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Turning Babies Into Data--And How to Stop It


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Guest Lecture for Aarhus summer school, 7 August 2017. From ultrasound photos and pregnancy apps to home-delivered Bluetooth foetal heartrate monitors connected to smartphones, monitoring and surveillance are increasingly prevalent throughout pregnancy and the early life of infants (indeed, often beginning long before conception in cases where medical assistance is required). Recording, digitally encoding, sharing and comparing in-utero activities with established norms can be a source of reassurance, or great anxiety. These activities are increasingly part of domestic settings, not just medical spaces, situating monitoring as a normal part of everyday, intimate life. This can be captured in the notion of intimate surveillance which reveals an inherent contradiction: the intimacy of parents and loved ones situates these actions as driven by the very best of intentions, but surveillance necessarily entails the viewing, recording, encoding, analysing (and increasingly, informatic sharing) of the unborn and infants’ activities and lives in granular detail. Moreover, normalised activities during pregnancy and infancy situate surveillance as directly linked with parenting and caring. This lecture explores these emerging cultural norms, the relationship with broader notions of surveillance, and the challenges of generating, sharing and respecting significant amounts of data about the unborn and infants in contexts where discussions of privacy and boundaries are urgently needed.

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Turning Babies Into Data--And How to Stop It

  1. 1. A/Prof Tama Leaver, Internet Studies Turning Babies Into Data—And How to Stop It! (Guest Lecture) 7.8.2017@tamaleaver
  2. 2. Overview. 1. Shifting Contexts of Identity and Surveillance Online 2. Pregnancy & Instagram Ultrasounds 3. Parental Monitoring: Infant Wearables 4. Parental Mediation: Influencers & (Micro-)Microcelebrities Image:
  3. 3. I. Shifting Contexts of Identity and Surveillance Online
  4. 4. Shifting Identity Online  Push toward real-name and persistent identities (van Dijck, 2013b; van Zoonen, 2013)  Identity as persistent, replicable and searchable (boyd, 2010)  Challenges of context collapse & context collision (Nissenbaum, 2009; Marwick & boyd, 2011; Davis & Jurgenson, 2014)
  5. 5. The Shift to Real Names (nymwars) … Single database point. All activity connected …
  6. 6. Changing Surveillance Landscape  Datafication: all social activity is being tracked and digitized  "dataveillance—the monitoring of citizens on the basis of their online data—[which] differs from surveillance on at least one important account: whereas surveillance presumes monitoring for specific purposes, dataveillance entails the continuous tracking of (meta)data for unstated preset purposes" (van Dijck, 2014, p. 205).
  7. 7. Lateral / Peer Surveillance “we are becoming habituated to a culture in which we are all expected to monitor one another—to deploy surveillance tactics facilitated at least in part by interactive media technologies —in order to protect ourselves and our loved ones and to maximise our chances for social and economic success” (Andrejevic, 2007, p. 239).
  8. 8. The Centrality of Affect (or Affective Turn)  Affective publics (Papacharissi, 2014)  “communication in a post-referential era” (Andrejevic, 2013, p. 139)  “communicative capitalism” (Dean, 2010, pp. 3–4)
  9. 9. Intimate Surveillance “the purposeful and routinely well-intentioned surveillance of young people by parents, guardians, friends, and so forth. The surveyed have little or no agency to resist. On one level, intimate surveillance points to the limits of most surveillance models, in that they are incomplete in trying to address subjects who have no agency or awareness of the means of resistance (for obvious reasons).” (Leaver 2015a, p. 153)
  10. 10. Parents: Framing Online Identities?
  11. 11. II. Pregnancy & Instagram Ultrasounds
  12. 12. NB: Pregnancy Apps & Surveillance  “dominant feature of pregnancy-related apps is the representation of the foetus as already a communicative person in its own right” (Lupton and Thomas, 2015)  Ultrasound image-sharing on Instagram and elsewhere widespread, disclosing personal info (Leaver, 2015a)  “‘device-ification’ of mothering” (Johnson, 2014)  the “co-construction of prenatal life” (Seko & Tiidenberg, 2016, p. 57)
  13. 13. “ultrasound” on Instagram, March-May 2014. Table 1. #ultrasound tagged media on Instagram, 2014 Images Videos Overall Media March 3468 151 3619 April 3847 128 3975 May 3575 151 3726 3-Month Totals: 10890 430 11320 Leaver, T., & Highfield, T. (2016). Visualising the ends of identity: pre-birth and post-death on Instagram. Information, Communication & Society, 1–16.
  14. 14. Table 2. #ultrasound tagged images on Instagram, 10-11 March 2014 Total number of Instagram media items 295 Items deleted or made private within a fortnight 19 Sonograms 221 Sonogram without personally identifiable metadata 145 (66% of sonograms) Sonograms with personally identifiable metadata 76 (34% of sonograms) Collages / Professional Photos 45 Social experience of sonogram 22 Selfie 14 Historical sonogram 4 Sonogram humour 4 Other medical ultrasound (not foetal sonogram) 22 Advertising 4 Irrelevant 7
  15. 15. Ultrasounds with personally identifiable text in the photo  76 photos (34% of the set) included personally identifiable information in the photo (usually generated by the ultrasound equipment)  Typically includes mother’s full name, mother’s DOB, medical facility, estimated gestation period to date, date of the scan, etc.
  16. 16. III. Parental Monitoring: Infant Wearables
  17. 17. Google Smart Crib Patent (Awarded 2016)
  18. 18. “Internet of Toys” (Holloway and Green, 2016)
  19. 19. Owlet (Early version)
  20. 20. Owlet
  21. 21. Owlet Product Vision
  22. 22. Owlet = Big Data “The thing that’s most interesting is we’re collecting the largest data set about infant health and sleep and wellness and safety that’s ever been collected.”
  23. 23. Owlet = Tech Startup Company  $US9 million dollars in startup funding (TechCrunch, 2015)  Best Startup Award at CES 2016  Two products: • The Owlet Wearable device itself. • The collated big data collected from all infants wearing Owlet  The big profit expectations come from the BIG DATA sets and whatever insight these can offer.
  24. 24. Review of Infant Wearables “medical professionals and consumers need to be aware that such devices have no proved use in safeguarding infants or detecting health problems, and they certainly have no role in preventing SIDS.” (King 2014, p. 2)
  25. 25. Owlet Terms of Use This Application, the Services and our Monitor are not medical devices and are not intended to replace, modify or supplement any prescribed medical device. Further, this Application, the Services and Monitor are not for high risk infants and are not intended to be a substitute for obtaining medical advice and/or treatment from a physician or other health care practitioner. (Owlet Baby Care, 2016b).
  26. 26. Owlet Features
  27. 27.  “sensor society” (Andrejevic and Burdon, 2015)  “self-tracked data are used as a medium to generate stories for and about the body/self. But equally, the digital devices and dataflows themselves provide their own unique forms of authorship. In this way, the data-subject [or their parents] translates the data just as the data apps and outputs translate the actions of the self-tracker.” (Smith and Vonthethoff 2016)  Design displaces other narratives (Rettberg, 2014)
  28. 28. Mimo Smart Baby Breathing and Activity Monitor
  29. 29. Integrated “Smart Nursery”
  30. 30.  infant wearables, of which the Owlet is for now the most well-known, are normalising parental practices of monitoring and surveillance.  Owlet encourages an intimate surveillance in which well- intentioned parents are recording their infant’s biometric data  Owlet aggregates and monetizes this as a valuable big data resource.  Owlet and related devices directly associate with good parenting with surveillance which is an association which is likely to persist as a child grows.
  31. 31. IV. Parental Mediation: Influencers
  32. 32. Parental Influencers & (Micro-)micro-celebrities  influencers (Abidin, 2015a, 2016).  Micro-celebrity is the result of purposeful self-presentation strategies online which often utilise the same techniques as marketing and branding campaigns, but at a smaller and more seemingly more intimate or personal level as a means to increase their online popularity and ongoing audience (Marwick, 2013; Senft, 2013).
  33. 33.
  34. 34. Positively Oakes
  35. 35.  Influencers / micro-celebrities act as “more authentic” online role models for parents  Are affective amplifiers, heightening the emotional desirability of certain products/practices (eg Owlet)  Micro-microcelebrities normalize infants (being shared) online but often are managed/assisted by agents, social media managers (something audiences do not have)
  36. 36. Overall Conclusions  Pregnancy and infancy are becoming monitored and datafied at an unprecedented scale, exemplified in the surveillance and aggregation of big data via infant wearables  Parental micro-celebrity/influencer parents as affective amplifiers, leading the normalisation of practices, devices and norms about online sharing on infancy  Intimate surveillance from pregnancy onward is being normalised as a form of parental care and pathologising unplugged parenting as irresponsible  (Urgent) Future Work: (1) map the extent and drivers of intimate surveillance; (2) surface, document and share resistant practices; and (3) better inform parents about the ramifications of the choices they are making for their infants today.
  37. 37. References  Abidin, C. (2015a). Communicative Intimacies: Influencers and Perceived Interconnectedness.❤ Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, (8).  Abidin, C. (2015b). Micro-microcelebrity: Branding Babies on the Internet. M/C Journal, 18(5). Retrieved from  Abidin, C. (2016). Visibility labour: Engaging with Influencers’ fashion brands and #OOTD advertorial campaigns on Instagram. Media International Australia, 1329878X16665177.  Andrejevic, M. (2007). iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era. Lawrence, Kan.: Univ Press of Kansas.  Andrejevic, M. (2013). Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know (1 edition). New York: Routledge.  Andrejevic, M., & Burdon, M. (2015). Defining the Sensor Society. Television & New Media, 16(1), 19–36.  boyd, danah. (2014). It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.  Davis, J. L., & Jurgenson, N. (2014). Context collapse: theorizing context collusions and collisions. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 476–485.  Dean, J. (2010). Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity.  Holloway, D., & Green, L. (2016). The Internet of Toys. Presented at the ANZCA: Creating space in the Fifth Estate, Newcastle, Australia.  Johnson, S. A. (2014). “Maternal Devices”, Social Media and the Self-Management of Pregnancy, Mothering and Child Health. Societies, 4(2), 330–350.  King, D. (2014). Marketing wearable home baby monitors: real peace of mind? BMJ, 349, g6639.  Leaver, T. (2015a). Born Digital? Presence, Privacy, and Intimate Surveillance. In Hartley, John & W. Qu (Eds.), Re-Orientation: Translingual Transcultural Transmedia. Studies in narrative, language, identity, and knowledge (pp. 149–160). Shanghai: Fudan University Press.  Leaver, T., & Highfield, T. (2016). Visualising the ends of identity: pre-birth and post-death on Instagram. Information, Communication & Society, 1–16.  Lupton, D., & Thomas, G. M. (2015). Playing Pregnancy: The Ludification and Gamification of Expectant Motherhood in Smartphone Apps. M/C Journal, 18(5). Retrieved from  Martino, E. A. (2016, June 29). Peace Of Mind With Owlet Baby Care. Retrieved September 8, 2016, from  Marwick, A. E. (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Marwick, A. E., & boyd, danah. (2011). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13(1), 114–133.  Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford Law Books.  Oakes, J. (2015, October 22). The Secret to Better Sleep Moms: Owlet Baby Monitor. Retrieved from  Owlet Baby Care. (2015). More Than Just A Gadget- The Owlet Vision. Retrieved from  Owlet Baby Care. (2016). Terms and Conditions. Retrieved from  Papacharissi, Z. (2014). Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.  Rettberg, J. W. (2014). Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.  Seko, Y., & Tiidenberg, K. (2016). Birth through the Digital Womb: Visualizing Prenatal Life Online. In Paul G. Nixon, Rajash Rawal, & Andreas Funk (Eds.), Digital Media Usage Across the Lifecourse (pp. 50–66). London & New York: Routledge.  Senft, T. M. (2013). Microcelebrity and the Branded Self. In J. Hartley, J. Burgess, & A. Bruns (Eds.), A companion to new media dynamics (pp. 346–354). Chicester: Wiley. Retrieved from  Smith, G. J. D., & Vonthethoff, B. (2016). Health by numbers? Exploring the practice and experience of datafied health. Health Sociology Review, 0(0), 1–16.  TechCrunch. (2015, August 18). Owlet Baby Care. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from  van Dijck, J. (2013b). “You have one identity”: performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, Culture & Society, 35(2), 199–215.  van Dijck, J. (2014). Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance & Society, 12(2), 197–208.  van Zoonen, L. (2013). From identity to identification: fixating the fragmented self. Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), 44–51.  Veron, M. (2016, June 30). Crib with Embedded Smart Sensors. Retrieved from
  38. 38. Questions or Comments? Or find me later … @tamaleaver