Feeling data – the role of touch in data sense

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

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

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

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

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

Affective atmospheres and digital health

I have just submitted an essay for the special issue of Digital Health I am editing on the senses and digital health. In the essay I outline how the concept of affective atmospheres can be used to understand how and why people use or fail to take up digital health technologies, with a particular focus on the sensory and affective dimensions of these responses. The preprint version is available here, and the abstract is below.

The concept of affective atmospheres has recently emerged in cultural geography to refer to the feelings that are generated by the interactions and movements of human and nonhuman actors in specific spaces and places. Affective atmospheres can have profound effects on the ways in which people think and feel about and sense the spaces they inhabit and through which they move and the other actors in those spaces. Thus far, very little research has adopted this concept to explore the ways in which digital health technologies are used. As part of seeking to redress this lacuna, in this essay I draw on previously published literature on affective atmospheres to demonstrate and explain the implications of this scholarship for future theoretical and empirical scholarship about digital health practices that pays attention to their affective and sensory elements. The article is structured into six parts. The first part outlines the concepts and research practices underpinning affective atmospheres scholarship. In the second part, I review some of the research that looks at place, space and mobilities in relation to affective atmospheres. In the third part I go on to focus more specifically on the affective atmospheres of medical encounters, and then move on to digital technology use in the fourth part. I then address in the fifth part some relevant scholarship on digital health technologies. I end the essay with some reflections of directions in which future research taking up the concept of affective atmospheres in the context of digital health technologies can go. The key research question that these topics all work towards is that asking ‘How does digital health feel?’