Human bodies have always interacted with technologies. However, the nature of the technology has changed over the millennia. In the contemporary digital era, bodies are digitized as never before, both by individuals on their behalf and by other actors and agencies seeking to portray and monitor their bodies. From Facebook status updates and images, Instagram selfies, YouTube videos and tweets to exergames, sophisticated digital medical imaging technologies and the ceaseless generation of data from sensor-based devices and environments, human bodies now emit vast quantities of digital data. A major change in digitized embodiment is the ways in which detailed data are now generated on the geolocation, movements, appearance, behaviours and functions of bodies and the uses to which these data are put as part of the digital data knowledge economy.
The cyborg body has transformed into the digital body, whose data outputs possess commercial, managerial and research as well as personal value and status to a range of actors and agencies beyond the individual.
Researchers contributing to physical cultural studies have drawn attention to how recent digital technologies are employed to monitor and measure moving bodies in diverse ways. They have analysed the representations and practices of embodiment that are portrayed in apps and exergames such as Wii Fit, for example, that bring together exercise and fitness routines with gaming devices. In such games, certain bodily shapes and degrees of fitness are normalized, while others are stigmatized. Stereotypical gendered, lean, vigorous and youthful bodies are frequently reproduced and celebrated in these games. Participants are encouraged to engage in self-care practices directed at attempting to develop these attributes (Francombe, 2010; Millington, 2014a, 2014b). Via such technologies (among a plethora of many other practices and devices), the biopolitics of movement (Newman and Giardina, 2014) are configured. These technologies enact forms of biopedagogies that privilege the active, physically fit and therefore (assumed) productive and self-responsible body.
In this chapter, I extend this previous work by examining the ways in which human bodies interact with and are configured by digital technologies and how these technologies generate new knowledges and practices about bodies. I use infants and young children as a case study to explain these aspects. From before they are even born, children’s bodies are now frequently represented and monitored by digital technologies, including medical imaging and monitoring devices as well as social media sites, surveillance and self-tracking technologies. In my discussion,I draw on literature from sociocultural theorizing of the body, childhood, digitaltechnologies and big data, particularly that by scholars adopting the sociomaterial perspective.The chapter is divided into two main parts. The first presents a general overview of theoreticalapproaches to conceptualizing the interactions between bodies and technologies, while thesecond part is devoted to outlining the ways in which infants’ and young children’s (moving)bodies are digitized.
Theorizing digital bodies Scholars in the sociology of the body and technocultures developed an interest in the entanglements of human bodies with computerized technologies following the advent of personal computing in the mid-1980s. The terms ‘cyborg’ and ‘cyberspace’ (among many other ‘cyber’neologisms) were adopted to discuss the ways in which computer users interacted with their PC sand with each other online. Donna Haraway’s work on the political implications of the cyborgas a heterogeneous, ambiguous and hybrid entity has been particularly important in drawingattention to the fluidities of embodiment and selfhood (Haraway, 1991, 1997). Many other socialresearchers into the 1990s and early 2000s seized on the concept of the cyborg to investigate theforms of embodiment that are generated or mediated by digital technologies across a range ofcontexts: including, for example, computer users, IVF embryos, menopausal women, athletes andolder people (Lupton, 1995; Buse, 2010; Franklin, 2006; Rayvon, 2012; Leng, 1996).
Cyber terminology is not as often employed in discussions of the social, cultural and politicaldimensions of computer technology use now that academic terminology has moved moreto a focus on the ‘digital’ (Lupton, 2015b). However the important work of Haraway and otherswriting on cyborg bodies developed an argument that acknowledges the complexity of relationshipsbetween human and nonhuman actors and calls into question ideas about the fixednature of identity and embodiment (Lupton, 2015c). Such a perspective is now often referredto as ‘sociomaterialism’. It recognizes that subject and object co-configure each other as part ofa relationship. Objects are viewed as participating in specific sets of relations, including thosewith other artefacts as well as with people (Latour, 2005; Law, 2008; Fenwick and Landri, 2012).The term ‘assemblage’ is often used to capture these entanglements. Assemblages of humanflesh and nonhuman actors are constantly configured and reconfigured. They facilitate modesof knowing and living the body.People domesticate technologies by bringing them into their everyday worlds, meldingthem to their bodies/selves and bestowing these objects with biographically-specific meanings.They become ‘territories of the self ’, marked by individual use, and therefore redolent ofpersonal histories (Nippert-Eng, 1996). This concept of territories of the self acknowledgesthat bodies and selves are not contained to the fleshly envelope of the individual body, butextend beyond this into space and connect and interconnect with other bodies and objects.
These processes are inevitably relational because they involve embodied interactions and affectiveresponses (Lupton, 2015b, 2016; Labanyi, 2010). As Merleau-Ponty (1968) argues, ourembodiment is always inevitably interrelational or intercorporeal. We experience the world asfleshly bodies, via the sensations and emotions configured through and by our bodies as theyrelate to other bodies and material objects and spaces. We touch these others, and they touchus. Our bodies are distributed throughout the spaces we inhabit, just as these spaces and theothers within them inhabit. Embodiment, then, is primarily a relational assemblage. Theconcept of ‘the person’ (including the person’s body) becomes distributed between the interactionsof heterogeneous elements (Lee, 2008).
In the digital age, practices of embodiment are increasingly becoming enacted via digital technologies. We now no longer refer to the separate environment of ‘cyberspace’ as our everyday worlds have become so thoroughly digitized. Where once the figure of the cyborg was a science-fiction creation of superhuman powers (Lupton, 1995), our bodies now engage routinely with digital technologies to the extent that it is taken-for-granted. It is now frequently argued that online and offline selves cannot be distinguished from each other any longer, given the pervasiveness and ubiquity of online participation. Instead categories of flesh, identity and technology are porous and intermeshed (Elwell, 2014; Hayles, 2012). Our bodies are digital data assemblages (Lupton, 2015c).
Digital social theorists have drawn attention to the increasingly sensor-saturated physical environments in which people move, which add to the pre-existing technologies for visually observing and documenting human movements in public spaces, such as CCTV cameras (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Kitchin, 2014; Lyon and Bauman, 2013). Kitchin and Dodge (2011) use the term ‘code/space’ to describe the intersections of software coding with the spatial configurations of humans and nonhumans. They underline the power of code to shape, manage, monitor and discipline the movements of bodies in space and place, including both public and private domains. Digital representations of bodies and digital data on many aspects of embodiment are generated from the various sites, devices and spaces which with individuals interact daily. These include the transactional data produced via routine encounters with surveillance cameras in public spaces, sensors or online websites, platforms and search engines edia sites or collect on themselves using self-tracking devices. These technologies create and recreate certain types of digital data assemblages which can then be scrutinized, monitored and used for various purposes, including intervention.
The collection and analysis of digitized information about people’s behaviours are nowbecoming increasingly advocated and implemented in many social contexts and institutions:the workplace, education, medicine and public health, insurance, government, marketing,advertising and commerce, the military, citizen science and urban planning and management.The growing commodification and commercial value of digital datasets and their use in thesedomains are blurring the boundaries between small and big data, the private and the public.People are now encouraged, obliged or coerced into using digital devices for monitoringaspects of their lives to produce personal data that are employed not only for private and voluntarypurposes but also for the purposes of others. These data have begun to be appropriated bya range of actors and agencies, including commercial, managerial, research and governmental(Lupton, 2016).
Critical data scholars have drawn attention to the valorization of quantifiable information in the digital data economy and the algorithmic processing of this information as part of new forms of soft power relations and the production of inequalities (Lupton, 2015b; Kitchin, 2014; Cheney-Lippold, 2011). Digital data can have tangible material effects on people’s actions, including the ways in which their bodies are conceptualized, managed and disciplined by themselves and others. The calculations and predictions that are generated by software algorithms are beginning to shape people’s life chances and opportunities: their access to insurance, health care, credit and employment and their exclusion from spaces and places, as in the identification of potential criminals and terrorists (Crawford and Schultz, 2014).