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Sensor technology as a thermostat of the self

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, 3, Fairfax A

Abstract

Having long employed technology to record, reflect upon, and regulate bodily processes, moods, and even moral states, over the past decade humans have increasingly turned to digital sensors and algorithms to manage these aspects of existence. An ever-expanding array of devices and apps gather real-time information from bodies and lives, convert this information into electrical signals, and run it through software programmed to detect otherwise imperceptible patterns of being and down-regulate problematically excessive behavior—overeating, oversitting, overspending, over-engaging in social media. Responding to enthusiasts’ promise that microcomputational sensors afford humans a “sixth sense,” a “datasense,” or “a new sense organ,” hopeful consumers embrace wearable sensor technologies and smartphone apps as thermostats for modern living that can bring their daily micro-rhythms (bites, steps, sips, and breaths) into alignment with healthy ideals and, in so doing, help them maintain bodily and affective equilibrium as they move through the confounding, tempting, and sometimes toxic landscape of everyday choice making and lifestyle management. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, the paper focuses on self-trackers’ experience—and experiments—with mood-modulating devices and apps.

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