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Review of Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life

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Title: Quantified

Editor: Dawn Nafus

Publisher: MIT Press

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-262-52875-7

Length: 280

Price: $27.00

Rating: 92%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Fitness trackers, such as the Nike+ FuelBand, FitBit, and (in some modes) the Apple Watch have grown in popularity over the past several years. Knowledge of one’s activity levels and physical state, even if measured somewhat inaccurately by contemporary sensors, empowers users by providing insights into one’s relative health and activity levels. Other sensors, including implanted devices such as pacemakers, record data more accurately at the cost of greater intrusion upon the self. In Quantified: Biosensing Technologies in Everyday Life, Dawn Nafus, a Senior Research Scientist at Intel Labs, leads an investigation into the anthropoligical implications of new technologies and applications.

Organization and Coverage

Quantified is a collection of papers from the Biosensors in Everyday Life project, a multi-year effort with representatives from several institutions that examined how biosensing technologies, using either”wet” sensors (e.g., saliva, blood, or another bodily fluid) or “dry” sensors (e.g., heart rate, temperature, or blood pressure), impacts individuals and society as a whole.Nafus divided Quantifiedinto three sections: Biosensing and Representation, Institutional Arrangements, and Seeing Like a Builder. The first section, Biosensing and Representation, contains four chapters that examine the Quantified Self (QS) movement from an academic perspective. The first three pieces are, as Nafus admits, written by academics using academic language. I was happy to discover those pieces are accessible to the general reader, which isn’t always the case with articles or dissertations written by specialists for specialists. For non-academics like myself, the first three chapters provide a useful glimpse at how professional scholars approach biosensing as both practice and artifact. The fourth piece, by Wired contributing editor and QS movement leader Gary Wolf, provides a bit of push-back against the strictly academic approach to biosensing.

The Institutional Arrangements section examines QS in terms of regulation, privacy, and autonomy. Images of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon and assumed observation as presented in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish or Orwell’s 1984 immediately come to mind, but as with every new technology access to information is regulated by differing privacy regimes at the regional, national, and supranational level.

The final section, Seeing Like a Builder, approaches biosensing from the perspective of mechanical engineering, device design, and data management. The first chapter is an edited conversation between Nafus, Deborah Estrin of Cornell Tech in New York City, and Anna de Paula Hanika of Open mHealth about the role of open data in the biosensing movement. Subsequent chapters investigate environmental monitoring, data available through the City of London’s bike rental program, and personal genomics.

Topics of Interest

I’ve written a fair amount about privacy issues and public policy, so I naturally gravitated toward the essays in the Institutional Arrangements section. In the Biosensing in Context chapter, Nissenbaum and Patterson apply the framework of Contextual Integrity to data captured by biosensors. As the name implies, Contextual Integrity addresses the appropriate sharing of information given its context, rather than a coarser set of norms established by law or policy. For individuals taking advantage of QS technologies, they might want to share information with other members of the movement to gain insights from their combined knowledge (called the “n of a billion 1’s” approach elsewhere in the collection). Marking appropriate sharing and usage depends on accurate metadata, which is discussed in Estrin and de Paula Hanika’s exploration of the Open mHealth data framework from the Seeing Like a Builder section.

In Disruption and the Political Economy of Biosensor Data, Fiore-Garland and Neff address the narrative that new technologies favor democracy and democratization. Specifically, they challenge the notion that disruptive change is, by definition, good. As they note:

In their most extreme form, disruption discourses use the concepts of democracy and democratization as ways to describe technological change, and in doing so ascribe social power to technological change in a teleological, deterministic way: if we say a technology disrupts power by bringing democratic access to data or power, then the technology will be democratic.

As rhetorical constructs, “disruption” and “democratization” invoke ideas of personal freedom and autonomy, implicitly denying traditional authorities control over one’s data. As with most business models based on platforms that provide the medium through which data is shared (e.g., Facebook), this argument is inherently self-serving. In the United States, private companies face few barriers to collecting and analyzing individual data, and practically none at all if the data has been shared openly and intentionally. While the interaction of health privacy laws and QS data sharing has yet to be tested, existing precedent argues strongly in favor of an interpretation favorable to companies that want to analyze the data for private gain.

I also enjoyed Marc Böhlen’s chapter Field Notes in Contamination Studies, which chronicled his team’s effort to track water quality in Indonesia. Böhlen’s team had to wrestle with the cultural implications of their work and account for both the expectations of the Indonesian citizens affected by their monitoring as well as the initial suspicions of the Indonesian government. I hadn’t encountered a narrative of this type before, so I appreciated learning more about his team’s work.

Conclusion

Quantified is an excellent first multidisciplinary study of the Quantified Self movement. The field is certain to evolve quickly, but the pieces in this book provide a strong base on which to perform future analysis.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

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