Trust, privacy and wearable, self-tracking devices are focus of April 11 Scientia

Lecture by Rice medical media expert Kirsten Ostherr

With the rise of smartphones, smartwatches, fitness trackers and other wearable, web-enabled devices, people are playing a new and important role in collecting their own health data. Many apps encourage users to share data and rely heavily on participants’ willingness to share their data, even when doing so may not serve their own best interests.

Kirsten Ostherr

Kirsten Ostherr

In her April 11 Scientia lecture, Rice media scholar Kirsten Ostherr will discuss how concepts of trust, privacy, sharing and security are changing in the era of digitally mediated user-generated content. She’ll speak about the implications of these changes regarding civic culture, social data mining and critical digital literacies. Ostherr’s lecture, “Trust and Privacy in the Ecosystems of Wearable Technology and Self-Tracking Devices,” will be at 4 p.m. in Duncan Hall’s McMurtry Auditorium.

Ostherr, professor of English and director of Rice’s Medical Futures Lab, focuses on bringing media theory and health communication into a more powerful and beneficial engagement. She’s especially interested in using new media technologies to enhance patient-centered care, and she discussed her work in a recent Rice News interview.

Q: How did an English professor get interested in privacy, wearable technology and self-tracking devices?

I’ve been doing research on health and medical media for over 20 years, ranging from “old” media like celluloid films used for medical education to “new” media like smartphone apps. The core issues of how people interact with, respond to and make meaning out of media technologies are long-standing research topics in my field of the humanities. So my interest in some of the newest health media forms, such as wearable self-tracking devices, really emerges out of larger questions that interest me, such as, “How do we understand and define ‘the human’ in relation to technology, especially in the world of ubiquitous connectivity that we live in today?” Privacy has emerged as the core concern for many scholars working on these issues. Whether it is a more technical concern for computer scientists or a more philosophical and ethical concern for humanists, the issue of data privacy affects everyone these days. And it is an issue with deep social, cultural and even aesthetic dimensions.

Q: Based on product sales, consumers don’t seem concerned about giving up privacy for convenience and personalization. What are they missing?

We all participate in this trade-off. It is very difficult to truly opt out while still enjoying our smartphones, our Netflix, our Facebook, our online banking or whatever the particular service may be. So what we are really missing has to do with policy around consumer-data privacy and the lack of options in the U.S. to select varying degrees of openness or privacy while still using digitally connected devices. Many users don’t realize that their data is their most valuable commodity in the eyes of the internet giants like Google and AT&T and that these corporations are selling their data to third parties, with all kinds of unexpected consequences.

Q: What’s the most important point that you hope people take away from your Scientia talk?

That we need to step back and look at the implicit value our society has recently attributed to the concept of “data,” especially “big data,” and that we should consider whether all that is most meaningful and valuable about human experience — especially human experiences of health and disease — can really be quantified. If truly important aspects of the human condition cannot be readily accessed through sensors or quantitative data, why are we nonetheless drawn to these technologies? What role do they play in our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in? I hope that people leave my Scientia talk with a deeper understanding of the role that new mobile health technologies play in redefining what it means to be human in the 21st century.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.