I gave this keynote address at the “Communicative Figurations” conference at the University of Bremen in December 2016.
Today smartphones and wearable devices help people to self-track: hours slept, steps taken, calories consumed, medications administered. Over one hundred million wearable sensors were shipped globally last year to help people gather data about their lives. This keynote examines the social lives of personal data and how reconsidering this data as a media product helps scholars theorize a significant social change. Data about the self is social in how it is recorded, analyzed, and reflected upon. Communities form around digital self-tracking data, advocates argue how the data should and could be used to, and industries create new ways to buy, sell, and share this data. Yet, scholarly literature and practical knowledge alike focus on the personal aspects of self-tracking data, at the risk of limiting the possible interventions and protections of the data and the people from whose bodies and lived experienced the data were produced. To understand the social lives of data, I look at the practices of serious self-tracking enthusiasts, the design of commercial self-tracking technology, and how self-tracking is being used to fill serious gaps in the healthcare system. Can mediatization approaches help explain self-tracking practices, and in turn can these practices extend communication theory? Today no one can lead an entirely untracked life. But can this data be used in a way that empowers and educates the people who generate it? The answer depends on the social design of self-tracking data.
Here is a video of my presentation at the New York Review of Books conference “Workplace Systems: The Panopticon Unleashed?”
In 2016, Microsoft launched Tay, an experimental artificial intelligence chat bot. Learning from interactions with Twitter users, Tay was shut down after one day because of its obscene and inflammatory tweets. This article uses the case of Tay to re-examine theories of agency. How did users view the personality and actions of an artificial intelligence chat bot when interacting with Tay on Twitter? Using phenomenological research methods and pragmatic approaches to agency, we look at what people said about Tay to study how they imagine and interact with emerging technologies and to show the limitations of our current theories of agency for describing communication in these settings. We show how different qualities of agency, different expectations for technologies, and different capacities for affordance emerge in the interactions between people and artificial intelligence. We argue that a perspective of “symbiotic agency”— informed by the imagined affordances of emerging technology—is required to really understand the collapse of Tay.
Neff, Gina, and Peter Nagy. “Talking to Bots: Symbiotic Agency and the Case of Tay.” Edited by Samuel Woolley and Philip N. Howard. International Journal of Communication 10, no. Special Issue (2016): 20.