May 10 - 13, 2016
Vice and Virtue: the Rise of Self-Tracking Technologies and the Moralising of 'Health' Behaviours
- Brown Rebecca, University of Aberdeen, Dr, Research Fellow in Applied Philosophy
A growing market for new digital technologies, including 'wearable technology,' smart phone apps, and other self-monitoring devices, is encouraging people to engage with feedback on their physiological and psychological functioning and to keep a record of their activity, including pulse rate, restful hours, exercise, calorie consumption, and mood. Closely related to the development and marketing of these technologies is the 'quantified self movement,' which sees opportunities for greater self-knowledge through these self-monitoring devices. Though not exclusively concerned with health so much as information gathering and general function, the quantified self movement and related technologies are marketed as an effective way of providing the consumer with a means of both motivation and opportunity to alter her behaviour in ways likely to improve her health. The emphasis here is placed on empowering individuals to improve their health by being better informed about their lifestyles.
Whilst, in general, encouraging ‘healthy’ behaviour through various public health strategies may convey benefits in terms of disease reduction, it also raises questions about how we view citizens’ obligations to be healthy and the legitimate reach of the state in seeking to promote health. Debates about the extent to which it is permissible (or required) for states to intervene in people’s lives in order to promote well-being have a long history. The case of health provides a special context, since it is generally accepted that it is acceptable, and further desirable, that states should take steps and expend resources in order to maintain and promote public health. Such action can be contentious since it often involves the prioritisation of overall well-being above the best interests of any given individual.
The increasing importance of habitual, ‘lifestyle’ behaviours (such as diet, physical activity, and smoking) to health means that these everyday behaviours present a potentially fruitful focus for public health promotion activities. Whilst it is known that many of these behaviours are heavily influenced by environmental factors over which people have little control, many efforts to alter them have focused on educating people as to how their behaviour may impact on health, and encouraging them to make healthier choices. Some interest is being shown in regulatory and environment-focused interventions (specifically, the idea of ‘nudges’ has caught the imagination of many policy-makers), but for the most part, the emphasis remains on education and individual responsibility to change their behaviour. Such a focus seems to coordinate with a rise in the availability of ‘wearable tech,’ although as yet there has been very little research on how effective self-monitoring devices are at improving health outcomes.
Alongside policy focus on individual empowerment and consumer-driven production of health monitoring devices, media representations of (purportedly) healthy and unhealthy behaviours reinforce the idea that to adopt healthy behaviours is to be responsible, virtuous, prudent and a good citizen. In contrast, those who engage in certain unhealthy behaviours are stigmatised: presented as irresponsible, selfish, lazy and a drain on society. Since the kind of health-related behaviours that are typically stigmatised tend to be correlated with lower socio-economic groups, such portrayals have particularly troubling implications for social justice.
In bringing together researchers from a range of disciplines with expertise across the themes of wearable tech and health monitoring; media rhetoric and social marketing; and perfectionism and political philosophy, we hope to better understand the ways in which new technology, scientific understanding and trends in society play into the equation of ‘healthy’ behaviour with ‘good’ behaviour and the implications of this for social justice, well-being and public health.