Natasch Schüll. Lifestyle algorithms: wearable technology as self-regulation

Blumer Room - 402 Barrows Hall

Lifestyle algorithms: wearable technology as self-regulation

Wearable technology – comprising devices whose embedded sensors and analytic algorithms can track, analyze and guide wearers’ actions – has increasingly captured the attention of venture capitalists, technology startups, established electronics companies, and consumers. An ever-expanding array of gadgets 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 prompt users to down-regulate problematically excessive behavior—overeating, oversitting, overspending, over-engaging in social media. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted among self-trackers and device engineers, this talk explores the vision of technologically assisted self-regulation that drives the design and use of wearable tracking products. Wearables are marketed as digital thermostats whose continuous tracking capacities and behavioral algorithms can help users navigate the confounding, sometimes toxic landscape of everyday choice making and bring their daily micro-rhythms (steps, sips, bites, and breaths) into alignment with healthy ideals. By offering people a way to simultaneously embrace and outsource the task of lifestyle management, I argue, these algorithmically driven products at once exemplify and short-circuit cultural ideals for individual responsibility and self governance.

Natasha Dow Schüll is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in the department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is the author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (2012), an ethnographic exploration of the relationship between technology design and the experience of addiction. Her current book project, Keeping Track: Personal Informatics, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life (forthcoming), concerns the rise of digital self-tracking technologies and the new modes of introspection and self-governance they engender. Her research has been featured in such national media venues as 60 Minutes, The New York TimesThe EconomistThe Financial Times, and The Atlantic.