patients could benefit from seeing their data in real time? A similar issue arises in relation to the information that is collected on heart patients’ defibrillator implants. The data that are conveyed wirelessly to patients’ healthcare professionals cannot be easily accessed by the patients themselves. In jurisdictions such as the United States, the device developers are legally prohibited from allowing patients access to their data (see here).

There is recent evidence that the Quantified Self movement is becoming more interested in facilitating access to personal data for purposes beyond those of individuals. In a post on the Quantified Self website entitled ‘Access matters’, Gary Wolf comments that self-trackers have no legal access to their own data, which they may have collected for years. Nor is there an informal ethical consensus that supports developers in opening their archives to the people who have contributed their information. Wolf and others associated with the Quantified Self movement have begun to campaign for self-trackers to achieve greater access to the personal data that are presently sequestered in the cloud computing archives of developers. They argue for an approach that leads to the aggregation of self-tracked data in ways that will benefit other people than individual self-trackers themselves.

Some Quantified Self movement-affiliated groups have begun to experiment with ways in which self-tracking can be used for community participation and development. Members of the St Louis Quantified Self meeting group, for example, have worked on developing a context-specific app that allows people to input their moods and identify how certain spatial locations within a community affect emotional responses. They are also developing a Personal Environment Tracker that would allow St Louis citizens to monitor their own environmental impact and that of the community in which they live.

The Quantified Self Lab, the technical arm of the Quantified Self mvement, has also announced that it is becoming involved with citizen science initiatives in collaboration with the US Environmental Protection Agency (see here). It has now joined with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an American philanthropic organisation focused on health issues, to work on improving people’s access to their personal data. Both groups are also collaborating with other partners on the Open Humans Network, which is aimed at facilitating the sharing of people’s details about their health and medical statuses as part of a participatory research initiative. Participants who join in this initiative are asked to upload the data that they have collected on themselves through self-tracking devices as well as any other digitised information about their bodies that they are able to offer for use in research studies. Part of the model that the Open Humans Network has adopted is that researchers agree to return to the participants themselves any new data that emerge from projects that use these participants’ information, and participants decide which of their data they allow others to access.

Beyond the Quantified Self movement, a number of initiatives have developed that incorporate the aggregation of self-tracked data with those of others, as part of projects designed to benefit both the individuals who have collected the data and the broader community. Citizen science, environmental activism, healthy cities and community development projects are examples of these types of communal self-tracking endeavours. These initiatives, sometimes referred to as ‘citizen sensing’ (Gabrys, 2014), are a form of crowdsourcing. They may involve the use of data that individuals collect on their local environs, such as air quality, traffic levels or crime rates, as well as on their own health indicators – or a combination of both. These data may be used in various ways. Sometimes they are simply part of collective projects undertaken at the behest of local agencies, but they may also be used in political efforts to challenge governmental policy and agitate for improved services or planning. The impetus may come from grassroots organisations or from governmental organisations; the latter construe it as a top-down initiative or as an encouragement towards community development.

Self-tracked data here become represented as a tool for promoting personal health and wellbeing at the same time as community and environmental development and sustainability. As these initiatives suggest, part of the ethical practice of self-tracking, at least for some practitioners, may involve the notion of contributing to a wider good as well as collecting data for one’s own purposes. Access to large data sets – rendering these data sets more ‘open’ and accessible to members of the public – becomes a mode of citizenship that is distributed between self, community and physical environment. This idea extends the entrepreneurial and responsible citizen ideal by incorporating expectations that people should not only collect their own, personal information for purposes of self-optimisation but should also contribute it to tailored, aggregated big data that will benefit many others, in a form of personal data philanthropy: self-tracking citizenship, in other words.

References

Gabrys, J. (2014) Programming environments: environmentality and citizen sensing in the smart city. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 32 (1), 30-48.

Nafus, D. and Sherman, J. (2014) This one does not go up to 11: the Quantified Self movement as an alternative big data practice. International Journal of Communication, 8 1785-1794.

 

 

 

 

 

Self-tracking practices as knowledge technologies

An edited excerpt from the concluding chapter of my book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.

As I have remarked in this book’s chapters, via the mainstream self-tracking devices and software that are available, certain aspects of selfhood and embodiment are selected for monitoring while a plethora of others are inevitably left out, ignored, or not even considered in the first place. Those aspects that are selected become more visible, while others are obscured or neglected through this process. The technologies themselves, including the mobile, wearable and ‘anti-wearable’ sensor-embedded objects and the software that animate them, tend to be the product of a narrow demographic of designers: white, well-paid, heterosexual men living in the Global North. In consequence, the tacit assumptions and norms that underpin the design and affordances of self-tracking technologies are shaped by these people’s decisions, preferences and values. Thus, for example, devices such as Apple Watch initially failed to include a menstrual cycle tracker as part of its built-in features (Eveleth, 2014); sexuality self-tracking apps focus on male sexual performance and competitive displays of prowess (Lupton, 2015); apps that use westernised concepts and images of health and the human body are inappropriate for Aboriginal people living in remote areas of Australia (Christie and Verran, 2014). How people from outside this demographic might engage or not with these technologies and how technologies might be better designed to acknowledge the diversity of socioeconomic advantage, cultures and sexual identities are subjects rarely pondered upon in the world of technology design …

At the same time as self-tracking practices are reductive and selective, they are also productive. They bring into being new knowledges, assemblages, subjectivities and forms of embodiment and social relations. In Chapter 2 I referred to the four types of technology identified by Foucault, which work together to produce knowledges on humans. Acts of reflexive self-monitoring involve all four of these knowledge technologies. Via prosumption, self-trackers generate data on themselves (technologies of production); they manipulate and communicate the symbols, images, discourses and ideas related to their own data and the devices that generate these data (technologies of sign systems); they are involved in strategies that are designed to assist them in participating in certain forms of conduct for specific ends (technologies of power); and all of these practices are overtly and deliberately directed at performing, presenting and improving the self (technologies of the self).

What is particularly intriguing about this expertise is that it both operates at the level of the ‘nonexpert’ (the self-tracker), where it is configured, and is inextricably interbound into the digital data economy and the forms of government regulation of the body politic. The authority of the knowledgeable expert on human life is dispersed among members of the lay public to a greater extent than ever before. However, the shared nature of this authority and expertise also undermines the power that self-trackers possess over their own information. Reflexive self-monitors are able to generate their own truth claims about trackers’ own bodies/selves, but these trackers are increasingly unable to control how these truth claims are used by other actors or what the potential ramifications for their own life chances and opportunities are once these data come under the control of others.