Cerebrally sincere? Why the humanities need to address dataism.


Katie Warfield posted a link to this fascinating study of what people think they look like, or wish they look like or to be more accurate, which of a series of photoshopped versions of a photograph of their face they have the most positive response to, as measured through their brainwaves. The image on the left is one of the original portraits, and on the right we see the manipulated version of the portrait that the subject felt the most positive about: their “cerebrally sincere self-image” according to the voice-over in the beautiful video created by photographer Scott Chasserot, who led the project.

Let’s stay with that term for a moment. “Cerebrally sincere.” It carries with it an idea that there is a deeper truth inside of us that we are not consciously aware of, but that technology can reveal. This is becoming an increasingly common idea, even ideology, in contemporary culture. Think of the British Airways Happiness Blanket, where customers flying in first class were given blankets that measured their brainwaves and lit up red or blue LEDs on the blanket to show flight attendants (and viewers of the commercial) whether they were happy or nervous. Or look at the work of the Dutch team of researchers who developed a tool to automatically log unconscious emotions by analysing physiological data. We need technology to measure our unconscious emotions, the researchers argue, because: “To offer capabilities that are superior to diaries, lifelogging applications should try to capture the complete experiences of people including data from both their external and internal worlds” (Ivonin et al., 2012).


At TEDxBergen last Saturday I gave a talk called “What Can’t We Measure in a Quantified World?” (a shortened version of chapter five of my new book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, which you can download for free from Amazon or the publisher) where I used José van Dijck’s very useful term dataism, from an article she published this spring in Surveillance Society

I think dataism describes something very important that we need to think carefully about as we develop technologies that are more and more able to gather vast quantities of data and to analyse that data. Today we are also seeing a shift in what kinds of data we collect. Data isn’t just objective information any more. It’s interpretations of our emotions, translated into numbers and graphs and rendered more reliable – more cerebrally sincere – than our own thoughts.


Others have written about dataism without using the word. Johanna Drucker proposed in 2011 that we call data capta rather than data, which would emphasise a constructivist approach: capta is taken from reality, while data is conceived as given, objective. In an article published last year, Annette Markham notes how the meaning of the term data ‘”gradually shifted from a description of that which precedes argument to that which is pre-analytical and pre-semantic. Put differently, data is beyond argument. It always exists, no matter how it might be interpreted. Data has an incontrovertible ‘itness.'” In a study of lifeloggers published this year, Minna Ruckenstein noted that “Significantly, data visualizations were interpreted by research participants as more ‘factual’ or ‘credible’ insights into their daily lives than their subjective experiences. This intertwines with the deeply-rooted cultural notion that ‘seeing’ makes knowledge reliable and trustworthy.”

Back in 1973, Susan Sontag noted something similar of photography. She wrote, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (On Photography, page 4). I think the ease of filtering and photoshopping photographs today makes us far less susceptible to this delusion than we were in the 1970s, before we had smartphones with cameras and image editing software in our pockets. But our general literacy about data is at about the same stage as our photography literacy was in the 1970s. Most of us have seen data visualisations in newspapers or elsewhere. Some of us have activity trackers or lifelogging apps, and can view representations of our personal data according to preset templates over which we have very little control. Very few of us know how to actually gather, download and analyse or visualise data ourselves. And not many of us have expertise in any of the methods required to really analyse data well: we don’t know much about statistics or about reliability and uncertainty. And the visualisations and the software and the gadgets generally hide the uncertainties of data from us. They present our data to us as “miniatures of reality,” as The Truth.


I think the word dataism is one that might actually make sense to the general public. Because despite humanities scholars and digital humanists debating the shortcomings of big data is useful, this is a topic that is increasingly important for the public, for everyone. If a computer’s analysis of my unconscious emotions or “cerebrally sincere” ideal self-image is going to be seen as more genuine than my own report of my feelings and ideas, what does that do to me? To us? To the way we see each other? Is this the true post-human?

This is a topic that the humanities and the digital humanities in particular needs to address. We need to discuss what data is and what it represents academically and carefully as scholars, and we also need to talk with the general public about what data can and can’t do.

Dataism is a societal challenge that cannot be understood without the humanities. Computers are wonderful tools for measuring and counting anything and everything. But we need to think about what measurements can tell us.

08. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 2 comments

New book out now: Seeing Ourselves Through Technology

HOORAY! My new book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves was published today by Palgrave!!! The book is open access (CC-BY) so you can download it right now for free, either from Palgrave Connect, which has it available in PDF or epub format, or from bookshops like the Amazons, where the Kindle version costs $0 or £0, or from various other places. You can even convert it to another format, make an audiobook version of it, or remix it so long as you attribute me as the author.

In Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, I analyse three intertwined modes of online self-representation: visual, written and quantitative. I explores topics like the meaning of Instagram filters, smartphone apps that write your diary for you, and the ways in which governments and commercial entities create their own representations of us from the digital traces we leave behind as we go through our lives.

I received some very nice endorsements from scholars I highly respect:

“Rettberg fills an important gap in the existing literature with insightful analysis of a wide variety of very recent digital practices. Her writing presents an appealing voice of academic authority that is inflected with a personal experience strongly grounded in an ethos of embodied and situated knowledge. Rettberg explains what it means to be a participant observer who tracks her own movements, emotions, and interactions with ubiquitous technologies and many other means of self-surveillance. This is a timely and compact scholarly monograph that provides an extended critical interpretation of a contemporary topic. As an important feminist new media theorist, Rettberg is worth listening to.” – Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego, USA

“Jill Walker Rettberg challenges us to take seriously selfies and other forms of digital self-expression and understand them in the broader context of culture and power. In so doing, she connects important ideas and theories about aesthetics, privacy, art and data to explore and explain contemporary data-fication of the body and identity. I will never look at a selfie the same way again.” – Steve Jones, University of Illinois, USA

“Rettberg’s incisive examination of contemporary tools and habits of self-documentation – blogs and Facebook updates, Fitbits and selfies – reveals the ways those practices relate to centuries-old patterns like autobiography and self-portraits. She also demonstrates that contemporary distaste for self-documentation is often motivated by a desire to discipline or silence the (non-elite) practitioners, a habit targeted with special ferocity at young women. Seeing Ourselves… is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the history and patterns of self-documentation.” – Clay Shirky, New York University, USA

And of course, I would love to hear what you think!

Cover image of Jill Walker Rettberg's book "Seeing Ourselves Through Technology"

The cover of my new book

03. October 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Tags: , , | 1 comment

Come and join our online selfie course

Over the last few months I’ve been collaborating with a bunch of wonderful scholars in the Selfie Research Network and one of the first outcomes of our work is an online course on selfies. We’re already in week three, which is my and Liz Losh‘s topic, biometrics and how machines read our faces and our selfies. Go on, read our introductory blog post for the week, do some assignments, post images to the Flickr group or steal our assignments and readings and use them in your own teaching! The full course has a six week syllabus, where each week includes image assignments, where students actually learn to think visually, as well as readings, discussion questions and a prompt for a reflective essay.

Several of my collaborators are following the whole or parts of the course in their traditional classrooms with students in courses they’re already running. I’m not teaching a course where that would work right now, but I did use Alice Marwick’s celebrity selfie assignment from week two with my students, as well as a version of Theresa Senft’s identity selfie assignment as an icebreaker on the first day of class. The course is very much intended for other teachers to take and use as they want in their own classes. And of course we’d love to hear how other teachers used it!

We also hope that anyone who is interested will feel welcome to participate in the class – whether you’re a student, a scholar, a teacher or just interested in selfies. We don’t actually have any funding for this and we’re all really busy teaching our own classes, so the online part of the class isn’t as well curated and tended and marketed and so on as would be ideal, but it’s fun testing it out and maybe we can do something more formal in future. If you do join in and follow parts of the course we’d be quite excited!!

This online course is also part of a pre-conference workshop we’re organizing at the Association of Internet Researchers conference, IR15, in Daegu in Korea on October.

25. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who sees our health data?


One of the topics in my upcoming book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, is activity trackers and health information, which I consider both as a form of quantitative self-representation and as a way in which our data – or more accurately, our digital traces – are gathered into new profiles that can be used by others, with or without our consent.

If I could have added images to my book (I was warned not to due to CC licensing requirements), I might have added some of these.



(By Kathi Inman Berens)


I’m getting the corrected proofs back to the publisher today, and the book should be out in a few weeks. You can read a short description and the table of contents in this post from a few days ago.


23. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

My new book about selfies, blogs and wearables is almost here!

Cover image of Jill Walker Rettberg's book "Seeing Ourselves Through Technology"

Look! The book I was working on all spring has a cover, I’ve got till Tuesday to go through the proofs, and it will be published by Palgrave in less than a month! You can preorder it at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com right now, or wait a few weeks until the open access digital version is available.

I am really excited about this book. It’s about self-representations in digital media, which is a topic I’ve been thinking about and writing about for several years. Of course blogs are part of this, but in this book I wanted to understand digital self-representation in a much broader manner, and so I look at three modes of self-representation that each has a long history, but that are often intertwined in today’s digital culture:

  1. Written self-representations like blogs, tweets and a lot of what happens on platforms like Facebook and Tumblr.
  2. Visual self-representations like selfies, profile pictures on Facebook and Instagram feeds.
  3. Quantitative self-representations generated by activity trackers, calorie trackers, productivity trackers, to do lists and so on.

Each chapter has an abstract, as the chapters will be available for individual download as well as all together as a book. Here’s the proof of the abstract of the first chapter:

In working with this material I’ve become particularly fascinated with the ways in which machines are increasingly writing our diaries for us, whether through automated cameras like the Narrative Clip, through the wearable devices that allow the quantified self movement to generate visualizations and analyses that help them improve their lives, or by the automated data gathering performed by apps like Swarm, Moves or OptimizeMe, web services like Facebook or Google or our phone service providers and marketers.  The book thus moves from looking at digital self-representations in general to considering the relationships between people and machines, and lives and data in a much broader manner.

Here is the table of contents:

Rettberg-Seeing_Ourselves-TOCAnd it will be out in about a month!


19. September 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

Teaching with selfies: icebreaker

This morning I met my students for our first lecture of the semester in DIKULT106, where I’m teaching a three week module on digital self-representation (like, you know, selfies). So after a quick “How many of you have phones with cameras in your pockets?” ascertained that ALL of the students were carrying such devices I ditched the traditional interview-your-neighbour icebreaker and sent them out to take selfies with each other instead.

The idea was entirely stolen from Terri Senft‘s first assignment for the online selfie workshop a bunch of us are doing in advance of the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Korea in October. You see, at 6 am this morning I was Skyping with eight amazing colleagues around the world, discussing assignments and weekly readings for the course, which has already ballooned into a five week festival.

Selfie of me and the DIKULT106 students on our first day of class

It is going to be an amazing course, and the syllabus will be ready for us to share next week, I think. Most of the other teachers will be using it live with their own students (sadly that won’t work with my teaching schedule), and additionally the course will be open to anyone else who wants to join in, whether they are students, researchers or just interested.

That photo is me opening our class selfie session with one of me looking nuts in front of an auditorium of nice, quiet, well-behaved students. Actually, one of the interesting things for me was seeing this photo against the selfies taken by the students themselves. In my selfie with students, the students are so clearly disciplined by the architecture of the room: those seats, stacking them side by side with little space to be individuals. Of course I could have chosen to sit beside them to take my selfie but that actually didn’t occur to me. Of course I followed the expectations of the room – and of my role as teacher, and maybe also as selfie-taker/photographer, and put myself at the front keeping them all in their places. Look how they smile a little nervously as their crazy teacher declares they must all take selfies.

The selfies the students took themselves are quite different. Some are classic selfies with smiling faces and beautiful young people (they are all beautiful simply by virtue of their youth and enthusiasm) but others have deliberately fake smiles, grumpy faces, some are of just feet and one is just of two t-shirts. I’m going to risk sharing that one without permission, actually.


Some of the photos use filters. Some show three students as equals, giving them equal space in the frame. Others show one in front, clearly the photographer, and the others in the background. Some pretend to be asleep, others show thumbs up. Two girls frown severely with finger gestures.

Terri’s assignment (which I butchered in stealing it, as one always does) didn’t actually send students out to take selfies, instead she asks students to find flattering and unflattering selfies on their phones, and to think about how and why the photos would be good or bad for different purposes, like a Facebook profile page, a dating site or a company profile for different kinds of professions – or for a history book showing what life was like in 2014.

In my misremembering of Terri’s assignment I asked students to discuss what our selfies, taken together, would tell a future historian about what everyday life was like in 2014. Again the usefulness of students having phones in their pockets was evident: I could simply ask them to scroll through the photos on Instagram on their phones. After talking about this in small groups we talked about it together. “Future historians would think we were self-obsessed,” one group said. “Or obsessed with self-documentation,” said another. “They’d think we had no jobs at all and spent all our time smiling and taking photos of ourselves,” said a third. A fourth suggested that the biggest mystery to the future historians would be that we only had a few photos, and that they weren’t video streams. “Didn’t they record everything,” these future humans would wonder.

Next time we will have to work more specifically on how to read selfies. I didn’t really want general observations like “selfies are self-obsessed,” and unfortuantely we didn’t have time to really talk about that. Definitely on the to-do list for the next class. I think if I were to do this again (and it certainly seemed to work beautifully as an icebreaker!) I would try having much more specific analysis tasks for the students. Not the future historians question, but maybe more what Terri asks students to do in her assignment (I’m citing a draft, so this may change):

Label your six photos A-F, and then write a photo essay in which you explain which pictures would be the best and worst to use for the purposes below. In your explanations, be as specific as you can (e.g. don’t say “this photo looks professional,” explain how and why you came to that conclusion, based on signifiers like clothing, background details, and so forth.)

Probably talking more about signifiers and visual rhetoric would be important. Also, if students were deliberately choosing images they had taken previously we would have had a greater variety than when I just sent them into the courtyard for 10 minutes to snap selfies. That would have given us more to analyse.

Practically, the way I did this was to set up a shared Instagram for the class before the lecture, with a password that will be easy for our students to remember but isn’t too obvious. Most of the students already had Instagram installed and all but one already had the university’s wifi access on their phones. I gave them a few minutes to install Instagram, log out and log into the class account, split them into groups by having them count (“OK, you’re in group 1, you’re in group 2…”) so they wouldn’t be in groups with people they knew. We had no problems having 40 people logged into the same Instagram account. A very easy assignment to set up.

19. August 2014 by Jill
Categories: Teaching | 3 comments

New paper: Visualising Networks of Electronic Literature: Dissertations and the Creative Works They Cite

Over the last year I’ve spent many hours going through dissertations on electronic literature, entering information about them and the creative works they cite into the ELMCIP Electronic Literature Knowledge Base so that I could visualize the networks of works.

The final paper is now published in the July 2014 issue of the Electronic book review: “Visualising Networks of Electronic Literature: Dissertations and the Creative Works They Cite.” Hooray! I’ve also put the unedited (pre-visualized?) Gephi file on Figshare so you can download and play with the data yourself if you like. I’m sure there is more that could be done with the data – and it might be interesting (for me or for you – feel free!) to look at it again in five years time with five new years of dissertations.

Here are my previous blog posts about this research:

It would be interesting to do a new analysis of this in five years time with the new dissertations that will be written by then. And no doubt there are other approaches that could be taken to the same data. If you want to play with it, or do anything with it, please feel free. I’ve licensed the Gephi data set under a CC-BY license and would really like to see what others might do with it.

Here’s a screenshot of the preview of the pre-visualized network at Figshare, ready to be downloaded – Figshare’s preview for Gephi files actually lets you click around in the network, it’s pretty nifty. Here I moused over the node for
Jukka Tyrkkö’s 2011 dissertation “Fuzzy Coherence: Making Sense of Continuity in Hypertext Narratives” and so I can see connections (edges) to all the creative works he cited.

07. July 2014 by Jill
Categories: Digital Humanities, Electronic literature | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Life poetry told by sensors, or how automatic journalling apps are marketed

Ths app initiates thoughts and ideas for you. It makes remembering effortless, beautiful & fun. Embrace your authentic self. Save or share your best memories. Track your everyday life and learn how to improve it. Experience your life. Life poetry told by sensors.

SAGA: Choose Your Own Adventure. Be bold. Embrace your authentic self. Record your life automatically and share it effortlessly with the people you care about.

Heyday is an automatic journal. It makes remembering effortless, beautiful & fun, so you never forget another day of your life.

STEP Journal assists you in capturing and telling the amazing story of your life. Life poetry told by sensors – minimal efforts and 100% privacy. The true power of Automatic Journaling!

Rove is an automated Journal. Automatically log your day and import your photos so you can save or share your best memories.

Friday initiates thoughts and ideas for you, it helps you remember, it tries to anticipate actions. With Friday activities, you can share or, just log your favourite activities you’ve been doing all day.

Chronos Data Collector: Find your time. See how you are spending your time without lifting a finger. chronos runs in the background on your phone and automatically captures every moment.

OptimizeMe. Get the best out of every day of your life. Simply track your everyday life with OptimizeMe and learn how to improve it.

Google Now. Just the right information at just the right time.

Storica: Experience your life. Storica assembles meaningful events, defined through activities such as calls made and received, SMS messaging, IMs, or annotations made through the AIRS widgets, and creates a multimedia digital story in icon and textual form with configurable backgrounds. To complete the experience, you can define your own usual locations, based on geo-information, WiFi or BT information.

Narrato lets you privately record all of your activities, then curate them into journals that can be selectively shared. Use the Narrato LifeStream to import your activities from all of the services you already use and love, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Moves, and App.net. If you use an iPhone 5S, you can also record your daily step count from the M7 co-processor. If you want to remember something that doesn’t belong on other networks, effortlessly add thoughts, photos, moods, and locations directly into Narrato.

Samsung patent application for “Apparatus and Method for Generating Story According to User Information“: An apparatus and method summarize a user’s daily life information. The apparatus includes an information collection unit, an analysis unit, a story generator, and a display unit. The information collection unit collects log information including user’s daily life information, from at least one electronic device. The analysis unit analyzes the log information collected from the information collection unit and decides at least one topic representing the user’s daily life information. The story generator generates at least one sentence representing the user’s daily life information using the at least one topic decided in the analysis unit. The display unit displays the at least one sentence generated in the story generator.

27. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | Leave a comment

Wearable devices for tracking baby

The Sprouting ankle band promises to monitor your baby's sleep and heart rate and to warn parents when baby is about to wake up.

The Sprouting ankle band promises to monitor your baby’s sleep and heart rate and to warn parents when baby is about to wake up.

Benji is only four years old, but the wearable baby trackers I discovered this evening make his infancy look like the stone age in comparison. Sure, I used TrixieTracker to track Jessie’s napping six years ago, but I had to enter all that data myself. Now, you simply dress your baby in a custom-made onesie or snap a band around her ankle and you can let your smart phone alert you if her breathing, body temperature or heart rate are not OK. The Sproutling ankle band, which isn’t actually available yet but plans to go to market later this year, will even let you know when your baby is going to wake up from her nap. To the minute, they hope.

When your baby wears the Mimo Kimono with the little Turtle snapped into place, you can monitor her breathing and body motions on your smartphone app.

When your baby wears the Mimo Kimono with the little Turtle snapped into place, you can monitor her breathing and body motions on your smartphone app.

And what about a Withings baby scale? Weigh your baby every day, every hour if you want, and hey, you can sync it with your Babynes capsule based baby formula machine (like Nespresso but for baby formula and even more expensive) which will graph how much milk your baby drinks. Or at least how much milk your Babynes makes. And you can edit it.

I remember when my eldest baby was about eight weeks I realized one of the other mums was going to the well baby centre a couple of times a week to weigh her baby, not just according to the set schedule – 2 weeks, 6 weeks, 12 weeks or whatever it was. I started going more often too, thinking that was what a good mother was supposed to do, until the nurse asked me why. There’s really no point in weighing a baby that often, she told me, unless you have a particular reason to be concerned. Weight fluctuates from day to day. Frequent weighing is more likely to make you nervous than not, which probably isn’t that great for your baby. I relaxed, and stopped worrying about it.

I’m honestly rather glad I don’t have babies anymore. I know I would be torn between desiring all those gadgets, all that data and thinking the whole thing was insane.

And look, the apps generate endless data, data like diaries. With predictive abilities. Maybe.

The Withings baby scale lets you know exactly what your baby weighs as often as you like, and compares it to standard growth charts. You can even send your pediatrician a copy. Which may possibly be useful for preemies or in very rare other cases, I suppose.

The Withings baby scale lets you know exactly what your baby weighs as often as you like, and compares it to standard growth charts. You can even send your pediatrician a copy. Which may possibly be useful for preemies or in very rare other cases, I suppose.

Of course breastmilk is better for your child, Nestlé admits at the end of each ad, but look how objectively you can track your baby's food if you use a bottle instead!

Of course breastmilk is better for your child, Nestlé admits at the end of each ad, but look how objectively you can track your baby’s food if you use a bottle instead!

The app that goes with the Mimo Baby Monitor - wearable devices for a baby.

The app that goes with the Mimo Baby Monitor shows you lots of data.


22. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Visualise me | 3 comments

Are there still academic blogs that have active discussions in the comments?

Reading my archives I feel sad that the commenting that was so key to blogs has disappeared, drifted off into closed conversations on Facebook that will be unsearchable and unfindable just a few weeks from now, and dotted around in truncated tweets. I wrote eloquently in 2001:

“How can we speak personally to one another and not be self-centred?” asks Jane Tompkins (in Kauffman, Gender and Theory). I think the clue is in the words “to one another” – and this is why blogs are so powerful: we write to one another. Blogs are always part of a context. We comment on one another’s writing, we comment on what we read, what we experience. Each post in a blog is anchored to a time (the time stamp, the immediacy, opinions in time rather than in a fictitious eternity) and to other writing (the links that posts revolve about) and to an individual. Blogs are personal, they are writing in context.

Are they still? Some blogs have certainly retained this. There are lots of comments on Soulemama’s post about gathering warm eggs from their hens, or on a sewing pattern posted at A Beautiful Mess,

Is it just academic blogs? Cyborgology is a blog I enjoy reading, but there are very few comments there – with the recent heated discussions on the posts about “seminal” being a sexist word being exceptions. danah boyd gets some comments, not too many (the post about the Oculus Rift being sexist got a pile – see a pattern here?) wrote last week about missing blogging, and is going to try blogging as part of a group called The Message at Medium. Medium has comments on each paragraph, which makes them a lot less visible (you have to click a number beside the paragraph to see them) and the discussion certainly becomes more fragmented than when comments are all on the whole text. Maybe I’ll get used to it.

I have to admit I don’t comment much myself these days. I read blogs – academic and other – regularly, but mostly on my phone with an RSS reader, and I rarely click through to the blog itself to comment.

Which academic blogs do you enjoy? Are there academic blogs that do have active comments?

04. May 2014 by Jill
Categories: Blogging | 7 comments

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