How do data come to matter?

My notes on Lupton, D. (2018). How do data come to matter? Living and becoming with personal data. Big Data & Society, 5(2), 2053951718786314.

In this paper, Deborah Lupton extends her work on the quantified self into a broader theorisation of how people come to live with data. It foregrounds the voluntary dimension of this process, in which “many novel digital technologies offer any interested person the opportunity to document, monitor and measure details of their bodies”, equipping them with capacities which were previously confined to specialised instruments and trained experts (1). These techniques render visible what was previously unseen. From 2:

Elements of their bodies that people may not otherwise have con- sidered to any great extent – the number of steps they take per day, their sleep patterns, the kilometres and geographical locations they move through, their brain waves, moods and so on – are brought into sharp relief.

This renders the body as a series of interlocking digitised elements which “demand new ways of interpreting these signs and signals of bodily function and movement” (2). Her focus is on the existential and epistemic predicament this confronts people with: how do we make sense of this information, determine its value and put it into practice? This takes place in a context where there is pervasive cultural pressure to know our bodies better and live in a way deemed more efficient. Her focus is on how this data is experienced and understood in everyday life.

This has been studied through the frame of data sense-making i.e. how people engage with and learn from information. It has been tied to data literacy, a concern for capacities to select, analyse, visualise and learn from data. Lupton highlights how these approaches tend to focus on cognitive and technical forms of interpretation, ignoring the role of the situated body as a means through which we learn. She uses the concept of data sense to this end, which incorporates the “entanglements of the digital sensors with the human senses in the process of sense-making” (3) with the body as the site of sensation and response.

This project draws on a range of approaches from agential realism, new materialism and the anthropology of material culture. They share a more-than-human approach which “demands that the human subject is always considered permeable and open to the material world rather than closed-off and contained” (4). They share the following characterised described on 5:

  • an approach that recognises that humans and non- humans are entangled in hybrid, unstable and generative ways;
  • the importance of considering the distributed agency and vital capacities (‘thing-power’) of human non-human assemblages;
  • an emphasis on the embodied, sensory and otherwise material nature of meaning, knowing, growing, perceiving and making as part of human embodiment;
  • the changing meanings of artefacts as they move into different assemblages and the work required to articulate these assemblages; and
  • the importance of identifying and tracing the ways in which humans and nonhumans are intermeshed, the enactments and practices that are involved, and the effects of these on human lives.

These inform Lupton’s conception of a human-data assemblage within which data learns about humans but humans in turn “may find themselves asking to what extent their data speak for them, and to what extent their data are different from other elements of embodiment and selfhood” (5). Digital devices and software for personal data necessarily seek to make data intelligible to users. Through such intelligibility personal data has agency in relation users, exercising an influencer over their behaviour and leading them to do things on the basis of these new understandings. But data can also ossify if it’s not found useful or actionable, freezing into a latent state which could be rendered lively again at a later date. Her work on self-tracking provides an illustrative example of why these distinctions matter. Described on 6-7:

My research participants often described collecting and reviewing data about their bodies as generating agential capacities that are suffused with affect. These data can motivate them, encourage them to move their bodies more, persist with weight-loss efforts or self-management of chronic conditions. The ‘numbers’ can make them feel good if they demonstrate that people are achieving goals set for themselves, or if the data demonstrate good health or higher levels of fitness. Positive feelings can be generated by the buzzes, flashing lights, badges and other notifications that communicate a goal has been achieved. Alternatively, however, biometric data can have demoralising effects, generating disappointment, frustration, guilt and anger. Notifications can be experienced as annoying or pestering, making unreasonable demands.

To make sense of data involves “connecting the metrics with the lived sensory experiences of one’s body and the other elements that are important in data sense-making” (7). This is a contextualised process of building a human-data assemblage, shaped by the environment but also contributing to it. This stress on the meaning of the context is crucial if we want to understand, for instance, how particular professional groups might engage in specific ways with personal data. As Deborah puts it on 7:

When people review their data, they actively relate them to the contexts in which they were generated. People consider such aspects as the time of day, the weather, how their bodies felt, whether they were lacking sleep, were hungry, feeling stressed, drank too much the night before, what place and space they were inhabiting or moving through when the information were generated.

Oddly though I think an individual is reproduced here, in spite of the theoretical sources. My point of departure is the claim that personal “data are meaningful because they are about and for them” (8) and I think this insufficient to account for mattering in Andrew Sayer’s sense. Mattering always points beyond the relationship between the agent and what matters, something which I’m not sure the concept of the assemblage can account for because it squeezed human and data together in a dance of co-constitution. This is something I’ve tried to analyse in Katherine Hayles work and I’m thinking I need to seriously explore the issue I persistently see in co-constitution theorising, which I take to be a novel form of central conflationism in Margaret Archer’s sense.

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