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The Making of Ignorance: Epistemic Design in Self-Tracking Health


This dissertation contributes to emergent scholarly work on the dynamics of ignorance in the production of power. Drawing on my study of the health self-trackers who identify under the banner of the “Quantified Self,” I examine the “choreography” of ignorance in two intersecting forces that arbitrate the experience of illness and well being. The first force reflects an emergent phenomenon of individuals co-opting the computational gaze of contemporary mass surveillance and turning it onto the embodied self, a redirection that sees its most vibrant and experimental manifestation in this self-tracking community. The second embraces newly formed and structured efforts that redistribute the attention of American medical science from treating illness to preventing illness. This new medical imperative is anchored to the individual, now called on to adopt tracking technologies not only as an act of self-care, but also as a remedial intervention into the very institutions and scientific processes that many self-trackers believe have failed them. Institutional actors, however, present such pursuits as a “democratization” of American medicine. The Quantified Self provides the anchoring social context from which I access the interplay of these two forces, allowing me to illustrate how three engagements with ignorance — selectivity, uncertainty and obscurity — are implicated in failures of epistemic justice.

Ethnographic attention to ignorance remains minimal. Thus, the task of studying ignorance requires epistemic innovations. I explore Charis Thompson’s framework of ontological choreography as a tool to capture and analyze how ignorance is orchestrated to produce desired goals. I argue that the rhetoric of democratization of American medicine and the Quantified Self ethos is largely in service to the perceived needs of dominant groups and the establishment science the individual is called to help reform. I conclude that an analysis of ignorance offers an avenue to examine how novel technologies, new movements and fantastical speculations, all invested in rendering our bodies as “data,” reinforce existing dynamics of power.

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