Digital subjectivities in the global context: new technologies of the self
Location 113
Date and Start Time 03 September, 2016 at 11:00
Sessions 3


  • Luke Stark (Dartmouth College) email
  • Beth Semel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) email
  • Marisa Brandt (Michigan State University, Lyman Briggs College) email

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Short Abstract

This track explores digital tools for subject formation in a global context. It interrogates the transnational histories, present and futures of digital media as means for shaping individual and collective subjectivity, and complicating global divisions and inequalities of wealth, access, and power.

Long Abstract

Digital technologies such as wearable fitness devices, smartphone apps, neural interfaces, databases of personal information, and algorithmic analytic techniques are challenging our understanding of our own selves as human beings, social actors, and engaged citizens. Much of the current scholarship in media studies and science and technology studies (STS) approaches these digital technologies with a Western, consumerist focus. This track builds on previous 4S panels on these topics by inviting work in diverse formats (papers, tools, or data auto-ethnographies) that explores the global context for these technologies. In this track, we seek to shatter this framing by exploring the co-production of digital subjectivity by experts and citizens around the world.

Possible topics for papers include but are by no means limited to: comparative work and case studies from the Global South on digital tools designed for self-tracking and self-management; the globalization of digital labor in relation to technologies of the self (such as in digitally-mediated therapy services); questions of power and post-colonialism in the development and testing of new digital tools; the heterogeneous global spread of models for Silicon Valley entrepreneurship; or the idea of a "Quantified Self" in different global contexts.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Self-management and quantified-self: how diabetes apps foster monitoring

Authors: Barbara Morsello (Roma Tre University)  email
Veronica Moretti (University of Bologna)  email

Short Abstract

This study aims to describe how technological tools change and shape self-management among patients. We seek to demonstrate this by analyzing diabetes apps that use features of gamification and quantification to help patients suffering from type 1 diabetes to more easily control their parameters.

Long Abstract

The last decades have seen the growing influence of patients on their own medical care. The information society (Bell, 1973) contests the authority of scientific and medical knowledge, resulting in new patients who are able to redefine and negotiate their own illness experience. New technological devices used in the health sphere facilitate monitoring of many physical parameters in daily life and also radically modify the approach to health care.

Our contribution seeks to examine how type 1 diabetes, a chronic illness that needs constant and routine control, can be easily managed through technological tools. This study builds on the approach of Quantified-Self, introduced by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007, which consists of the digital and scrupulous measurement of various physical features. Frequent self-monitoring of blood glucose, indeed, allows patients to achieve good metabolic control. Our research sample consists of the five most downloaded diabetes apps taken from the iTunes App store. The methodology used is content analysis done on two different kinds of texts: the description provided by the App itself and the reviews provided by app users. Through features of gamification it is also possible to make the practice of quantification pleasant and enjoyable. In addition, these technological tools support the above-mentioned change in the role of patients, allowing them to become more responsible and involved in their own health care.

There's an ENTJ For That: The Meyers-Briggs Personality Scale and Convergent Digital Subjectivities

Author: Luke Stark (Dartmouth College)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the contemporary digital mobilization of the Meyers-Briggs Personality Scale in North America and Southeast Asia. Though not well supported scientifically, the test provides a compelling frame for self-narration in digitally mediated systems that value emotional classificability.

Long Abstract

Testable, scalable forms of digitally mediated subjectivity have proliferated in the era of social media. One of the most prevalent is the popular culture of online testing that has developed and spread since the World Wide Web's inception. In the late 1990s, websites adapted extant vernacular testing traditions such as that of the "Purity Test," with sites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy continuing routinely run similar simple tests and questionnaires.

This paper explores the global dimensions of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test, a psychological rating scale that underpins much of the vernacular culture of online testing today. Grounded in Jungian typological theory, the test's popularity belies the fact that neither Meyers nor Briggs were initially trained in personality or psychometric testing. The test is not only increasingly popular online, but is also widely used in workplace training and assessment.

The Meyers-Briggs test is mobilized as a convenient shorthand descriptor of personality, both on social media platforms and in offline social settings. This paper will compare the use of the Meyers-Briggs in two different global social media settings - the United States and Southeast Asia - by examining the test's mobilization on social media platforms, discussion forums, and in literature aimed at young workers. In doing so, the paper argues that this particular digitized and popularized psychological test has a homogenizing effect in its global context, and that the test's chief impact is to shape neoliberal, reflexive and categorizable forms of subjective expression online.

Digital technologies and the reconfiguration of health experiences and practices

Author: Benjamin Marent (University of Brighton)  email

Short Abstract

The implementation of a mHealth platform to enable self-management of HIV is investigated across five clinical sites. We focus on new modes of control, triggered by digital care innovation, and their impact on identities and relationships between different actors in the health field.

Long Abstract

Social theorists recognise that the introduction of the computer and Internet technologies as new media of communication will bring about fundamental changes within the societal structure and culture. Within the healthcare domain, a new branch of STS research is investigating the various ways in which digital technologies are employed and how they affect experiences of health and illness and practices of self-care and treatment.

Contributing to this field of research, this study comparatively investigates the development and implementation of a mobile health (mHealth) platform to enable self-management of HIV in patients in five clinical sites across the European Union (UK, Belgium, Croatia, Spain, and Portugal). The platform will provide users with web based and mobile device applications which interface securely with relevant medical data and facilitate remote access to key healthcare providers. In the first study phase, presented here, twenty group discussions and twenty individual interviews with patients and clinicians are carried out to assess the potential of the mHealth platform for HIV self-management and treatment and to investigate the concerns and challenges that will affect the implementation and adoption of the platform in everyday practices and organisational routines.

Digital care innovations facilitate the tracking and networking of healthcare practices and medical data. By an in-depth analysis of the empirical data this presentation raises the question whether new modes of control can be identified and how these impact identities and relationships between different actors.

Happiness as a Measure of Progress: Digital tools of policy making

Author: Anat Noa Fanti (Bar Ilan University)  email

Short Abstract

Statistical measures are being used in the Western world to manage and control populations. In recent years Indicators that measure happiness and well-being as part of public policy gained immense popularity. My presentation will review the current trend and its contribution to subjectivity.

Long Abstract

As early as the 19th century, quantification and statistics have been a central aspect of governing as a form of control over individuals and populations (Foucault, Porter, Hacking, Rose) and is one of the characteristics of modern societies today. In recent years the measuring of happiness and well-being on national and global levels has gained popularity, moreover, happiness has become a measure for health, success and productivity on the individual level and a measure of progressive governing on the political level.

Countries such as Australia, Canada, UK and Israel, as well as organizations such as the OECD and the UN, all have their own version of well-being measures (used interchangeably also as Quality of Life Measures). The results of these initiatives are presented to the public through elaborate graphs and dashboards. Their region or country is seen in comparison to others.

My presentation will trace some of the historical milestones of these initiatives, and will discuss the information revealed to citizens as their individual happiness scores are aggregated on a national level. I will also argue that the possible case of governing through happiness raises the question whether measuring happiness and well-being is at all a new concept or is it yet another instance of governing the self. How these new happiness scores can be viewed as contributing to concepts of subjectivity, specifically through digitally derived knowledge.

The Digital Revolution in Financial(ised) Inclusion

Authors: Sally Brooks (University of York)  email
Daniela Gabor  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines financial inclusion as a development approach involving networks of state institutions, donors and ‘philanthropic’ fintech companies. Couched in language of including the excluded, it offers global finance new ways to ‘profile’ poor households into generators of financial assets

Long Abstract

This paper examines the growing importance of digital-based financial inclusion as a form of organising international development interventions through networks of state institutions, development agencies and 'philanthropic investment' fintech companies. The fintech-philanthropy-development (FPD) complex generates digital ecosystems that map, expand and monetise digital footprints. This digital revolution offers the state new ways of expanding the inclusion of the 'legible', and global finance new forms of 'profiling' poor households into generators of financial assets.

Policy initiatives aimed at 'financial inclusion' have gathered pace since the global financial crisis of 2008. This paper traces a discursive shift that attributed these market failures, not to poorly regulated financial markets and institutions, but to individual consumers, in particular poorer, 'risky' consumers whose behavioural traits can and should be captured and 'nudged' in a more 'rational' direction using the tools of behavioural economics (see World Bank 2014, 2015).

Whose needs are being met here? While such programmes are couched in terminology of including the (financially) excluded, poverty in the developing world is cast as a new frontier for profit making and accumulation. Central to this vision is the potential of digital technologies to capture the data of the newly 'included' in ways that enable lenders to map, know and govern 'risky' populations', via algorithms that evade public scrutiny as private intellectual property.

We Are Anonymous: Genealogy of a Transgressive Digital Subjectification Platform

Author: Pedro Jacobetty (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC))  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the connections between technique, design, and space in the formation of digital subjectification systems. It traces a genealogy of Anonymous by analyzing digital artifacts and their social, cultural, semiotic, and infrastructural connections.

Long Abstract

Eclectic media literacy, production of digital cultural artifacts, and the inhabiting of technological life-worlds sustain forms of communicational, cultural and political mediation. My research is an effort to trace the genealogy of one of those mediators, the Anonymous "collective", in fragmented online settings characterized by hyperactive production of multimedia artifacts, mass adoption of anonymity, and devotion to moral, technical, and semiotic brinkmanship. Anonymous can be associated with disparate social projects and behavioral blueprints, ideologies, ethic and aesthetic sensibilities, bodies of knowledge, tactical and strategic repertoires. Nonetheless, it structured itself as a position within the contemporary networks of practice and discourse, where the complex relationships that weave together meanings, cultural objects and technical artifacts - i.e. sustain the phenomenological life-world - are acted upon in acts of resistance to social control.

My research suggests that fragmented real-time communications allow rapid changes of scale and scope, stressing the importance of bridging, boundary work, and distributed scopic and control mechanisms. I also integrate the dimensions of myth, representation, and reflexivity with those of technique and media design to understand the collective production of digital subjectivities and their ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.

The methodological apparatus, which I termed "internet archeology", focuses on the analysis of traces left by the formation of Anonymous: forgotten and/or neglected digital documents and artifacts that can be found in old or archived versions of websites. I sought to provide a situated microsociological account, integrating the material-semiotic dimensions of mediated sociability, on the genealogy of a global subjectification system.

Reaching the Next Billion: the case of Free Basics in India

Author: Noopur Raval (UC, Irvine)  email

Short Abstract

Free Basics, a Facebook initiative to bring people online in the Global South was recently banned in India. The paper examines implications of corporate-led infrastructure projects like Loon and Free Basics in determining future global digital subjectivities because of their role in shaping Internet access.

Long Abstract

Given their fast saturating user bases among those who are already online, technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Tesla are now focusing on the "last mile" problem of bring more people online in countries with low Internet adoption mostly in the Global South through projects like Loon, drones, low-orbiting satellites and customized online services, compelling them to participate in conversations on information infrastructure (cables, handsets, bandwidth, software support, pricing, privacy and policy), previously understood to be the responsibility of the State.

Drawing on literature on the "promise of infrastructure" (Gupta, Bowker, Star, Larkin), this paper will discuss in detail, the unravelling of 'Free Basics', a Facebook initiative to provide free but limited Internet access operational in more than thirty countries in the Global South but recently banned in India. In examining how different stakeholders (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Net Neutrality activists, citizen activists, startup founders in India and government officials) argued for and against 'Free Basics', pitched both as a commercial and developmental tech policy/product, the paper will unpack the imagined user/citizen that is currently being furthered in all projects that aim at capturing the yet-to-be connected billion. Especially in the case of India, the larger question of who should be in charge of developing infrastructure also harks back to the debates around deregulation and liberalization of technological enterprise - a historical thread that the paper will situate the Free Basics episode in.

Tracking a Self-tracking device: expectations and practices of a bicycle support project in the city of Santiago of Chile

Authors: Matías Valderrama (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)  email
Martin Tironi (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)  email

Short Abstract

We examine the socio-technical design and practices of engineers and users on a bicycle self-tracking device in the city of Santiago. Studying the prototyping process and the daily life of cyclists, this paper problematize the “correctly” and “representative” way of view of digital devices and data.

Long Abstract

In order to make the city of Santiago more smart and bicycle-friendly, the project "Stgo 2020" asked to the same cyclists what city they want. To do that they created RUBI, a small device that sticks on the bicycle and allows to tracks automatically the routes of cyclists without a smartphone. With all the maps and animations of routes, they expect that can help to design more bikeways and better policies.

Interested on the socio-technical design of this smart device, we investigate the prototypes of RUBI, the motivations and decisions on it and their differences in front of more popular self-tracking apps. We also pay attention on the self-monitoring practices with RUBI and the social production and interpretation of data, looking on how people were engaged, used and understand this technology.

With a case study methodology and a STS-informed approach, we follow the history of the young engineer behind RUBI, conducted interviews with previous RUBI users and obtained ethnographical material tracing the implementation of the device on new users.

We discover an interesting move from an individualistic human-oriented design to a more bicycle-oriented design that enacts new possibilities and meanings of the project itself. Seeing the practices of users reveals different forms of ignorance, misunderstandings and subversion on how to use RUBI properly, which altered the initial project of the engineer too. In sum, this case problematize what means concepts like "Quantified Self", a "representative sample", "smartness" or "human" and unveils new ways of engagement in a bicycle collective.

"There might be someone who is monitoring you": Enacting privacy boundaries in a mobile health intervention

Author: Kristin Dew (University of Washington)  email

Short Abstract

This case study explores privacy questions raised while designing a mobile health intervention for HIV-serodiscordant couples in Thika, Kenya. We show how the intervention unsettles the notion of privacy as boundary negotiation and highlights the ethical implications of knowledge making practices.

Long Abstract

In this paper, we offer a case study of the privacy questions raised while designing a mobile health (mHealth) intervention in Thika, Kenya to assist HIV serodiscordant couples, or couples in which one partner is HIV-infected and one is HIV-uninfected, to conceive a child without transmitting HIV. The intervention's core mHealth components include an SMS survey to gather fertility information from the female partner and a clinic-based tablet application to display the fertility data and the HIV-infected partner's viral load during in-clinic counselling sessions. Drawing on feminist technoscience scholarship and data collected through focus groups and interviews with HIV serodiscordant partners, as well as the pertinent details from the intervention, we show how HIV serodiscordant individuals already use many different strategies to protect themselves, their partners, and their families from stigma. We demonstrate that study procedures and tools make partners' bodies and their study participation visible in new ways that have the potential to reshape these boundaries and practices, often producing unintended consequences. Unequal power relations influence the enactment of privacy in ways that unsettle the notion of privacy as boundary negotiation, and raise additional questions about the ethical implications of knowledge making practices associated with medical interventions.

Bye, fantasmeur!: Minitel's animateurs and the prehistory of cyborg affective labor

Author: Jeff Nagy (Stanford University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the genderbending animateurs of Minitel’s sexchat sites, whose work linked postindustrial attention economies, cyborgized digital microwork, and the commodification of digital selves, as a counterpoint to other paradigmatic figures in the theorization of digital affective labor.

Long Abstract

Minitel's demise at the hands of the American Internet has become a cautionary tale against state intervention in technological innovation and a vindication of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial free market capitalism over European dirigisme.  But Minitel succeeded in getting an unprecedented number of citizens online, and its private services were highly profitable: none more profitable, popular, or infamous than its messageries roses.  These sex chat sites accounted for a large percentage of traffic on the network, and were instrumental to the system's social and economic viability: Manuel Castells called them "a democratized sexual fantasy" that facilitated "the hooking-up of the French public."  Between 1985 and 1995, millions of French citizens dialed up rose kiosks like 3615 Aline and Ulla, where they paid by the minute to chat anonymously with each other and with, unbeknownst to them, professional animateurs.  Mostly young men, these animateurs shaped their digital subjectivities to meet the specific sexual desires of their interlocutors, genderbending for pay.  Chatbots permitted them to run a half dozen pseudonyms simultaneously, monitoring conversation flows and intervening at any sign the user might realize their partner was more silicon than (female-gendered) skin.  The animateur provides a non-American counterpoint to Terranova's chat mods, the paradigmatic example of free labor, or to the reluctantly regulating wizards of Lessig's MOOs and MUDs, and their cyborgized sex work connects nascent postindustrial economies of attention, digital microwork coordinated between human subjects and algorithmic agents, and the production of signifiers of the self as digital commodities.

Intimacies in Collaborative Survival: Gay Geolocative Dating Apps in Manila

Author: Paul Michael Leonardo Atienza (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores gay Filipino call-center workers collaborative survival strategies through Manila’s uneven sociotechnical infrastructures. Tracking practices of gay dating app users in Manila, this empirical study demonstrates how digital technology mediates queer world-making.

Long Abstract

In February 2015, a Los Angeles Times headline read "The Philippines has become the call center capital of the world." This industry brings greater insecurity in Manila, a city already with severe economic and social inequalities. This paper explores sociotechnical infrastructures that scaffold Filipino call center workers on gay geolocative apps. Sociotechnical infrastructures refer to the entanglements between hardware, bodies, and affect used in the meaning making and translation of im/materialities within its shared ecologies. I argue that these users are making their own worlds that are messy, open-ended, and, in some ways, in collaborative survival as they try to establish connections and intimacies on gay dating apps. Sherry Turkle (2012) suggests that people are alone together in their everyday interactions among their technologically mediated networks, but this frictive (Tsing 2005) relationship is intertwined among a relational system fraught with unequal exchanges within sociotechnical infrastructures. This project looks at the self-fashioning and communicative practices of gay dating app users in the greater metropolitan Manila region. Reflecting on preliminary ethnographic research conducted over the summer of 2015, this presentation provides a sketch of complex and overlapping new media ecologies highlighting gay Manila's hopes, desires, and aspirations for homosocial bonds. New media technologies are portals of exchange between the Philippines and the world that shrink time and space as it simultaneously creates new distances among previously linked imaginaries. This work adds another empirical study to feminist postcolonial technoscience

Quantifying Sex: Technology, Capital, and Self in Live Cam Performances

Authors: Marika Cifor (University of California, Los Angeles)  email
Kristin Way (University of California, Los Angeles)  email

Short Abstract

Within pornography’s live cam sector we examine the sociocultural implications of quantifying sex and self through wearable technologies, apps and the regulation of performer behavior, questioning technologies’ revolutionary potential for democraticizing sexual expression that has been much touted.

Long Abstract

Digital technologies' revolutionary potential for democraticizing sexual life and expanding sexual expression has been much touted. Within pornography's live cam sector we examine the sociocultural implications of quantifying sex and self. This sector is the one of the fastest growing areas of a thriving industry, with over 20,000 performers online at any time (Weisman, 2015), a $1 billion annual revenue, and over 30 million visitors monthly (Richtel, 2013). Yet only 15-35% of those performers are US based (Morris, 2015) and sexual identity and behavior is quantified in several respects on these sites, including categorization by nationality, racial features and orientation, as well as through regulation of language (English-only), established 'fetishes,' statements of local 'norms,' and requiring agreement to "a sound mind and body." Further, performers are now pressed to make their performances more interactive by incorporating wearable technologies and apps. Devices such as OhMiBod, a 'control your secretary's orgasm' vibrator accompanied by lacy panties, and the Realtouch masturbator, a 'box' within which to place your genitals, enforce Western normative views of sexual roles and anatomy rather than allow for a multitude of sexual identities, experiences, and desires. Significantly, as pornography produces records of cultural memory, political resistance, and historical traces (which marginalized groups are often denied) (Dean, 2014; Keilty and Leazer, 2014), what is at stake in the live cam space is more than constrained labor practices, but the ways in which sexual selves are fused with the technological environment and formed into posterity for both performers and users.

Digital Subjects in the Graphical Interface of Pornography

Author: Patrick Keilty (University of Toronto)  email

Short Abstract

The graphical interface of online pornography websites is an artifact of processes and protocols that is not only a zone in which our behaviors and actions take place but also a cultural value system.

Long Abstract

Graphical interface is an artifact of processes and protocols that is not only a zone in which our behaviors and actions take place but also a cultural value system. Every aspect of web content management and display embody values, even if these are largely ignored or treated as invisible. Based on experiments testing short-term memory and capacity to follow cues from one screen to another, Shneiderman's "Eight Golden Rules" offers principles that have come to guide interface design, such as "permit easy reversal of action" and "enable frequent users to use shortcuts." Working closely with engineers and software developers, interface designers are mostly task-oriented, focused on feedback loops that minimize frustration and maximize satisfaction and efficiency. Interface designers analyze "user needs" into "functional requirements" in which concepts of "prototype," "user feedback," and "design" are locked into iterative cycles of "task specification" and "deliverables." Deliberately mechanistic, this language promotes the idea of a 'user' instead of that of a humanistic 'subject'. By contrast, the graphical interface of pornographic video sites challenge this conception of design by creating an environment for wandering, browsing, meandering, or prolonging engagement. Pornographic video sites create a space of dwelling, not merely a realm of control panels and instruments. They are often disruptive, disorienting, and frustrating in their defeat of expectations. As such, the graphic interface of pornography must be thought beyond representation, toward ecology, a zone between cultural systems and human subjects, the interspace between information space and a task-supporting environment.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.