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Narratives and (Consumer) Brainscanning

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Exeter


What can machines know about a person's mind, even theoretically? Rather than looking at empirical answers to this question, I discuss what people think the answer to this question might be, in relation to their interactions with particular technologies. What about the mind do people think machines can measure, and how can interactions with specific technologies influence those beliefs? This paper diffracts this question through the relatively recent phenomenon of consumer brain-scanning headsets. Linking past STS work on brain scanning in the lab to present realities of brain-scanning wearables, I highlight reconfigurations (and continuities) in the supposed capabilities of this technology. I argue that a complex web of charismatic examples, spanning from science fiction to medical practice, meets with an existing web of beliefs about technical progress to produce strong prior beliefs about the capabilities of brain-scanning devices and, by extension, the capability of connected devices to "read" or "decode" the contents of the mind. Zooming back out to the broader world of biosensing devices, I advocate for the importance of understanding end-user beliefs about what biosensor data can (and cannot) reveal about the mind. A better understanding of these beliefs will allow us to build theories about end-user behavior, specifically around decisions to disclose or withhold data collected from the body.


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