Seams in the cyborg

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (due to be released on 12 November 2014). From chapter 8: ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

Such is the extent of our intimate relations with digital technologies that we often respond emotionally to the devices themselves and to the content contained within or created by these devices. The design of digital devices and software interfaces is highly important to users’ responses to them. Devices such as iPhones are often described in highly affective and aestheticised terms: as beautiful playthings, glossy and shiny objects of desire, even as edible or delicious. Advertising for the iPhone and other Apple devices often focus on inspiring child-like wonder at their beauty and magical capabilities (Cannon and Barker 2012).

Affective responses to material objects are integral to their biographical meaning to their owners and their participation in intimate relationships. Writers on material culture and affect have noted the entangling of bodies/selves with physical objects and how artefacts act as extensions or prostheses of the body/self, becoming markers of personhood. Objects become invested with sentimental value by virtue of their association with specific people and places, and thus move from anonymous, mass-produced items to biographically-inscribed artefacts that bear with them personal meanings. Over use and with time, such initially anonymised objects become personalised prosthetics of the self, their purely functional status and monetary value replaced by more personal and sentimental value (Miller 2008, Turkle 2007).

… Bell and Dourish (2011) refer to the mythologies and the mess of ubiquitous computing technologies. By myths they mean the cultural stories, values and meanings that are drawn upon to make sense and represent these technologies. The types of myths surrounding new digital technologies tend to focus on their very novelty, their apparent divergence from what has come before them and their ability to provide solutions to problems. The ‘mess’ of digital technologies inheres in the challenges to myths that suggest that they are infallible, offer an ideal solution to a problem: the ‘practical reality’ of their everyday use (Bell & Dourish, 2011, p. 4). When digital technologies operate as we expect them to, they feel as they are inextricably part of our bodies and selves. Inevitably, however, there are moments when we become aware of our dependence on technologies, or find them annoying or difficult to use, or lose interest in them. Technologies break down, fail to work as expected; infrastructure and government regulations may not support them adequately; users may become bored with using them or their bodies may rebel and develop over-use symptoms. There may be resistances, personal or organised, to their use, and contestations over their meanings and value (Lupton, 1995; Miller & Horst, 2012).

Freund (2004, p. 273) uses the term ‘technological habitus’ to describe the ‘internalised control’ and kinds of consciousness required of individuals to function in technological environments such as those currently offered in contemporary western societies. The human/machine entity, he argues, is not seamless: rather there are disjunctions – or, as he puts it, ‘seams in the cyborg’ – where fleshly body and machine do not intermesh smoothly, and discomfort, stress or disempowerment may result. Sleep patterns, increasing work and commuting time and a decrease in leisure time, for example, can be disrupted by the use of technologies, causing illness, stress and fatigue. Our bodies may begin to alert us that these objects are material in the ways that they affect our embodiment: through eye-strain, hand, neck or back pain or headaches from using the devices too much (Lupton, 1995).

People may feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of data conveyed by their digital devices and the need to keep up with social network updates. Analyses of social media platforms such as Facebook are beginning to appear that suggest that users may simultaneously recognise their dependence upon social media to maintain their social network but may also resent this dependence and the time that is taken up in engaging with them, even fearing that they may be ‘addicted’ to their use (Davis, 2012). Users may also feel ‘invaded’ by the sheer overload of data that may be generated by membership of social networking sites and the difficulty of switching off mobile devices and taking time out from using them (boyd, 2008).

Technology developers are constantly working on ways to incorporate digital devices into embodiment and everyday life, to render them ever less obtrusive and ever more part of our bodies and selves. As the technical lead and manager of the Google Glass (a wearable device that is worn on the face like spectacles) project contends, ‘bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually improve communication and attention – allowing technology to get further out of the way’ (Starner, 2013, p. no page numbers given, emphasis in the original). He asserts that by rendering these devices smaller and more easily worn on the body, they recede further into the background rather than dominating users’ attention (as is so overtly the case with the current popular smartphone and tablet computers). Despite these efforts, Glass wearers have been subjected to constant attention from others that is often negative and based on the presumption that the device is too obvious, unstylish and unattractive, or that the people who wear them are wealthy computer nerds who do not respect the privacy of others. They have reported many incidences of angry responses from others when wearing Glass in public, even to the point of people ripping the device off their faces or asking them to leave a venue (Gross, 2014). The design of digital devices, therefore, may incite emotional responses not only in the users themselves but also in onlookers.

Some people find wearable self-tracking devices not fashionable enough, or not water-proof enough, or too clunky or heavy, or not comfortable enough to wear, or find that they get destroyed in the washing machine when the user forgets to remove them from their clothing. One designer (Darmour, 2013) has argued that if these technologies remain too obvious, ‘bolting’ these devices to our bodies will ‘distract, disrupt, and ultimately disengage us from others, ultimately degrading our human experience’. She asserts that instead these objects need to be designed more carefully so that they may be integrated into the ‘fabric of our lives’. Her suggested ways of doing this include making them look more beautiful, like jewellery (broaches, necklaces, bracelets, rings), incorporating them into fashionable garments, making them peripheral and making them meaningful: using colours or vibrations rather than numbers to display data readings from these devices.

References

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

Cannon, K., & Barker, J. (2012). Hard candy. In P. Snickars & P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Medicine (pp. 73-88). New York: Columbia University Press.

boyd, d. (2008). Facebook’s privacy trainwreck: exposure, invasion, and social convergence. Convergence, 14(1), 13-20.

Darmour, J. (2013). 3 ways to make wearable tech actually wearable. Co.Design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1672107/3-ways-to-make-wearable-tech-actually-wearable

Davis, J. (2012). Social media and experiential ambivalence. Future Internet, 4(4), 955-970.

Freund, P. (2004). Civilised bodies redux: seams in the cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3), 273-289.

Gross, A. (2014). What’s the problem with Google Glass? Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/whats-the-problem-with-google-glass.html

Lupton, D. (1995). The embodied computer/user. Body & Society, 1(3-4), 97-112.

Miller, D. (2008). The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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

Starner, T. (2013). Google glass lead: how wearing tech on our bodies actually helps it get out of our way. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/12/the-paradox-of-wearables-close-to-your-body-but-keeping-tech-far-away/

Turkle, S. (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Representations of bodies/selves online

Another excerpt from  my forthcoming book Digital Sociology, taken from Chapter 8, ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

People discuss and visually represent their (and others’) bodies incessantly as part of using social media. The body is represented in ever finer detail on the types of digital networks and platforms that are now available for use. Social media sites such as YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Flickr focus on the uploading, curating and sharing of images, including many of bodies. Facebook and Twitter also provide opportunities for users to share images of bodies. Bodies receive much digital attention, particularly those of celebrities, but increasingly those of ordinary users. Female celebrities, in particular, are the subject of continual digital visualising by paparazzi and fans and constant commentary in social media and news sites on the appropriateness and attractiveness or otherwise of their bodies (Gorton and Garde-Hansen 2013).

Due to the plethora of online platforms and apps devoted to human anatomy, the internal organs and workings of the human body have moved from being exclusively the preserve of medical students and surgeons to being open to the gaze of all. Online technologies now allow anyone with access to a computer to view highly detailed visual images of the inside of the body. Although these images may have been produced for medical students and medical practitioners and other health care workers, they are readily available to the general public. Tapping in the search term ‘human anatomy’ will call up many apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play which provide such details. Many websites also provide graphic images of the human body. The Visual Human Project used computer technologies to represent in fine detail the anatomical structure of male and female cadavers. Each body was cross-sectioned transversely from head to toe and images of the sections of their bodies using Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Computed Tomography were uploaded to a computer website and can also be viewed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington (The Visible Human Project  2013).

All shapes and sizes of living human bodies are available for viewing online. Sites as diverse as those supporting people wishing to engage in self-starvation or purging (the so-called ‘pro-ana’ or ‘thinspiration’ sites) and promoting cosmetic surgery, used by fat activists seeking to represent the fat body in positive ways that resist fat-shaming, sites for people engaged in self-harming practices or body-building, for transgender people and tattoo or body piercing devotees, not to mention the huge variety of sites devoted to pornography and sexual fetishes, all display images of a wide variety of body shapes and sizes and of bodies engaged in a multitude of practices that are both normative and go beyond the norm. In addition there are the sites that represent bodies undergoing various forms of medical procedures (there are many videos of surgery on YouTube), providing vivid images or descriptions of the ills and diseases from which bodies may suffer.

Social and other digital media have facilitated the sharing of images and descriptions of many varied forms of human life, from the very earliest stage of human development. A huge range of representations of embryos and foetuses, and indeed even the moment of fertilisation of a human ovum by a sperm cell can be viewed on the internet. Such media as YouTube videos of conception and embryonic development and websites such as the Human Embryo Project featuring detailed images and descriptions of each stage of unborn development allow people to gaze upon and learn about the unborn human. Proud parents now routinely post obstetric ultrasound images of their unborn to social media sites to announce a pregnancy. Some parents who have experience miscarriage, foetal loss or stillbirth use memorialisation websites or make videos to post on YouTube featuring ultrasound images, hand- or footprints of the dead unborn and even images of its dead body. As a result, via digital media the unborn human entity now receives a far greater degree of visibility than at any other time in the past (Lupton 2013).

At the other end of the human lifespan, the dead are achieving a kind of online immortality. Just as with the online memorialisation of the dead unborn, people’s death can be announced and memorialised via a plethora of online media. A digital afterlife may be achieved using these technologies. For example, Facebook pages are now frequently used to memorialise people who have died. The dead person’s own personal Facebook page may be used by others to communicate their feelings with each other about the person’s death, or they may establish a dedicated Facebook Group to exchange thoughts and memories about that individual (Bollmer 2013, Brubaker et al. 2013).

Commercial websites have been established that provide ‘afterlife online services’, as one such website puts it, that help people ‘plan for your digital death and afterlife or memorialize loved ones’ (The Digital Beyond  2013). They encourage the bereaved to submit photos and stories about a dead person or provide an online site for people to store their own memorabilia about their lives or important documents in anticipation of their death, leave or send posthumous messages, plan their funerals and provide details of what should happen to their social media profiles after death. Such terms as ‘digital estate’ or ‘digital assets’ are used to denote important documents, images and other information that have been rendered into digital formats for storage and distribution following a person’s death. Some services provide the facility for people to send email messages, images and audio or video recordings up to 60 years following their death. The LifeNaut platform allows people to create a ‘mindfile’: a personal archive of images, a timeline of their life, documents, places they have visited, and other information about themselves, as well as an avatar that will react and respond with their beliefs, attitudes and mannerisms. The company also provides a storage facility for preserving the individual’s DNA material. All of these data are preserved for the benefit of future generations.

The increasingly digitised representation of people is highlighted in artist Adam Nash’s collaborative art project Autoscopia (Autoscopia  2013). In this project the available online images for individuals are derived from web searches and configured into new, recombinant portraits of that individual (anyone can try it using their own name or any other person’s name). These digitised portraits then enter into the internet via tweeted links, thus recursively feeding themselves back into the latest versions of the portraits. In this project, data-as-data (the digitised image data that are mined by the Autoscopia computer program from many parts of the internet) are remodulated for the purposes of the art project into a different type of image, one formed from many images.

This art project raises intriguing questions about the ways in which digital data forms can be configured and reconfigured (or in Nash’s terms modulated and remodulated) that have implications more broadly for the power of digital data to configure embodiment. A digitised map, for example, demonstrating outbreaks of infectious diseases in certain geographical locations (as produced by the Health Map platform) is a modulation of various types of data that have been entered into the platform, whether from mining social media or by users themselves reporting their own illnesses. These visualisations are virtual body fragments, representing as they do various bodily sensations and signs reinterpreted as symptoms and mapped in geo-located form. Bodies themselves become represented as forms of disease in this mapping technology, their fleshly reality stripped down to their symptoms. Infectious diseases are also reinterpreted as digital objects via such technologies. They are constantly remodulated by new data inputs just as the digital portraits produced through the Autoscopia project continually reconstitute the ‘reality’ of an individual’s visage.

Digital technology practices produce new and constantly changing forms of digitised cyborg assemblages. When engaging in digital technologies, bodies and selves become fragmented in certain ways as various types of data on our selves and our bodies are transmitted along specific pathways but then joined together in new formations (Enriquez 2012). Via these accumulations of data about individuals’ bodies, the body is extended beyond the flesh into digital data archives. The data assemblages thus configured have separate, although intertwined, lives in relation to the fleshly bodies that they represent (Bollmer 2013).

The data assemblages that are configured from the diverse forms of data that are produced from our digital interactions are constantly shifting and changing as new data are added to them. Data doubles feed back information to the user in ways that are intended to encourage the user’s body to act in certain ways. When individuals receive positive comments or likes from social media friends or followers on the images or information they post about their bodies, thus may encourage them to continue in the enterprise of embodiment that they so publicised (whether this is a certain hairstyle, way of dress, use of cosmetics or fitness or weight-loss regime). If responses are negative or non-committal, users may represent their bodies or engage in different bodily practices in response. The flow of information, therefore, is not one-way or static: it is part of a continual loop of the production of bodily-related data and response to these data. Digital data doubles support a reflexive, self-monitoring awareness of the body, bringing the body to the fore. They are part of the augmented reality of the digital cyborg assemblage.

References

Autoscopia  (2013) Accessed 26 September 2013. Available from http://www.autoscopia.net/about.html

Bollmer, G.D. (2013) Millions now living will never die: cultural anxieties about the afterlife of information. The Information Society, 29 (3), 142-151.

Brubaker, J., Hayes, G. and Dourish, P. (2013) Beyond the grave: Facebook as a site for the expansion of death and mourning. The Information Society, 29 (3), 152-163.

The Digital Beyond  (2013) Accessed 19 December 2013. Available from http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/online-services-list

Enriquez, J.G. (2012) Bodily aware in cyber-research. In H. Breslow and A. Mousoutzanis (eds) Cybercultures: Mediations of Community, Culture, Politics. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 59-72.

Gorton, K. and Garde-Hansen, J. (2013) From old media whore to new media troll: the online negotiation of Madonna’s ageing body. Feminist Media Studies, 13 (2), 288-302.

Lupton, D. (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

The Visible Human Project  (2013) Accessed 28 March 2014. Available from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/visible_human.html

 

Theorising mHealth and the quantified self

I have published several posts on this blog now about mHealth and the quantified self (see them here). I have also written two scholarly publications that have been published in academic journals discussing this topic in greater depth. In the first article I looked at how theories of surveillance society and the cyborg body could be applied to understanding the use of digital health technologies as they are used for health promotion, and also discussed privacy, intimacy and ethical issues (see here for details of the first article, the full version of which is open access).

The latest article is entitled ‘Quantifying the body: monitoring, performing and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies’, published in Critical Public Health (see here for details). It builds upon the previous article by bringing in discussion of the quantified self movement. Here is the abstract:

Mobile and wearable digital devices and related Web 2.0 apps and social media tools offer new ways of monitoring, measuring and representing the human body. They are capable of producing detailed biometric data that may be collected by individuals and then shared with others. Health promoters, like many medical and public health professionals, have been eager to seize the opportunities they perceive for using what have been dubbed ‘mHealth’ (‘mobile health’) technologies to promote the public’s health. These technologies are also increasingly used by lay people outside the professional sphere of health promotion as part of voluntary self-tracking strategies (referred to by some as ‘the quantified self’). In response to the overwhelmingly positive approach evident in the health promotion and self-tracking literature, this article adopts a critical sociological perspective to identify some of the social and cultural meanings of self-tracking practices via digital devices. Following an overview of the technologies currently available for such purposes I move on to discuss how they may contribute to concepts of health, embodiment and identity. The discussion focuses particularly on how these technologies promote techno-utopian, enhancement and healthist discourses and the privileging of the visual and the metric in representing the body via these devices.

My current research is moving from a focus on health promotion to the construction of patienthood in digital health discourses. I’m looking at how patients are being encouraged to engage in self-monitoring and self-care activities to reduce healthcare costs, and the commodification of patients’ accounts of their experiences of illness and healthcare on social media platforms designed to elicit patient opinion.

The ‘milkmother’: an intriguing way of conceptualising motherhood

National Museum

National Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day I came across a new term in the feminist journal Hecate – ‘milkmother’, a term invented and used by Pamela Douglas (2010). Douglas uses ‘milkmother’ to ‘denote the pregnant, birthing, and physiologically, or metaphorically lactating woman’. She argues that ‘lactating’ not only incorporates its literal meaning — secreting breast milk for the consumption of an infant — but also a metaphorical meaning  — ‘offering the particular minute-by-minute physical nurturance that very young children require, regardless of feeding method’. Lactating in this metaphorical meaning, therefore, involves the giving of the self to one’s child in the myriad of ways that is demanded of mothers: touching, cleaning, holding, cuddling, stroking, feeding, dealing with illness, rocking to sleep, constantly thinking about and meeting the child’s needs.

The concept of the milkmother for me encapsulates the blurring of the boundaries of the body/self a woman experiences during pregnancy, childbirth and caring for infants and young children (Lupton 2012). As I noted in an earlier post ‘Pregnancy and loss of control’, pregnant bodies are considered permeable and uncontained. So too, for women engaging in caring for their infants and young children, their bodies/selves become intertwined with those of their children. This involves what sociologists of the body describe as ‘intercorporeality’, or the blurring of boundaries between bodies. Milkmothers find themselves as embodied subjects, thinking through and with their bodies as they interact with their children. Their sense of self becomes intersubjective, or linked to that of another/s. No longer autonomous and individuated, milkmothers respond to their children in relational and interdependent ways.

This blurring of subjectivity and bodies, however, can be confronting. Some women experience pregnant embodiment as confronting in its two-bodies-in-one state, and feel as if their own body is being ‘taken over’ by the preborn body. They even describe pregnancy as like being occupied by an alien Other. Many women feel challenged by the demands made upon them by their infants and young children. These feelings are articulated when women discuss their embodied relationship with the breastfeeding infant. Many find the intercorporeality of the experience highly pleasurable and contributing to strong feelings of intimacy and tenderness with the infant. Others find this intercorporeality confronting and engulfing of their own sense of body/self. In one of my articles (Lupton, 2000) I referred to the ‘love-hate’ relationship some women talked about in interviews about their early mothering experiences. They had invested in the ideal of the ‘good mother’ as always ‘being there’ for her children, but also found this to be difficult to live up to.

My research suggests that the experience of motherhood, at least during the period of infancy and early childhood, may never fully include a strong sense of individuation from one’s child’s body (see Lupton 2012). Nor does this process necessarily follow a clear trajectory: mothers may move between states of interconnectedness, at times feeling very close and ‘at one’ with their foetus/infant, at other times experiencing their bodies/selves as very separate from, and even in conflict with, the infant body/self.

Being a milkmother clashes with the independent, autonomous self that is so valued in post-femininist western societies. It also conflicts with the ‘Yummy Mummy’ persona that Douglas discusses in her article. The ‘Yummy Mummy’ appears to be supremely untroubled by any bodily or emotional effects of caring for her children and expresses the same autonomous self of those without children. Her body is slim, fit and attractive, not leaking fluids such as breast milk or rendered flabby from excess weight put on during pregnancy. Unlike the ‘milkmother’, therefore, this maternal archetype appears to be able to contain and discipline her body, and to individuate her sense of self and embodiment from her children. She appears serenely unchanged by the enormous physical and emotional alterations caused by pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.

Douglas calls for more positive representations of the milkmother that goes beyond the unrealistic ‘Yummy Mummy’ persona. The emotional and bodily experiences of mothers of infants and young children, she asserts, need to be recognised and celebrated but not airbrushed. The blurring of bodily boundaries, the heightened emotions of the caring experience (including the frustration, anger and even hate that women may feel at times towards their children) and the physical changes, both reversible and irreversible, wrought by motherhood — all these should be acknowledged and accepted as integral to the experience of early motherhood.

References

Douglas, P. (2010) Yummy mummy and the medicalised milkmother. Hecate, 36(1/2), 119–35.

Lupton, D. (2000) ‘A love/hate relationship’: the ideals and experiences of first-time mothers. Journal of Sociology, 36(1), 50–63.

Lupton, D. (2012) Configuring Maternal, Preborn and Infant Embodiment. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 2. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group. Available here.