University: U. of Wisconsin-Madison
Description of Work:
We are working on a project studying fertility tracking apps with particular focus on the rhetorical strategies encouraging their use and the discourses inscribed in them. Our current project centers on Glow, an app advertised to women who are trying to get pregnant and those who wish to avoid pregnancy alike. Glow is pitched as bringing Silicon Valley innovation and big data analytics to bear on reproductive science. All users have to do to reap these benefits are log extensive information about their mood, diet, exercise, vaginal discharge, body temperature, and frequency and position of sexual intercourse, among other data.
We perform a critical rhetorical analysis of the Glow app in considering it as a health surveillance technology that is situated at the intersection of online surveillance and the “quantified self” movement. Using Foucauldian articulations of power as a theoretical frame, this project explores the broader discourses that enable and mobilize notions of authenticity, expertise, and moral duty in order to encourage a particular kind of performative consumerism that aligns with neoliberal mandates to know and care for oneself through surveillance and discipline. Specifically, we argue Glow constructs an identity of an empowered, knowledgeable, and knowable self for consumers through three key moves: shifting the medical gaze from the purview of health care professionals to individual consumers, glorifying the use of big data, and resituating pregnancy as not just a woman’s responsibility but as something women can and must have control over. Furthermore, we argue that in its usage, Glow asserts that you can best know yourself–perhaps even only know yourself–through your data, thus encouraging female users to discipline their bodies into potentially maternal bodies.
The Quantified Pregnancy: Big Data and the Imperative of Moral Consumerism
During the 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced his new Precision Medicine Initiative, which promises “a new era of medicine” that will “give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” This announcement comes at a time when wearable or otherwise portable health monitoring devices have exploded in popularity, along with a concomitant rise in the collection and brokerage of the data these devices gather and report. At the center of this Gordian knot of private industry, health care, and government is a moral imperative directing citizen-consumers to buy and use technologies that quantify, measure, and track health and habits.
This imperative has been embraced enthusiastically by members of the “quantified self” movement, in which devotees employ all manner of monitoring devices to discipline bodily movements and functions into conforming to a higher ideal of the self (Johnson, 2014; Swan, 2012, 2013). Using algorithms and other big data analytics, many of the companies selling such devices provide not only information on the “N=1” of the individual user, but also gather data from the aggregate. Such data may then be brokered to third parties such as marketers or retailers (Federal Trade Commission, 2014).
Although the FitBit — a rubber wristband that tracks heart rate, sleep cycles, and exercise — is probably the most prominent of these new technologies enabling and driving this movement, smart phone applications (or “apps”) are increasingly being developed for such kinds of data gathering and tracking. This project proposes examining one such app, Glow, a fertility-tracking app that seeks to improve reproductive medicine through its personalized fertility information and big data analytics.
Glow is the brainchild of Paypal co-founder Max Levchin, who has recently decided to apply “Silicon Valley innovation” to improving health care delivery and lowering its costs (Manjoo, 2013). Glow asks couples who are trying to conceive to track not only basal body temperature and cervical mucous consistency (data frequently used to predict ovulation) but also weight, diet, mood, sexual position during intercourse, and achievement of female orgasm in the hopes of both determining when each individual user is likely to be most fertile and to gather data from enough users to make broader correlations about human reproduction in general. Glow’s creators argue this kind of big data analysis will address questions about reproduction that laboratory science either cannot or will not answer (Manjoo, 2013). Glow users not only buy and use the app, but become incorporated in an entire economy of data brokerage for the purposes of marketing other products to expectant parents who are encouraged to consume for the betterment of their fetuses and children. Thus we situate Glow and similar fertility apps at the site of an intersection of moral consumerism and neoliberal citizenship.
Indeed, seeing pregnancy itself as a moral imperative has larger implications for late capitalist societies in which one’s subject-position is defined by one’s consumerism. Using Foucault’s concept of biopolitics as a theoretical frame, this project explores the broader discourses that enable and mobilize notions of citizenship and moral duty to encourage a particular kind of performative consumerism that aligns with neoliberal mandates in ways that alter the relationships between physicians and patients.
At present, the regulation of these apps is rife with confusion since it is unclear under whose purview they actually fall. Many government agencies are concerned about the collection, sale, and analysis of large sets of consumer data, but this concern is primarily directed at ways to harness these technologies (e.g., Podesta, Pritzker, Moniz, Holdren, & Zients, 2014) or to make their use easier and more prolific (e.g., Federal Communications Commission, 2014). When regulation is discussed, the primary concerns expressed regard financial protection and the safeguarding of privacy (e.g., Federal Trade Commission, 2014; Podesta et al., 2014).
Surprisingly, pregnancy and reproduction are rarely, if ever, mentioned in these reports, a striking omission. Knowing that a customer is pregnant is a valuable piece of information to marketers and retailers, and algorithms constantly are being developed and refined to discern this information ever earlier (Steel, 2013). Indeed, knowledge of a woman’s pregnancy more and more frequently is extending beyond those whom a woman chooses to inform, a clear violation of women’s privacy that is glaringly absent from other privacy discussions. A pregnancy can be a sensitive matter that some women might want to keep private for a variety of reasons, especially during the first trimester when the risk of miscarriage is highest.
In studying Glow and its rhetoric, this research will be guided by two primary research questions. First, how and why can producing such volumes of data on one’s reproductive activities be discussed as a moral imperative by the creators and the enthusiastic users of Glow? Second, what are the broader cultural logics and circulating discourses that make this imperative present and urgent for the adopters of Glow? These questions will strike at the very rhetoric that is more and more frequently deployed in justifying ever more big data surveillance. Richards and King (2013) note that “the utopian rhetoric of big data is frequently overblown, and that a less wild-eyed and more pragmatic discussion of big data would be more helpful” (p. 45). A closer examination into this rhetoric will assist in advancing just such a discussion.
Federal Communications Commission. (2014). In the matter of amendment of the commission’s rules to provide spectrum for the operation of medical body area networks, ET Docket 08-59 (Order on Reconsideration and Second Report and Order). Washington, D.C.
Federal Trade Commission. (2014). Data brokers: a call for transparency and accountability. Washington, D.C.
Johnson, S. (2014). “Maternal devices”, social media and the self-management of pregnancy, mothering and child health. Societies, 4(2), 330–350. doi:10.3390/soc4020330
Manjoo, F. (2013, August 8). Glow vs. stick: A much-hyped new fertility aid reveals the limitations of data-tracking apps. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/08/new_fertility_app_glow_it_wants_to_know_absolutely_everything_about_you.single.html#return1
Podesta, J., Pritzker, P., Moniz, E., Holdren, J., & Zients, J. (2014). Big data: seizing opportunities, preserving values. Executive Office of the President, The White House Washington, Study.
Richards, N. M., & King, J. H. (2013). Three paradoxes of Big Data. Stanford Law Review Online, 66, 41.
Steel, E. (2013, June 12). Financial worth of data comes in at under a penny a piece. Financial Times. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3cb056c6-d343-11e2-b3ff-00144feab7de.html#axzz3KNpNJQ00
Swan, M. (2012). Sensor mania! The internet of things, wearable computing, objective metrics, and the quantified self 2.0. Journal of Sensor and Actuator Networks, 1(3), 217–253. doi:10.3390/jsan1030217
Swan, M. (2013). The quantified self: fundamental disruption in big data science and biological discovery. Big Data, 1(2), 85–99. doi:10.1089/big.2012.0002