The Body in Bytes
In the fourth event of the Cognitive Sensations programme, THECUBE became host to a conversation exploring the impact of the digital age on identity and health. The discussion was greatly enhanced by the rather diverse set of speakers, who combined to produce a conversation based on philosophy, artistic practice, biometrics and the sense of touch. Through my own interpretation and observations of the discussion, I will explore these topics through an evaluation of current digital practices in relation to the body.
In the discussion, we assessed how the body becomes information, as the personal details of biological and social data is recorded through a digital trace. Through examples of self-tracking behaviour, we analysed how life experiences are translated to online communities, and the different ways in which the body can be disrupted through its presentation online. Embodiment arose as a key approach to theorising the relationship between the body and mind, and its transformation through digital technology engagement.
This essay will discuss some of the key points that arose in the discussion, examining the different social and physical interactions at play in the body’s relationship with digital technology.
Identity - digital traces and the inner self
For the younger generation, digital profiles are often created before one even enters the world at birth, highlighting the heavily constructed and sometimes uncontrollable nature by which our digital identities emerge. Speaker Dr Rachael Kent, a scholar in the intersection of technology and the body, health and surveillance, highlights how our narrative online is constructed from this very moment. This information evolves and builds as it gradually gathers an increasing level of data based on the personal, private and public information that we share or is shared about us.
Kent emphasises how in the digital age, our digital trace contains information that is detrimental to how others see us. In a World Economic Forum report, Identity in a Digital World (2018), it claims:
‘This identity online is not simply a matter of a website login or online avatar - it is the sum total of the growing mass of information about us, our profiles and the history of our activities online. It relates to inferences made about us, based on this mass of information, which becomes new data points’ (1)
The blurring of one’s public and private life online, and the increasing level of information found through one’s digital history, means that it is increasingly difficult to manage how others view you.
Identity is a term or concept that has transformed in its meaning throughout history, a combination of the information which makes a person unique, and the presentation of one’s inner self to others. As a concept in Psychology, a sense of self is relatively new, and according to Roy Baumeister only began to emerge during Medieval society through to the 15th century (2). Until then, human identity was predefined through elements such as social rank, birth order and place of birth. It was only in the early modern period (1500-1800) that a real distinction emerged to separate one’s inner and outer self, following influences such as industrialisation, enlightenment and psychoanalysis (ibid).
In the 1920s, psychological research emerged revealing that the inner self is largely shaped by human interaction, and that groups of people demonstrate behavioural traits qualitatively distinct from isolated individuals (3). Self awareness was later manifested as an important factor in analysing one’s inner self, referring to the comparison between how an individual actually is, and how they would like to be or be viewed (ibid). In the 1970s, psychologists such as Kenneth Gergen (1971), Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1979) put forward research that self concept is derived from a variety of identities, often originating from our social relationships with others (ibid). In this model, identity becomes a multifaceted entity that functions differently according to the situation, particularly to one’s social influences. Social Comparison Theory supports this model, which refers to the comparing of one’s ‘behaviours and opinions with those of others in order to establish the correct or socially approved way of thinking and behaving’ (ibid).
Each of these theories and developments of the inner self strongly resonate the important role of social interaction and perception in the construction of one’s identity. Identity is not just how you view yourself, it is how you present yourself and how others perceive you. Social media not only allows one to craft their online identity, it encourages one to compare themselves with others, the ideal catalyst for behaviours such as self awareness and social comparison.
As stated in the World Economic Forum report, identity extends beyond one’s personal or social identity, and can include information about behaviour, health and emotions. In the next chapter, I will be examining health as a particular strand of identity, by examining the role of social media and online sharing practices in self-tracking communities, and its impact on the construction of the self online.
Biometrics and the practice of sharing
As defined by Btihaj Ajana, biometrics is literally the measurement of life, and ‘refers to the technology of meaning, analysing and processing the digital representations of unique biological data and behavioural traits’ (4). Biometrics is an increasingly important tool in medicine, through its utilisation of the body’s data to increase self-knowledge and the mobilisation of medical data (5). It’s also used in the personal management of health, and is shared with online communities as a representative of one’s lifestyle, contributing towards the construction of one’s digital self.
In the self tracking community, shared data about health practices is publicised, commented on, and compared in relation to each other. There is an element of trust and support between users, as the shared data is carefully constructed in its nature. Users benefit from the easy to manage application of social media, which allows them to create select representations of behaviour and activity. In a study conducted by Kent, several interviews were structured around twelve participants, each of whom use self-tracking devices and apps, and regularly share their biometrics on social media (weekly) (6). In her findings, she reported that all participants ‘acknowledged a sense of satisfaction and pride in self-surveillance and in effectively self-managing their own healthcare’ (ibid). Phrases such as ‘pride’ and ‘self-surveillance’ reflect a high level of self-gratification, positivity and discipline present in self-tracking behaviour.
In the discussion, Kent emphasised the important role of the community gaze in its influence on positivity and self-progress. Participants reported feelings of motivation stemmed from an awareness of being monitored, and the need to achieve certain goals to display to their audience. Ironically, users admitted to posting in-authentic information such as photos of their friend’s meals labelled as their own, reflecting the heavily constructed nature of social media, as well as the pressure to conform to expected behaviours. In analysis of this study, Kent felt that self-tracking communities were committed to the monitoring of their bodies, regardless of any physical improvement. The response from the online community plays such a large role in the increase of self-gratification, that the improvement of health seems to stem from mental benefits over physical.
Speaker Zara Worth, an artist and researcher whose practice addresses the phase of the internet we are currently in, focussed her analysis on the motives behind the act of sharing. Performance emerged as a reoccurring theme both in her language and analysis of biometric sharing practices, emphasising the commitment to presenting information about oneself to an audience.
Worth presented an interesting analogy to the rationale behind sharing practices, highlighting the ritualistic nature of this type of behaviour. She asks in a post-religious era, what meaning do we now seek, and what practices are we performing to fill this gap? Worth suggests that for many it is social media that has filled this gap, giving both meaning and a routine to the display of everyday behaviours. The community gaze becomes the authority which dictates and influences behaviour, and the user becomes the follower. A participant in Kent’s study actually referred to herself as a ‘disciple’, and that the ‘commitment to tracking and sharing becomes a conscious and unconscious desire’ (ibid).
Speaker Feng Zhu, who takes a philosophical approach to analysing the relationship between humans and their technologies, contemplated that in health trends you are making a commitment to self bettering and improvement. There is a moral binary in what you are doing as your actions must follow the goal you created in order to reach an optimum and satisfy the online audience. Zhu approaches Biopolitics from the disciplines of Foucault, who held the opinion that once the state governs the population, the body becomes a territory of the state, and the population are no longer seen as individuals. In the biometric community, the self-tracking technologies become the social conditioning tool, and the individuals become health disciples, committed to the surveillance of their bodies.
This philosophical approach will frame my next chapter, where I will present different theories of embodiment to explore the impact of digital technology on the relationship between the body and mind.
Embodiment is a term that has arisen through a long and complex history of philosophical theory, continuously redefining the relationship between the body, mind and environment. As the originator of embodiment, Plato held the opinion that the soul/mind exists as a separate and more important entity of a person than the body (7). Drawing upon this Cartesian philosophy, Zhu is interested in the mind’s powerful potential to deceive the body. Functions such as perception depend hugely on the mind’s ability to interpret sensory input through subjective experience, and as a result will sometimes ‘trick’ the body. In this context, Zhu expresses how the body is malleable, and questions if the mind is powerful enough to transform the body.
As reported in Kent’s study, the findings would suggest that the online community feedback became more important than the physical activity itself. This would support the idea that the mind is more important than the body, and has the ability to transform and regulate the body’s activity. This also fits under the theories of Foucault’s Biopolitics where ‘the body becomes a situated entity that is influenced and manipulated by surrounding society’ (8).
Worth and Zhu explored these ideas in their analysis of the body’s positioning in digital technology engagement. They reflected how interaction with everyday handheld devices and gaming, causes users to relate physically to technology in a very specific way, immersing users through mental engagement so that they forget the body. This disembodiment and emphasis upon how sensory engagement is aggregated in the mind is reflective of early 1990s cyberwriting. In Deborah Lupton’s analysis of these theories, she reflects how:
‘the body is often referred to as the meat, the dead flesh that constitutes the ‘authentic’ self…the dream of cyber culture is to leave the ‘meat’ behind and to become distilled in a clean, pure, uncontaminated relationship with computer technology’ (9)
This alludes to the idea that digital culture offers new pathways for exploring and developing one’s inner self, and that leaving the body behind is beneficial to its transformation.
Embodied Cognition offers a different approach to this separation or dualism between the body and mind, and draws upon the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body, but that the body influences the mind (10). According to this theory, cognition is determined by our experiences in the physical world, and draws from our biological system to understand how embodiment works.
Carey Jewitt, a professor in learning and technology, and anchor speaker in the discussion, was especially helpful in defining the important role of touch in embodiment and digital technology. Jewitt’s reflections during the discussion emphasised how the physical interaction of digital technology acts as a transformative element on the mind, reflecting some of the core disciplines behind embodied cognition. In her project IN-TOUCH, Jewitt is concerned with the impact of the digital in reshaping touch and touch communication, and in doing so, investigating the social and sensory dimensions of digitally mediated touch.
Jewitt reflected upon ‘Hold Me Now’, a conference-festival at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which explored how the haptic is thought and experienced artistically, philosophically and politically (11). The conference website when accessed on a mobile device refused the affordances of the touchscreen, and required instead that the user moved and engaged their body to enable actions of orientation and scrolling (12). This challenged users to consider their body, returning the physical experience that can sometimes become lost in computer-human interaction.
Jewitt’s research draws away from visual culture and focuses instead on the sensory experience of touch, and the hardware of digital technology itself. She emphasises that we have a cultural relationship with touch, and that technology is being developed to encourage interaction that falls into physical space, transforming our relationship with the environment.
This exploration of the body and its transformation in the digital age has uncovered several characteristics around human behaviour and the self. In the first chapter, I built a brief psychological framework of the inner self, where we learnt the important role of self-awareness and social comparison in the construction of one’s identity.
With a focus on the representation of the body, I discussed the influential effect of social media on self-representation, as well as the construction of one’s behaviour and activity. In health trends, we found that self-tracking communities play a large role in these influences, by acting as a governing authority to the practices of the body. In its character, the digital sphere as a site for the exploration of the body and self, maximises the traits of social comparison and self-awareness which are believed to have a large impact on one’s self representation. This effect could not be reduced by a negative or positive definition, as its complexity and impact is unique to the individual. It does however nudge toward the important role of the mind over the body, as it is often the social construct of oneself that seems to drive one’s actions.
An opposing angle discussed was the theory of embodied cognition, which stresses the important role of the body in driving the mind. It is easy to think of digital technology as a predominately social influence on behaviour, but this would discount the significance of physical sensory interaction. As stressed by Jewitt, developments in technology are moving towards the integration of haptics in their application, redefining our relationship with our devices and environment. This rejects the idea of the mind as a separate entity from the body, and reminds us of the inter-connectivity of our senses and their integral role in perception.
1) World Economic Forum (2018) Identity in a Digital World: A new chapter in the social contract. Available online.
2) Baumeister, R.F (1987) How the Self Became a Problem: A Psychological Review of Historical Research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 52, No. I, (pp163-176)
3) Hogg, M.A, Vaughan, G.M (2014) Social Psychology. Pearson Education Limited
4) Ajana, B (2010) Recombinant Identities: Biometrics and Narrative Bioethics. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry. Volume 7, Issue 2, pp237-258
5) Crouch, H (2018) NHS Digital CEO says healthcare is ‘entering the self-service era’. Digital Health. [Available online]
6) Kent, R (2018) Social Media and Self-Tracking: Representing the ‘Health Self’. In: Ajana, B (ed) Self-Tracking. Palgrave Macmillan. (pp 61-76)
7) Plato (2007) The Republic. Penguin Classics; 3rd edition.
8) Farr, W, Jewitt, C, Price, S (2012) An introduction to embodiment and digital technology research: Interdisciplinary themes and perspectives. National Centre for Research Methods. (unpublished). Available online.
9) Lupton, D (2000) The Embodied Computer/User. In: Bell, D, Kennedy, B. The Cybercultures Reader. Routledge, London.
10) McNerney, S (2011) A brief guide to embodied cognition: why you are not your brain. Scientific American. Available online.
11) Open! (2018) Hold Me Now: Feel and Touch in Unreal World. Available online.
12) IN-TOUCH: Digital Touch Communication (2018) Reflections on ‘Hold me Now: Feel and Touch in an Unreal World’. Available online.