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Homo experimentus: digital selves and digital health in the age of innovation

  • Author(s): Greenfield, Dana Emily
  • Advisor(s): Adams, Vincanne
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is an ethnographic investigation into the uses and meanings of emerging quantified-self and digital health technologies, which enable the collection of personal and biometric data. As self-quantification tools proliferate – from step counters to wearable heart monitoring devices to wireless scales and blood pressure cuffs – I ask what are the implications for how we experience and understand health, illness, and the experience of daily life. In particular, digital health devices that mobilize tools once restricted to the doctor’s office or hospital alter the location, mode and dynamics of care. How is medical expertise and practice remade when clinical metrics are in the hands of patients or lay people? How is the role of the patient altered with the reflexive use of the clinical gaze, when self-care occurs through self-quantification?

This investigation is based on over a year of fieldwork in the digital health industry, the movement for participatory medicine, and the Quantified Self movement. The latter is a community of individuals who utilize self-tracking and digital health technologies to measure, understand, improve, and care for themselves. The QS movement began in the San Francisco Bay area with small meetings of individuals sharing their data and has now grown to over 100 groups around the world, including two annual international conferences. The data was gathered via participant observation and interviews across these various sites where new health technologies are being developed and used.

Through techniques of self-quantification, self-reflection and self-care, "trackers" challenge traditional clinical practice and cultivate new forms of knowledge production, medical and others. The very terms of health and illness are in flux, I argue, as the ability to collect almost continuous data on oneself and one’s body makes daily life available to continuous innovation and optimization. I explore the meanings of living in experiment, where digitized life provides almost limitless experimental horizons for the cultivation of new (and often improved) selves. Homo experimentus is the name of an emergent subject and set of practices that come out of life and health rendered digitally.

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